The Unspoken Obscenity of Florence Foster Jenkins
I’m barely more than a week removed from my screening of Sausage Party, and Florence Foster Jenkins is the most obscene movie I’ve seen this year. It’s a gross exercise in vanity of the highest order, telling a story of a woman who, if not for her status as a rich heiress, would have done nothing of note and whom we all would have long forgotten.
Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of a socialite who inherited a fortune on which to live and later decided she wanted to be an opera singer. The only problem is that she’s an awful singer. For most people, this will be where the journey ends — in fact, millions of genuinely talented people never even get to begin their journey, but Foster Jenkins has one thing that they don’t: a truckload of money handed to her on a silver platter from birth. This allows her to do things like privately produce a record, using her connections to get it on the radio and even booking out Carnegie fucking Hall.
In fairness, the film seems aware that its titular character may not be deserving of the adulation she received, as noted by her line “I’m very hard-working; I practice an hour a day — sometimes two” spoken unironically to a legitimate starving artist, but director Stephen Frears (High Fidelity, Philomena) is fine with giving it to her anyhow. This ranges from the literal segments of raucous applause, often brought about by politeness or pity, to the supposedly intimate moments where we get to further understand the details of her tragic past.
And god forbid she knows that people don’t think she’s a good singer. Her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, played by Hugh Grant, does everything in his power to bribe and coerce any coverage that has the potential to be negative, and suppress any that can’t be bought. That these segments bear an uncanny resemblance to South Park’s “Safe Space” episode should tell you everything you need to know.
Indeed, even as I’m writing this, I fear Mr. Grant is conspiring to have it removed from the internet. Although, any such efforts would be quite for naught, as Florence Foster Jenkins makes itself bulletproof from criticism; if you don’t like her, or a movie about her, you’re a senseless bully who feeds on mockery. There is even a critic character (who, by the way, is painted only a few shades better than Lindsay Duncan in Birdman) who insists that “art is important and should not be mocked.” This strawman is right to argue that art is important, but that’s not why Florence Foster Jenkins falls short — it’s because the woman, herself, isn’t.
At least a thousand better women could have a movie about them, people who didn’t have to buy the spotlight and paradoxically become a symbol of passionately pursuing it.
I’m sure people will tell you that there’s more to her character, and, indeed, Florence Foster Jenkins gives you all the supposedly tragic details of her past: she married young and contracted an STD that prevented her from pursuing her passion as a pianist, and she fell gravely ill later in life, dying at the young age of … 76. Look, I don’t intend to mock someone’s personal struggles, but I also appreciate the large population of actually talented people who struggle every day, who get the door slammed in their faces a thousand times, who can’t afford to book out large concert halls, who don’t have a St. Clair Bayfield to warp reality in their favor, but who do not have any money, so, when they fall ill and die, sometimes a lot earlier than 76, no one remembers anything about them. That’s the real tragedy, and if Florence Foster Jenkins functioned as a tribute to them, I could get on board, but it instead exists in spite of them.
That Florence Foster Jenkins is already drumming up awards-season buzz should be a depressing reminder of the real problem with diversity in the film industry: by and large, the only movies that get a greenlight and get major awards consideration are those most palatable to the white upper class. I’ll leave you with this: we now have a theatrically released movie about a rich, white bad opera singer before we do about Susan B. Anthony or Rosa Parks.