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Film / Florence Foster Jenkins

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Florence Foster Jenkins is a 2016 biopic/dramedy film directed by Stephen Frears. Meryl Streep stars in the title role, alongside Hugh Grant (who came out of retirement just to work with Streep).

Based on a true story that's stranger than fiction, it tells the story of Madam Florence - an American socialite who had a great love of music. She was a gifted pianist in her youth, but a nasty bout of syphilis (and/or the only treatment options at the timenote ) permanently damaged her hands. So she turned to singing instead.

The problem? Florence was bad. Not merely passable or mediocre. She was ferociously terrible. She had no sense of rhythm, pitch or tone and her attempts at singing arias resulted in high-pitched shrieking. She was so legendarily bad that she ended up with a Misaimed Fandom - who came to see her perform because of the unintentional comedy. Believing they loved her singing, and believing she was actually talented - partly because of the Blatant Lies of her husband St Clair Bayfield (Grant) - Madam Florence bought out a thousand seats at Carnegie Hall to give a performance dedicated to the soldiers of World War II.

The film covers Florence's desires to make a comeback, and her famous performance at Carnegie Hall. Simon Helberg also stars as her pianist Cosme McMoon and Rebecca Ferguson as St Clair's girl on the side Kathleen.


  • Adaptation Deviation: The real Jenkins suffered a heart attack two days after her Carnegie performance and died a month later. It was not due to the shock of reading a bad review.
  • Affectionate Nickname: St Clair and Florence call each other "Bunny" and "Whitey" respectively.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Cosme.
  • At the Opera Tonight: As a member of high society, Florence is a notable patron of the arts, and hosts The Verdi Club to promote operatic performances. However, more than just being in it for the prestige, she's shown to be a genuine music lover.
  • Baldness Means Sickness: Florence wears a wig, false eyelashes, and cosmetics to hide that she's lost her hair to syphilis and to her mercury- and arsenic-based medications. By the end of the film, she's on her deathbed.
  • Book Ends: In a way, Florence's appearance in both the beginning and the end have her in an angel costume. The first is when she plays as the Angel of Inspiration for a "living picture" performance on stage and the last is on her deathbed in which she has an Imagine Spot of her performance at Carnegie Hall where she sings beautifully, also wearing a costume with fabulous angel wings, seemingly to symbolize that she has passed away.
  • Blatant Lies: Good GOD yes. The entire plot is hinged around no one daring to tell Florence about her singing.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The bag Florence carries around with her turns out to be her will. And she writes Cosme into it just before the performance at Carnegie Hall.
  • Chekhov's Skill: When Agnes first enters the big Carnegie Hall concert, all of the soldiers are highly interested in her, and she plays to the crowd with a little dance, stripping off her fur wrap. Later, when the same soldiers begin to mock Florence, Agnes capitalizes on her popularity to draw their attention and shut them up, which saves the show.
  • Closet Shuffle: St. Clair pushes Kathleen into another room when Florence unexpectedly shows up at his apartment. Cosme similarly hides the drunken Agnes when she comes wandering into the living room.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: aside from her unique way of singing, Florence is obsessed with sandwiches and potato salad (literally having a bathtub filled with the stuff for a dinner party), loathes pointed things like knives or cigarettes, carries a leather satchel everywhere (containing her will), and collects chairs that famous people have died in.
  • Corpsing: In-Universe. After Cosme's first session, where he discovers the extent of Florence's badness, he bursts out laughing in a crowded elevator. Agnes Stark is also left a hysterical pile of chuckles when she first sees it.
  • Costume Porn: Truth in Television, as the real Florence was known for her elaborate stage outfits.
  • Cringe Comedy: Florence's singing is initially presented in this way, but once the tragic aspects of her character are revealed, it's not so funny.
  • Dramatic Irony: When Florence visits Cosme at his apartment, she tells him while talking about her relationship with St. Clair that during his attempted acting career she had to occasionally hide bad reviews from him, completely unaware St. Clair has to do the same for her singing.
  • Elephant in the Living Room:
    • Cosme is informed in no uncertain terms that the contents of Florence's leather satchel are never to be discussed or asked about. (It turns out to be her will, which is revealed when she is moved by generosity and writes him into it.)
    • Also, nobody in Florence's circle dares even to hint to her that she just might possibly be anything less than a supremely gifted opera singer.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Agnes Stark is a glamorous, fun-loving blonde. She's also a Hard-Drinking Party Girl.
