On the surface, Stephen Frears’ “Florence Foster Jenkins” looks like one of those soft, middlebrow, costume pictures aimed straight at the smart adult demo. Fine.
But it’s more than that. It’s a delicious, immersive escape into a lost New York of period cars and “men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns,” as Frears told me in an interview. He reveled in recreating that vintage Manhattan in London, and giving Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant a chance to shine.
Directors count on three-time Oscar-winner Streep to deliver for them, but this particular role marks an especially high degree of difficulty. Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy middle-aged music lover who couldn’t sing on key, but insisted on performing for increasingly larger audiences, who loved her anyway. She was infectiously entertaining.
“The script [by Nicholas Martin] was more or less what we shot, very good,” said Frears. “They sent me the link to YouTube. I was a pushover. You’re laughing and she touches you. It’s inherently ridiculous and courageous at the same time.”
Streep expands on this in our video interview, below.
She got it. All Frears had to say to her was: “You know who you’re playing? Margaret Dumont.”
“Absolutely,” Streep replied.
Battleaxe Dumont, as Marx Brothers fans know, was a great foil for Groucho. And Streep and Irish costume designer Consolata Boyle, who collaborated with her on her Oscar-winning “The Iron Lady” and with Frears on “Philomena” and “The Queen” (for which she was nominated), had a blast mucking about finding vintage pieces for Mrs. Jenkins to wear, said Streep, who squeezed into her first fat suit in order to fill out these crazy costumes.
“It was her first mother-in-law part,” said Frears.
The challenge of this movie is less visual than aural. Frears directs with his ears, as Billy Wilder did, he said. “John Huston used to turn his back, Alan Bennett used to lie under the table. You can hear when it’s right. A film like this is dominated by dialogue, and the dialogue is very good. It’s unfashionable making films doing dialogue. It’s like swimming against the tide.”
Streep showed up fully prepared on the London set after working with a singing coach in New York, said Frears. “You can only sing badly if you are good singer, and Meryl is a very good singer, she has a head start. When she came to London she knew how to do it, we did not have hours of discussion.”
Streep did not expect to be singing live, she admitted, but decided that matching up her shots was Frears’ problem. Throwing five Red cameras at her Carnegie Hall performances was a cinch, he said: “The actors knew what they were doing, they just did it.”
Somehow, Streep manages to pull off the comedic element of singing off-key opera arias without making fun of her character, who is blissfully unaware of how she really sounds. “Meryl was very insistent on that,” said Frears. “That was the job, really.”
Mrs. Jenkins’ fantasy is sustained by her team, an enthusiastic singing teacher (David Haig), pianist (“The Big Bang Theory” star Simon Helberg) and most of all her tirelessly energetic husband (Hugh Grant), an ex-actor whose full-time job is to realize his wife’s dreams.
Refreshingly, gender roles are reversed in this movie, as Streep plays a woman of certain age who is married to a husband younger by a decade. When Frears sent Grant the script, he wrote back, “I hate everything, but this is wonderful.”
“He wasn’t hard to persuade,” said Frears. “He’s a wonderful man. He drives you mad—because he’s very very neurotic —he was having a baby a week at the time. He’s very clever and conscientious and has spent his life trying to pretend he isn’t.”
If Streep and Grant land Oscar nominations, it will mark her 20th (at 13, she broke Katharine Hepburn’s record) and his first—long overdue. Somehow, what Streep does looks hard, while Grant— like Cary, another dashing leading man with his last name—always makes what he does look easy.