An inspirational, poignant, heart-warming comedy about love, music and the pursuit of dreams.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a charming portrait of a woman ensnared by the shattering reality of her all-consuming fantasy of being the greatest singer in the world.
Set in 1940s New York, Florence Foster Jenkins is the true story of the legendary New York heiress and socialite who obsessively pursued her dream of becoming a great singer. The voice she heard in her head was beautiful, but to everyone else it was hilariously awful. Her “husband” and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, an aristocratic English actor, was determined to protect his beloved Florence from the truth. But when Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall, St. Clair knew he faced his greatest challenge.
“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing”
It was the glorious chasm between Florence Foster Jenkins’ self-belief and her startling failings as a singer that immediately hooked writer Nicholas Martin. “I heard a song on YouTube,” says the writer. “I was struck by the sincerity of her voice and I found it very moving, very funny and very sad. I kept going back to listen to it and wanted to find out about her life. It was then I realised the story of her journey to performing at Carnegie Hall would make a compelling musical film.”
Researching into the life of Jenkins, Martin was struck by Florence’s astonishing force of personality – “She was like the sun at the centre with all the planets in orbit around her” – and by her relationship with her “husband”, St. Clair Bayfield, whose diaries revealed his deep love for Florence despite living with another woman. With the accompanist Cosme McMoon, the trio became the centre of New York artistic society, first with her eccentric Tableaux Vivants – which always featured Florence as the central artistic muse – and later with her infamous musical recitals.
“Florence was a significant character in art and music in New York during the Second World War and she gave a lot of money to support the arts, including the provision of musical instruments to underprivileged children” explains Martin. “She also introduced a lot of very wealthy people to the world of music and persuaded them to contribute financially to the support of music in the city. She gave 1000 tickets to her Carnegie Hall concert to the war veterans and many of them had the time of their lives. They apparently nearly died laughing as the evening was so brilliant and bizarre! But did Florence herself know how she really sounded? That‘s for the audience to decide.”
Six months after beginning his research, Martin had a screenplay. “A friend told me producer Michael Kuhn knew a lot about music so we sent it to him. He liked it and Stephen soon followed. I said only one person can play Florence and that’s Meryl Streep, otherwise we might just as well go home. I knew she loved music and I knew she loved iconic characters and I had a hunch she would go for it. When Michael rang me and said, congratulations you’ve got your movie; I knew what he meant immediately. It was a miraculous moment in my life! We had to wait for her to be available but that gave us time to really work on the script and made it much much better.”
The appeal of Martin‘s screenplay was immediate for Michael Kuhn. “When you read a script you’re looking for something that’s different and emotionally satisfying and I thought this was a mixture of funny and touching,” explains the producer. “I couldn’t imagine anyone but Meryl Streep playing the part of Florence, so the next thing was to ask how would we get to Meryl. We had to get someone who she was likely to want to work with and Stephen embodies that having worked with many of the grandes dames of cinema – Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and so on – and I thought if he said yes we would have a reasonable chance. The thing I most admire about Stephen is that he never repeats himself so every film he does is a new adventure, he’s always pushing forward to do something different and that’s very admirable. He said right away that he would do it if Meryl would do it. So we sent it to her agent and she came back quickly and said she wanted to do it. It’s often the case with good material that the film comes together quickly.”
“I read Nicholas Martin’s script and thought this is good fun,” says Frears. “It was witty, entertaining and interesting. It was a good story; it had good relationships and good jokes – what more do you want? There is a famous recording of her and I was told that back in the 60s people used to play it at dinner parties. I heard the real footage of her singing on YouTube and it was gobsmacking and I just started to laugh! The recording is so hilarious and dreadful, but also touching and so affecting.”
The film came together extremely quickly as Frears comments: “Nicholas must have been amazed as we all just turned up and said yes – me, the producers, Meryl and Hugh. It doesn’t usually happen as easily as that. But his screenplay is grown up, it’s mature. Nicholas wrote with an eye to people having a good time so he was always conscious of entertaining people as he wrote it.”
Similarly, as soon as Cameron McCracken read the script at Pathe, he agreed to come on board to finance and distribute the film. It marked his fifth collaboration with Stephen Frears and his producer Tracey Seaward; his third with Meryl Streep; and his second with Michael Kuhn. “In many respects, the production felt like a family gathering and when Christine Langan came on board with BBC Films, the family was complete.”
Stephen Frears found Florence an engrossing character: “Florence was a rich woman, a socialite who did a lot for music during the war; she supported the renowned conductor Toscanini and was a philanthropist. She’s always reminded me of Margaret Dumont, the actress – and comic foil – Groucho Marx used to chase after, just preposterous but touching at the same time. There were groups of people in New York who needed culture during the terrible times of the war and she kept people’s spirits up by laying on these amateur evening. She sees Lily Pons, a French singer with an amazing voice, perform and she is inspired to take up singing again and have lessons – and then the true horror emerges! The central characters of Florence and Bayfield are ridiculous, touching and preposterous at the same time but they work well together. Bayfield was an unsuccessful actor when they met and clicked – he found a way to live and she found a man who loves her and looks after her even though he may be a philanderer, what more could she want? The central characters of Florence and Bayfield are ridiculous, touching and preposterous at the same time but they work well together.”
