Off-Key, but on Point

7 minute read

“Do you ever watch the classic-movie channels?” Meryl Streep asks. “Sometimes I do, and I realize how different they are from many films now. They’re like the great novelistic things that are on TV now. Film has decided it’s only going to concern itself with one specific kind of sensate experience. TV has scenes. TV is stylistically adventurous in the way that films were.”

You know cinema is on the decline when an actor as legendary as Streep, 67, who has earned 19 Academy Award nominations over a career spanning four decades, is fantasizing about doing television. But for viewers who share her nostalgia for an era of moviemaking that seems to be disappearing, Streep’s new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, in theaters Aug. 12, should provide relief–at least until the perfect TV project for her materializes.

The film, directed by veteran English filmmaker Stephen Frears, tells the wild true story of its title character, a New York socialite (Streep) who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, even though she sang terribly. Her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) kept her insulated from the reality of her lack of talent, bribing critics to favorably review the intimate concerts she gave at Manhattan nightclubs, caterwauling in over-the-top costumes. But her genuine passion for music led her all the way to a performance at Carnegie Hall–accompanied by her pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg)–and earned her a cult following of ironic devotees.

It’s an absurd premise–stranger than fiction–but Streep refuses to caricature Jenkins, imbuing her with great heart. As portrayed in the film, Jenkins’ relationship with her husband is heartbreakingly tender and her enthusiasm for something for which she has no aptitude is inspiring to witness. She may be a joke to the public, but to the viewer she’s a hero.

The film marks another success for Frears, who has helmed a string of well-received biopics about women in their latter years, like The Queen, starring Helen Mirren, and Philomena, with Judi Dench. But he says there was no great strategy in wanting to spotlight a figure who, unlike some of his other subjects, could easily be lost to history. “I just thought, This is a really good script,” Frears says. “I listened to the singing, and it made me laugh, and it touched me.”

“That’s the confidence of a long career,” Streep says. “You don’t have to cogitate on material.” And though there’s been a recent boom of films about the emotional lives of older women–from last year’s I’ll See You in My Dreams, starring Blythe Danner, to this spring’s Hello, My Name Is Doris, which earned Sally Field widespread acclaim–Streep says Florence transcends demographics. “I want to know when we decided it was O.K. to categorize ourselves into little boxes,” she says. “The best things are about everything. This isn’t about an older woman–this is about everything. Stories are stories.”

It’s tempting to draw a parallel between the tale of Jenkins, who enchanted the public with her delightfully awful singing during the tumult of World War II, and this film, executed with an endearingly light touch and released in the midst of a bleak news cycle. “What an antidote Florence is!” Streep says. “What a tonic. In dark days, we need it.”

Though she’s never been cagey about her views, Streep has largely kept out of politics over the course of her storied career. But she came out to support Hillary Clinton in a highly visible appearance at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 26, delivering a rousing speech in a dress that bore the pattern of the American flag. There she declared that Clinton would be the first female President but not the last.

Streep says it was an important moment both for her and for the nation. “Since she was very young, Hillary’s had a commitment to working on behalf of disenfranchised people,” she says. “It’s unheralded, uncelebrated, unknown mostly. What’s known about her is the result of millions of dollars dedicated to bringing her down and wounding her.”

Yet she doesn’t rail against Trump supporters. “I think you have to listen to the people who are deeply unhappy,” she says. “You have to find the sources of it and not overreact to the craziness in it.” She cites the woes of a declining middle class: “The conversation has to address the feeling of uselessness and despair and marginalization on the part of people who were never rich but had a job they could count on. Now they can’t, for several generations now. There’s meth and opioids. There’s real despair. That’s part of inclusivity as well.”

Frears compares the discontent that has buoyed Trump’s campaign to the political climate in the U.K. that precipitated Brexit. “Globalization is a complicated thing,” he says. “Exploitation by demagogues is depressing and unhelpful. In the end, you know where the disappointment will land.”

“It’s amazing how easily people are led to fury and chaos,” Streep says. “Unhappy people with guns are not going to make this country great.”

Between the press of events and a fall slate crowded with oppressively serious prestige films, Florence does feel like a rare thing–a grownup bit of popcorn entertainment with heart. “You hope this will give pleasure to people,” Frears says. “In the Depression, people wanted to see Fred Astaire movies.”

“That’s a high calling,” Streep says with a sigh. “There’s only so much despair you can take.”

While Streep insists there’s work to be done in the political sphere, she also remains passionate about issues affecting her peers in the industry. Hollywood’s gender wage gap has attracted much attention in the past several years, with actors like Jennifer Lawrence advocating equal pay for male and female performers. It’s a good thing, Streep says, that the conversation is getting louder. “It’s not being held by women!” she says. “Men are ashamed that they’re getting that money. It used to be, everybody didn’t say anything about it so it was kind of fine. Now they’re a little more nervous that somebody will find out what they make vis-à-vis their co-star. That’s the best vigilance: the vigilance of privilege. People will always be battling and whining about it. When the other side says, ‘You know, I think that sucks,’ that’s great.”

“I work with Helen and Judi and Meryl–I’m in the clear,” Frears jokes. “I’m a saint.”

While neither Streep nor Frears would want to turn back the clock on progress, both yearn for a time when entertainment was almost always tinged with glamour and people cared passionately. “Remember films used to be like this [one]?” Frears muses. “I always wanted to make a movie where men wore tuxedos and women wore evening gowns.”

Streep pretends to pull out a phone and stare at the screen. “Now everyone sees films like this,” she says. “I see them on the plane. The cinematographer–all the attention to detail, all the overweening thought that goes into each shot–and it looks like this!” She mimes looking at a phone again. “Then they pause it. Then they say, ‘How’s the chicken?’ Then they come back, and they pick it up again.”

A film like Florence Foster Jenkins, with its rare blend of A-list performers and tonal levity, should be experienced the old-fashioned way, says Streep. “Size matters,” she says. “When you go to the movie theater, there’s something great about it.” Seeing it with other people also makes it, quite simply, funnier. “Here’s the laugh you get when you watch a comedy by yourself,” she says, releasing a halfhearted guffaw. “The saddest sound in the world.”

Just as with Jenkins–who, for the record, wound up selling out Carnegie Hall–there’s a greater good to be found in the communal experience, whatever the era. “To go and see something in a full theater of people!” Streep says, delighted. “That’s just wonderful.”

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