“Was everyone laughing at me the whole time?” This question, demanded in earnest on her deathbed by socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) could easily be asked at the end of anyone’s life, when they’ve suddenly realized just how farcical it was–especially after years of essentially using financial clout to keep people’s true opinions at bay.
For music enthusiast and philanthropist “Madame Florence,” as her pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), ultimately calls her, there is no greater “sense of communion,” no greater joy than singing on stage. The only problem is, she is what one New York Post writer accuses of being the worst singer in the world. But before any “outsiders” a.k.a. non-music lovers who know they require Florence’s patronage to stay afloat get to catch a glimpse of the show, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), her noticeably younger husband, ensures that everyone is adequately paid off to keep Florence’s delusions of grandeur afloat.
While those in attendance at her first show in five years respect and admire Florence for her constant devotion to spending money on the music that keeps the city of New York singing, the mockery she makes of herself while belting her heart out in a manner tantamount to what one U.S. soldier calls a “dying cat,” is eventually something that not everyone is willing to ignore merely to honor the whims of a rich eccentric.
As Florence, indeed, proves, those in a position of wealth are bequeathed with the unique luxury not just of money, but of being as delusional as they want to be–after all, no one wants to upset the person who controls the purse strings. And while Florence intimates in her own way that her father tried to keep her from singing for practical reasons, it’s evident his true motive stemmed from protecting her from humiliation. According to Florence, “When I was sixteen years old, my father told me that if I didn’t give up music, he’d cut me off. Of course, he didn’t understand, music is my life.”
Indicative of the common tale of the affluent type who wants so badly to be a part of the creative community he or she supports, Florence is that sort all too desperate to be talented in an artistic way, because it infers her life has greater purpose than simply being rich. St. Clair, who has long benefitted from the kindness of Florence’s money, is both her fiercest protector and greatest betrayer, sleeping with another woman named Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson) in the apartment Florence pays for. After a weekend getaway with Kathleen and finding that Florence has been left too long to her own devices–so long that she’s made plans to make a recording of her songs–St. Clair reveals where his true loyalty lies by letting Kathleen go.
Still, this newfound focus on reining in Florence’s musical ambitions and aspirations doesn’t stop her from continuing on her quest for musical glory. Once the local radio gets hold of the record, all bets are off, and St. Clair can only persist with far more minimal resolve in his blitzkrieg to pay people off from expressing their sentiments about the spectacle that is Florence, sweet, dear syphilis-laden Florence.
And while we’ll never know for sure if it was her long-term battle with syphilis that prompted her to book a performance at Carnegie Hall, it was, nonetheless, met with the sort of shock generally reserved for watching the aftermath of a car accident. Yet, as St. Clair insists at one point to Cosmé, “Beethoven said, ‘A few wrong notes may be forgiven, but singing without feeling cannot.'” No one could ever accuse Florence of not singing without putting her entire body and soul into it. Likewise, Streep’s heart-rending interpretation of the famed socialite only serves to further establish why she remains a powerhouse. Though some may question whether the likes of Streep still “has it” at the box office, its release and respectable performance the same weekend as Sausage Party makes it fairly evident that, like Florence Foster Jenkins herself, no one can stop looking away from Meryl.