  • Everyone Has Standards: This is implied to be the unspoken rule among the art world regarding Florence. They know she's bad—Augustus Corbin and Agnes Stark make that clear—but they would never mock her to her face or insult her. They recognize that Florence is passionate above all, and that deserves respect.
  • Exact Words: Most of the time, people don't actually lie to Florence, instead using weasel words like "remarkable" and saying things like "you've never sung better."
  • Fainting: Florence faints in public when she reads the bad reviews and is left bedridden until her death.
  • Foreshadowing: St. Clair tries to talk Florence out of the Carnegie Hall concert, telling her, "You're not strong enough. It could kill you." Which is essentially what happens.
  • Helpless with Laughter: During Florence's recital, Agnes goes from a Blank Stare to an incredulous rictus to laughing so hard she has to crawl out on her hands and knees. In real life, Tallulah Bankhead reportedly had to be carried out of Jenkins' recital in Carnegie Hall, laughing uncontrollably all the way.
  • Geek Physiques: Acknowledged, as Cosme is very skinny but is shown lifting weights. The epilogue states that he went on to judge bodybuilding competitions.
  • Giftedly Bad: Florence's singing is such a disaster that it's mistaken for an intentional comedy by a few audience members. Others (Augustus, for example) seem to oscillate between enjoying it out of a sense of mockery and genuinely taking pleasure in it, in part because of Florence's charisma. Ironically, she was a genuinely good pianist, but her left hand is permanently damaged from syphilis (hence why she took up singing).
  • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery: St Clair is seeing another woman Kathleen on the side, partly because he and Florence can't have sex (due to her syphilis). Kathleen is well aware of this and seems more annoyed that St Clair is neglecting her, rather than cheating on his wife.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: It's the 1940s and the protagonist is a high-society socialite, so there are lots of fancy evening gowns and tuxedos on display.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Florence passes away, content in the fact that while she's ultimately a figure of mockery, she still accomplished her dream of performing Carnegie Hall and brought some degree of happiness to others.
  • Grand Dame: Florence, but she's played very sympathetically.
  • Happily Married: At first sight it seems that St Clair and Florence are in an unhappy society marriage, sleeping in separate apartments and St Clair keeping a girlfriend on the side. As the story progresses we learn that they have an understanding and a unique arrangement due to Florence not wanting to infect St Clair with syphilis and they genuinely do dote on each other.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Florence's singing - her voice is terrible and she can't stay in key.
  • Historical Domain Character: She is a patron of the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. Cole Porter and actress Tallulah Bankhead are among the audience at Carnegie Hall. A concert by soprano Lily Pons earlier in the film also was what inspired Florence to restart her singing lessons.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The film makes Florence a little more sympathetic, showing that she only believed she was good because St Clair constantly lied to her and shielded her from any bad criticism. In reality, she was exposed to some criticism and chose to ignore it. She also paid off a few critics herself, rather than St Clair doing it to all of them.
  • Historical In-Joke: In real life, Tallulah Bankhead had to be carried out of Carnegie Hall as she uncontrollably laughed hysterically, as Agnes Stark does during a recital early in the film.
  • Holding In Laughter: Cosme hears Florence's Giftedly Bad singing, accepts a ludicrously good job offer to be her backup pianist, leaves her home, and makes it to the elevator before breaking out in hysterical giggles.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Florence is a straight example and this is Truth in Television. Partly for this reason, many assumed she was intentionally parodying bad opera singers. Played absolutely straight by Meryl Streep, whose performance may sound comically exaggerated but is in fact uncannily like Florence's actual voice. (One of her original recordings can be heard over the end credits for easy comparison.)
  • Imagine Spot: Jenkins dies imagining her singing with Lily Pons' voice.
  • Intergenerational Friendship: Florence, an elderly woman and Cosme, a man in his twenties bond through their love of music.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Yes, Earl Wilson, the Caustic Critic from the New York Post, probably shouldn't have written his scathing review of Florence's Carnegie Hall performance. But he's also a professional critic—it's his job to report on the music scene—and Florence, despite her sweet nature and passion for the art, can't sing. He couldn't have known that Florence would read the review and ultimately die from the shock it brought to her system. Furthermore, there's an element of Screw the Money, I Have Rules! at play: Wilson turns down a huge bribe to publish the review, which, in another movie, would be seen as a reflection of journalistic integrity.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Florence from a singing perspective. In her defence, she's gotten no help from her vocal coach.
