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When my son, Christian, told me last July that Meryl Streep would play Florence Foster Jenkins in a movie, my first hope was that the filmmakers would not ridicule Mrs. Jenkins, who would be an easy mark.

I first learned about Florence Foster Jenkins when I reviewed a regional production of Steven Temperley’s play, Souvenir, which recounts the unorthodox singer’s career.

Mrs. Jenkins, who had had several disappointments in her life, inherited a fortune and used her wealth to break into New York society as a significant patron of the arts. She thought of herself as a talented classical singer—whereas in reality she had no sense of tone or pitch—and gave private recitals to controlled audiences that would not tell her the truth. Her ambition exceeded her grasp, however, when she decided to give a public performance at Carnegie Hall.

Some dismiss Mrs. Jenkins as a fool, but others see in her a certain heroism, and her belief in herself may rise to that level when it is viewed in the whole context of her life, including her seriously compromised health.

Anyway, Pat and I saw the Meryl Streep film and found that there was no need to worry. While the filmmakers depart from the facts in that compulsive way that they have, the movie is a fair representation of the woman’s life and, most important, it treats her kindly.

My earlier blog about Florence Foster Jenkins is at THIS LINK.

 

 

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Sammy Cahn and Julie Stein wrote six songs for the 1947 movie It Happened in Brooklyn,including “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart,” which was performed as a duet by Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante. Durante later recorded the song on the RCA Red Seal label with the dramatic soprano Helen Traubel as his partner.

It doesn’t have to be classic or rock / Just as long as it comes from the heart / Just put more heart into you voice / And you’ll become the people’s choice

I thought of that song the other day when my son, Christian, pointed out that Meryl Streep is to star in a movie about Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Chris wasn’t aware of this, but in 2007 I reviewed a play, Souvenir, by Stephen Temperley, in which Liz McCartney played Mrs. Jenkins and Jim Walton played her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon. There are at least three other plays about her.

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Before I saw Souvenir, I had never heard of Mrs. Jenkins, who was born to a wealthy family in Wilkes-Barre and became an accomplished pianist while still a child, even playing at the White House during the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes. When her father refused to finance a European musical education, she eloped and moved to Philadelphia where she taught piano until she injured her arm and, her marriage having ended, was reduced to poverty until her mother came to her assistance.

Around 1900 she and her mother moved to New York City together, and there Mrs. Jenkins entered into another marriage that would last until she died. When her father died in 1908, she inherited enough money to become a prominent Manhattan socialite and to undertake voice lessons. She became even wealthier when her mother died in 1912.

Mrs. Jenkins was under the impression that she was a talented soprano, but the fact was that she couldn’t sing at all. She had no command of tone, pitch, rhythm, or diction. But she continued to study voice, and she gave periodic invitation-only recitals attended by friends who would not have told her the truth. She dressed in elaborate costumes that she had designed herself and engaged in such melodramatic gestures as throwing flower petals to the audience. Because these recitals were private, there were usually no professional critics present. Mrs. Jenkins, who was widely ridiculed, would at times detect laughter during her performance, but she attributed that to the agents of rivals who wanted to discredit her.

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When she was 76 years old, Florence Foster Jenkins finally gave a public concert at Carnegie Hall, and tickets sold out weeks in advance. Because it was a public event, critics attended, and they were merciless in their accounts of the performance. Mrs. Jenkins was badly shaken by what was written and said about her; she died of a heart attack two days later, appropriately while shopping for sheet music at G. Schirmer’s music store.

One of the consequences of Mrs. Jenkins’ first marriage was that she contracted syphilis from her husband, a disease for which there was no effective treatment before the discovery of penicillin. The disease itself and the treatments, which commonly employed mercury and arsenic, gradually ravaged her brain and her auditory and central nervous systems.

Temperley’s play, which does not broach the subject of venereal disease, is, on balance, gentle with Mrs. Jenkins. I suspect a movie treatment will more deeply explore the woman’s background. Still, I find myself hoping that the filmmaker will find something sympathetic, if not admirable, about a woman who so doggedly pursued her ambition and didn’t have to die with the regret that comes with never having tried.

