Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A case study in conflicting motivations.

I may have mentioned before that I have something of a background in music. So it was with some trepidation that I saw the new Meryl Streep movie, "Florence Foster Jenkins," over the weekend. Streep plays the title role; her character is a socialite who cannot sing, but her husband, St. Clair Bayfield -- played by Hugh Grant -- builds a cocoon of sycophants around her. They praise her supposed ability while he's paying them handsomely for it. In the movie, the situation reaches the height of absurdity when Mrs. Jenkins takes it upon herself to rent Carnegie Hall for a recital, and gives away tickets to soldiers and sailors -- none of whom are part of the cocoon in any way.

The movie is based on a true story. Mrs. Jenkins -- who preferred to be called Lady Florence, according to Wikipedia -- was a fixture on the New York City music scene from the 1920s through the '40s. She began her musical career as a sort of child prodigy in piano, even performing at the White House, before an arm injury made it too painful for her to play. She eloped with a man who gave her syphilis, and ditched him immediately thereafter; it's unclear whether they ever divorced, and equally unclear whether she was actually married to Bayfield. He was a Shakespearean actor whose career was only so-so, so he mostly gave up acting to become her manager. With Bayfield behind her, Lady Florence took singing lessons and joined a number of social clubs centered around music, and even founded her own.

Streep turns in her usual wonderful performance; I had to keep reminding myself that she really can sing. But the surprise was the way the subterfuge was treated. Streep's Mrs. Jenkins had no idea she couldn't sing; Bayfield knew, and certainly Mrs. Jenkins' accompanist (played delightfully by Simon Helberg) knew. The easy out would be to say Bayfield was in it simply to line his own pockets. After all, Mrs. Jenkins set him up in his own flat (where he'd stashed a mistress) and gave him access to her sizable trust fund.

But Bayfield did truly care about Mrs. Jenkins. If money was his motivation at the start of their relationship, it had long since stopped being the only one; at some point, he had begun to love her. And his love for her -- his insistence that his Bunny must be surrounded by happy thoughts -- seems to encourage everyone else around her to love her, too.

Well, except those sailors. She really was a terrible singer.

As a writer, I found Bayfield's complex motivations fascinating. My hat was off to the script writers, and to Grant, who kept Bayfield from being nothing more than a grasping impresario. Mrs. Jenkins was the star of her own firmament, but I found Bayfield's role the more compelling one. All Streep had to do was show up and sing off-key; Grant had to make us believe he built the fragile production around her not for money, but for love.

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Yes, I know, it's not Sunday, nor even is it Monday. I was out of town over the holiday weekend and am just now getting back into the swing of things. I'll be back on schedule next Sunday, I promise.

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These moments of slightly off-key blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.
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