  • Lying to Protect Your Feelings: St Clair can't bring himself to tell Florence the truth about her singing because it'd devastate her, since she loves music so much.
  • Narm Charm: invoked In-Universe, as in real life, Florence's recordings and performances prove popular because she is such an awful singer.
  • Mood Whiplash: The comedy of Florence's performance at Carnegie Hall gets Played for Drama when she hears all the drunk soldiers laughing at her. But when Agnes Stark stands up for her and cheers her on, the singing becomes a heartwarming moment.
  • Oh, Crap!: St Clair and Cosme have this reaction when they discover Madam Florence is to perform at Carnegie Hall.
  • Only Sane Man: Cosme McMoon provides an Audience Surrogate at the beginning, and the Post reviewer publishes the truth, however harsh, about Florence's singing.
  • Romance and Sexuality Separation: St. Clair has a happy, chaste marriage with Florence, and sees a mistress on the side. He's framed as a Sympathetic Adulterer (and Florence is implied to overlook the arrangement willingly) because Florence is seriously ill with long-term syphilis from her first husband, so sex isn't an option for them.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Earl Wilson is a journalist with scruples and is intent on reporting on Florence's performance just as he saw it, refusing the ever increasing sums St. Clair offers him to write a favorable review.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: St Clair pays off any critic who comes to see Florence perform, anticipating that she'll read a bad review in the paper. After her Carnegie Hall performance, he tries to buy all the copies of the Post—the one paper he couldn't buy off—to prevent her from reading the reviews. She still manages to get her hands on one, and the shock of reading the review eventually leads to her death.
  • Sexless Marriage: St. Clair and Florence, due to her not wanting to give him her syphilis.
  • Shaming the Mob: Agnes Stark berates the soldiers in the audience for laughing at Florence.
  • Social Engineering: Cosme nails his audition by noticing that Florence reacts badly to the loud bombastic performers who played before him. He shrewdly plays a gentle nocturne which charms Florence, then seals the deal by remarking that he happens to know that the other pianists waiting outside are "all rather heavy-handed, I'm afraid." The other candidates are furious but Cosme lands the gig.
  • Spoiled Sweet: Despite seeming like an Upper-Class Twit, Florence is actually perfectly nice and good-natured, a passionate lover of music and patron of the arts. Her being so nice was part of the reason no one could bear to tell her how bad her singing was.
  • Star-Derailing Roleinvoked: In-universe. Cosme fears his association with Florence's public performances will prevent him from really making it as a pianist.
  • Sudden Downer Ending: The film plays Florence's bad singing for laughs most of the time. But then the film ends with her reading the bad reviews and dying of her illness weeks later, her husband continuing to lie that everyone loved her singing.
  • Technician vs. Performer: Zig-Zagged. Florence is passionate about music, works hard at practicing, and loves to perform, but she is so Giftedly Bad that she just plain doesn't realize she has absolutely no technical skill whatsoever. Ultimately she succeeds because people enjoy her performances as Camp and because she's so good natured that nobody has the heart to tell her she's terrible.
  • Tragic Dream: Played straight and player for laughs by virtue of the person for whom it was supposed to be impossible and tragic only maybe recognizes it after having achieved it. While normally Florence's dream to be a recognized opera singer would be a tragic dream given how tone deaf she is, the combination of her money, musical connections, husband willing to maintain a Masquerade, and her all-around good nature and large network of friends and allies made it possible for her to sing opera at Carnegie Hall and get cheered for it, all while believing the lie. The movie ends with her finding out about a negative review from the offhand comments of two fans, reads it, collapses, and dies a month later— but dies dreaming of her memories of the time at Carnegie hall, singing with the voice of a talented opera singer, how she perceived herself. In the end, she did accomplish her dream.
  • Trauma Button: Cosme is informed on the day of his hiring that Florence despises sharp objects, and later Florence freaks out at Cosme's apartment when a knife is accidentally dropped on the floor.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: After his first rehearsal with Florence, Cosme manages to hold himself together until he makes his escape into a crowded elevator. As the doors close he proceeds to crack up into hysterical giggles, prompting awkward looks from everyone else.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: The two soldiers who sincerely congratulate Florence on her performance, telling her she has "an enormous comedic talent", clearly thinking that she was intentionally singing poorly so as to amuse the audience. She's already perplexed, even moreso when they tell her "That hack from the Post doesn't know what he's talking about." She goes to find a copy of the paper, reads the bad review, and collapses.