For her part Meryl Streep was familiar with Florence Foster Jenkins, but it was the prospect of working with Stephen Frears that most appealed
“I have a vague memory at my first year of drama school of people passing around a recording of Florence singing. I remember some sort of screech that we were all screaming about. Stephen called me and said ‘I have a part for you, it’s the worst opera singer in the world’ and I was thrilled. I said yes before I read the script because I’ve always wanted to work with Stephen. He has a reputation among actors as someone you really want to work with.”
The calamitous singing aside, the story for Streep had a very tender core. “It’s about a long and happy relationship between two people whose self-interest was equally served by the relationship as by their honest feeling and affection for each other. The story has so much real emotion to it.
“The real Florence Foster Jenkins was the ultimate club lady,” continues Streep. “Those were the days when the professions were not open to women so there were women of means who to keep themselves busy did charitable good works. Florence was a great patron of the arts in New York and that’s how she moved up through the social echelons of society. She kept the musical life of the city alive – she underwrote concerts at Carnegie Hall and spread around the money she had inherited from her husband and father.”
More than just a philanthropist, however, Jenkins was also a woman determined to fulfill her true passion. “Florence was a person who kept something we all have when we are children – when you can’t really do anything that well, but you hurl yourself into the imagining of it and take delight in the doing,” says Streep. “It’s the purist meaning of the word amateur. She only sang for her friends and hand-picked audiences – the only exception being the Carnegie Hall performance – because she couldn’t sing that well but she loved it and loved music and there’s something of that delight in our script.”
Hugh Grant plays Foster Jenkins’ “husband” and manager. “Bayfield is an impresario but he also has a wonderful sense of the absurd,” says Frears. “Florence and Bayfield live in a bubble and he was always very concerned to protect her and that the bubble shouldn’t be pricked. I say she needed protecting but the truth is she played at Carnegie Hall and got away with it.”
“I was genuinely fascinated by Bayfield,” says Grant, “and I quite liked being him, which is not always the case with characters I‘ve played. In real life and in the film, Bayfield is the illegitimate grandson of an Earl, a bit of a failure. He roamed the world being a failed actor and ended up in New York pretty penniless. And then he met Florence, an heiress who sponsored the musical life of New York, and they hit it off.
“I think he played up his aristocratic roots more than he should have as well as his bohemian actor thing and she fell for all that, but he was charmed by her and they became a double act and, even though they never formally married, they lasted as a couple for 30-40 years,” continues Grant. “He’s a man who is puffed up with false self-esteem based on Florence’s position and wealth and renown – he’s a man of straw – and I found that amusing. But it’s very obvious who wears the trousers in the relationship – Florence needs him when she’s performing, but ultimately she’s the one with the money.
He supports and protects her while she’s performing in concerts, which are not just bad, but hilariously bad. The key was to edit her audiences so that it is only people who will love and approve of her, people from her own musical societies and not the general public, who are invited. That way, she never gets to know just how bad she is.”
The third character in the unique ménage that makes up the film is Cosme McMoon, Florence’s piano accompanist. Simon Helberg, best known for the American television series “The Big Bang Theory” was cast in the role.
“Early on the film’s composer Alexandre Desplat told me not to cast an actor who couldn’t play piano at a high level,” says Frears. “My casting director in New York said ‘You want Simon Helberg‘. I met him and realised how funny and brilliant he is. He met Meryl and she immediately adored him. You can sense the warmth and affection between them.”
“It was a point of genius by the New York casting agent to think of Simon Helberg,” concurs Kuhn, “as not only is he a really great comic actor, but also a really great pianist. We really lucked out with him because watching someone pretending to play the piano is really awful.”
Helberg came to the film not knowing anything about the characters but the screenplay and the chance to work opposite Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant and with Stephen Frears sealed the deal for him. “When I read the script I ran the gamut of emotions. I laughed hysterically, I cried, I found it incredibly profound. It’s about a love of music but also a love of life and how our own perception of life wins out however much it may be off key. It reminded me of a line in Being There, ‘Life is a state of mind‘. There’s a purity to Florence, there’s no cynicism, it’s all for the music, she’s a dreamer. And Meryl is one of the most charming people ever to exist so that combination is pretty irresistible.”
Helberg was enchanted by the eccentricity of all the characters in the film, particularly McMoon. “They are these odd little flowers who bloom when Florence comes into their lives. She brings out all the best qualities in them. McMoon is a fish out of water and has no clue what he’s entering into at all. He’s fresh off the bus. He’s a good piano player but perhaps not concert level. He finds out immediately he’s entered the Twilight Zone and has no idea what is going on. He shares a love of music with Florence and there is no judgment in him, they both have an innocence. It’s fun to watch him wriggle around and try and get out of performing at the concert…he’s sweating a lot and that comes naturally to me.”
Michael Kuhn concludes: “I think a story about an eccentric is not enough to make a good film. You need something more. Florence’s famous deathbed saying, “People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing”, is a very profound thought – if you love something, you should do it, even if you’re not very good at it. The film is also about kindness and about how a man who was down on his luck was given a life by this eccentric woman and in return she found someone to make her dreams come true. And all of us respond to someone who is “technicolor” when they come into our life as they light up our world.”