Friday, August 26, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (Stephen Frears, 2016)

The combination of Stephen Frears, my favorite middlebrow director (I'm fast approaching my 50th viewing of The Queen), and Florence Foster Jenkins, the high-Cs-murdering "coloratura" who set a mid-twentieth-century Manhattan on fire, seems like a match made in gay heaven. But there's something unbalanced about Frears' biopic Florence Foster Jenkins. I got first frustrated then sleepy trying to determine the precise contours of the relationship between Madame Jenkins (Meryl Streep, fine as usual, ho hum) and St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant in a career performance). Exactly why was Bayfield so devoted to Jenkins that he could never pull her aside and gently let her know that, in fact, she cannot sing? After all, wouldn't a truly devoted husband do so? As such, Frears' Jenkins comes off rather monstrous, someone to be indulged and never questioned. And was it just ever more self-delusion that prevented Jenkins from knowing that Bayfield had a mistress, presumably because they had never consummated their relationship due to Jenkins' having contracted syphilis from a previous marriage?

These questions are central to the narrative given that Frears takes the stance that Jenkins was absolutely unaware of her terribleness (in more ways than one) when the reality was more nuanced. But his disinclination to provide answers becomes a problem not because a more realistic portrait could have been had. Rather, the film doesn't step back enough from the enormous wealth and privilege that allows such indulgence to occur in the first place. Indeed, Frears pampers the bejeweled class throughout. When Madame Jenkins sings for high society, her godawful warbling is met with politeness and even baffling admiration. But when the general public, including rows of butch GI proles, are invited to witness her legendary October 25, 1944 performance at Carnegie Hall, they hoot and holler at Jenkins' indifferent relationship to pitch. The film's low point occurs when a formerly unsympathetic nouveau riche dame (Nina Arianda) interrupts the performance to excoriate the audience for chortling so loudly after which they stifle their laughter in line with vrai riche standards of comportment.

But as usual with Hollywood product, there's a much more democratic film lurking within Florence Foster Jenkins that the need to tell a protagonist-focused story and solicit Oscar nominations prevents from fully flowering and that's a portrait of "the kind of public that comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation," to borrow Michael Warner's words from his magisterial "Publics and Counterpublics." The film comes alive in its second half when recordings of Madame Jenkins' arias start to float around Manhattan. They're heard on the radio, in bars, and we witness the early scrapings towards a different mode of reception - camp (it's no shock to learn that Cole Porter and Tallulah Bankhead attended the Carnegie Hall performance). For sure, Frears underlines this development by peppering the narrative sidelines with gay characters. But as Warner reminds us, the queerness of this kind of public lies just as much in its own unknownable contours which stymie even the richest individual's ability to conceive of (much less control) it. And so Bayfield can no longer head off the New York Post columnist whose scathing review leads to Madame Jenkins' death. Such is the power of publics, so powerful, in fact, that it can energize an entire film, e.g., greatest film of all time contender M (Fritz Lang, 1931). The shortcomings of Florence Foster Jenkins, then, are summarized by the headline of the Post's review: "The Post is the real star of Meryl Streep's new movie." It's that tension between star-centered prestige and the unruly queerness of publics that makes the film a qualified success. 

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