Mrs. Jenkins herself summed up what I’m feeling: “People can say I can’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing.”

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——heartburn - 1
Having just watched an Angelica Huston movie, we felt that logic dictated that we watch a Jack Nicholson movie; the first one we were willing to subject ourselves to was Heartburn, a 1986 film directed by Mike Nichols and based on Nora Ephron’s fictionalized account of her ill-fated marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Nicholson plays a D.C. journalist named Mark Forman and Meryl Streep plays a food writer named Rachel Samstat. These two meet at party, do the “why don’t we go somewhere else” routine, stretch “somewhere else” to mean Forman’s bed, and get married. Even if you didn’t know Ephron’s story, you’d know in the first few minutes of this film where the relationship is headed.
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Mark seems to be an enthusiastic husband and, as nature takes its course, a doting father. The only stress on the marriage at first is the incompetence of the contractor the couple hired to renovate the wreck of a house they bought in D.C. But behind the scenes Mark is having friendly doings with an awkwardly tall Washington hostess, and this comes to light when Rachel is almost ready to give birth to their second child. Rachel reacts to the revelation by rushing back to her father’s home in New York, but she succumbs to Mark’s entreaty that she return to him. That turns out to be a bad decision. The messy outcome involves a key lime pie.
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I don’t know how literally this story reflects what went on between Ephron and Bernstein (he had an affair with the wife of the British ambassador to the United States) but it doesn’t make clear what either of these characters really wants out of life. Rachel’s decision to marry Mark — after mutual acquaintances urge her not to, and after she holds up the ceremony for hours while she has a panic attack — is hard to absorb, and Mark’s passionate insistence on remaining in a marriage that clearly cramps his style is no more understandable. One conclusion I came to: It is possible to grow tired of Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson within 108 minutes. It is.

By the way, Heartburn marked the film debut of Kevin Spacey, who plays an armed robber who relieves Rachel of her wedding ring.  The cast also includes Maureen Stapleton, Richard Masur, Miloš Forman, and Stockard Channing.

KEVIN SPACEY

KEVIN SPACEY

DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

DIANE KEATON and MERYL STREEP

If blood is, indeed, thicker than water, does the same chemistry apply to bone marrow? That question is at the heart of the matter in “Marvin’s Room,” a 1996 film produced by Robert De Niro and starring Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, Leonardo Di Caprio, Gwen Verdon, and Hume Cronyn.

The story, which is based on a play by Scott McPherson, concerns the uneasy reunion of  a badly fractured family. The Marvin of the title (Cronyn) has been bed-ridden at his Florida home for 17 years after suffering a stroke. Unable to walk or to speak coherently, Marvin is cared for by his daughter Bessie (Keaton), who also looks after her aunt Ruth (Verdon), who is in the early stages of dementia.

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

LEONARDO Di CAPRIO and DIANE KEATON

Bessie is diagnosed with leukemia and needs a marrow transplant. She turns for help to her sister Lee (Streep) although they haven’t communicated since Lee moved to Ohio 20 years ago. Lee has two sons who are potential donors, Hank (DiCaprio) and Charlie (Hal Scardino).  Lee and Hank have a poisonous relationship which recently reached new depths when he was confined to a mental health facility after deliberately setting fire to their house.

Despite the mutual hard feelings between the sisters, Lee takes her sons to Florida to be tested for compatibility, although Hank is coy about whether he would agree to donate marrow even if he were a match. The atmosphere is uncomfortable and not made any better when Lee considers the possibility that she could inherit this responsibility if Bessie should die.

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

GWEN VERDON, HAL SCARDINO, DIANE KEATON, LEONARDO Di CAPRIO

There is an unexpected chemistry between Bessie and Hank, however, and the story turns on that, though not in a simplistic way.

This film was very well received when it first appeared, and with good reason. Although the premise has all the potential for a sob story, it is written and directed (by Jerry Zaks) into a  tense and moving drama. The unusual array of stars (which includes De Niro as Bessie’s doctor) delivers on its promise, too.