Meryl Streep, who spends her private life far from Hollywood, is not generally considered a rabble-rouser. She comes across as a solid citizen, who has lately been gravitating toward no-nonsense biographical roles, like Julia Childs and Margaret Thatcher. (For portraying Thatcher in The Iron Lady, she won her third Academy Award in 2012, out of a whopping 20 nominations.) Streep’s track record notwithstanding, she’s lately been vilified in some quarters as “overrated.” That’s certainly questionable, but no more surprising than her choice of her most recent Oscar-nominated role, that of socialite Florence Foster Jenkins.
Like Childs and Thatcher, Florence was a real person. She lived from 1968 to 1944, when she died of a heart attack at age 76, just after her Carnegie Hall debut. So many of Streep’s recent characters (like Childs, Thatcher, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whom she essentially played in The Devil Wears Prada) are women of strength and talent. They may have their dark side, but they remain leaders and visionaries. Florence, though, is a bird of a different feather. A Manhattan heiress, she used her considerable wealth to promote the art of music—but also to showcase her own highly unmusical yowlings. Abetted by friends, sycophants, and a supportive common-law husband (played in the film by a charmingly ambiguous Hugh Grant), she insisted on performing difficult coloratura arias while wearing extravagant costumes of her own devising. Descriptions of her concerts are colorful: one onlooker wrote that a Jenkins performance “was never exactly an aesthetic experience, or only to the degree that an early Christian among the lions provided aesthetic experience; it was chiefly immolatory, and Madame Jenkins was always eaten, in the end.” Nonetheless, despite her total ineptitude, she had an unlikely array of fans, including such music-world greats as Cole Porter, Enrico Caruso, Gian Carlo Menotti, and Lily Pons.
No one is quite clear on the extent to which Florence was deluded about her own abilities, or the lack thereof. In a scene that follows hard upon her raucous Carnegie Hall performance, Streep utters a phrase that Florence apparently spoke in real life: "People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing." This statement implies a degree of self-awareness that makes the story of Florence Foster Jenkins a more intricate one than it first appears. It’s also true that Florence can be viewed as a victim, albeit one who found a way to rise above the very real pain of her existence. At age 17, without her father’s consent, she had eloped with Dr. Frank Thornton Jenkins, only to discover that he’d given her syphilis. Ravaged by the disease and by the quack medical treatments of the day, she may have developed (among other things) a hearing loss that prevented her from knowing the extent of her assaults on her listeners’ eardrums. Streep’s portrayal finds a way to make her self-delusion—if that is what it was—heroic. She shows such delight in her own eccentric performances that it’s hard to imagine denying her that pleasure.
Still, it’s worth musing on the gender implications of this story. A woman who believes she has talent and insists on unleashing it can be considered endearing. (It is, in fact, a familiar stereotype: just think of Jean Hagen’s lovably dopey movie star, Lina Lamont, in Singin’ in the Rain.) But imagine a story about a talentless man who puts himself on public display. Like Laurence Olivier’s over-the-hill vaudevillian character in The Entertainer, he would surely be considered tragic. Only in women is incompetence seen as adorable.