Meryl Streep's Singer Has Delusions Of Adequacy In 'Florence Foster Jenkins' In her latest role, Streep plays a real-life laughingstock who fancied herself an opera singer.


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Meryl Streep's Singer Has Delusions Of Adequacy In 'Florence Foster Jenkins'

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In the 1940s, Florence Foster Jenkins became famous for being a terrible opera singer. She was a wealthy arts patron who gave concerts, recorded albums and is now the subject of a movie starring Meryl Streep. The film "Florence Foster Jenkins" is out now, and critic Bob Mondello predicts that the story of the least-gifted performer to ever sell out Carnegie Hall is about to start selling out a lot of movie theaters.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Florence and her actor husband, St. Clair, always seemed to have something musical going on in their grand apartment - people inquiring about concert tickets, conductor Arturo Toscanini dropping by to solicit a symphony donation and, on this day, auditioning pianists. Florence needs an accompanist for her music lessons. A diminutive fellow named Cosme McMoon erupts in smiles when he's selected, and he's still smiling the next day.


MERYL STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Maestro, this is the talented young man I was telling you about.

DAVID HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) Then let's get started.

MONDELLO: And then his smile fades as he hears his patron's voice for the first time.


STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins, singing).

HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) Stop there. There's work to be done, but you've never sounded better.

MONDELLO: Now, you'll note that never sounded better is not quite a compliment.


STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) It is true that a lot of singers my age are on the decline, but I seem to just get better and better.

HAIG: (As Carlo Edwards) There is no one quite like you.

MONDELLO: Also not quite a compliment, but you see how this works. St. Clair Bayfield protects his wife by surrounding her with people he pays to be supportive, like this vocal coach. And who's hurt, really - until Florence's enthusiasm leads her to propose a public concert, at which point Cosme panics.


SIMON HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Could we speak, Mr. Bayfield?

HUGH GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Yes, of course. What is it?

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Well, I thought I was being hired to accompany Madame Florence's lessons. But I'll be honest with you, Mr. Bayfield. I think Madame Florence might need a little more preparation before she sings in public.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) We've been rehearsing for a month.

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Mr. Bayfield, we can't be talking about the same singer. I mean, her vocal cords - they don't phonate freely. Her phrasing is haphazard. As for her subglottal pressure - it defies medical science.

MONDELLO: What Bayfield knows that Cosme doesn't is that the guests at the concert will all be prescreened - folks who know her, have benefited from her generosity, have a reason to applaud. Then Florence does something that causes even her husband alarm. She rents Carnegie Hall.


STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Well, I'm going to give a thousand tickets away to the soldiers because we must support our boys.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Well, I applaud your courage. And no one would enjoy seeing you triumph here more than I, obviously. But this place is just - it's so big, you know? It's nearly a thousand - 3,000 people.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Well, Lily Pons' voice filled it. She's just a little bird.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Well, yes, but she's a young woman with a young woman's strength and perfect technique.



STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) My technique isn't perfect?

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) No, it is. It is. It is.

MONDELLO: Hugh Grant's stammering has rarely been put to better use. Director Stephen Frears has made "Florence Foster Jenkins" more affectionate than affecting, taking a frothier approach than the French film "Marguerite" did earlier this year when tackling a similar story. But Frears is blessed with a cast that seems incapable, ironically, of hitting any wrong dramatic notes, Hugh Grant's Bayfield stoic as he strives to protect his wife from what you might call her delusions of adequacy...


GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) For 25 years I have kept the mockers and scoffers at bay.

MONDELLO: ...Simon Helberg doing his own accomplished piano playing as Cosme even as his eyes betray his gathering panic...


HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) You'll be murdered out there.

MONDELLO: ...And Meryl Streep not only doing her own excruciating singing but inhabiting the dotty diva of the title as fully as she has such other real-life figures as Margaret Thatcher and Julia Child. She looks at times like a sort of musical Margaret Dumont, upholstered in a dowager's furs and gowns, ignoring a whole world of Marx Brothers distractions. But she's so much more fragile and hopeful. And though you come to laugh at her, you'll likely reconsider.


STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Too many feathers, you think?

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) The perfect number of feathers, restrained and elegant.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) I'm so nervous, Whitey.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) Oh, don't be.

STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) Are you nervous, Mr. McMoon?

HELBERG: (As Cosme McMoon) Somewhat.

GRANT: (As St. Clair Bayfield) You have a full and very warm house, and you are both going to be sensational.

MONDELLO: The real Florence Foster Jenkins did rent Carnegie Hall, and she and Cosme McMoon did perform there to a sold-out crowd. And well, you'll see...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) House lights, please.

MONDELLO: ...How it all turns out. I'm Bob Mondello.


STREEP: (As Florence Foster Jenkins) This is what we live for - isn't it - this moment.


CORNISH: And a round of applause today to the man responsible for our sound, our technical director Kurt Stonnecker (ph). With a wry smile or a chuckle under his breath, Kurt lets us know when we're doing something right or something wrong. And after nearly a decade here at NPR, he's moving on to exciting things in Vancouver, Canada. Kurt, you made us better. Thank you, and we'll miss you.


UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) We'll meet again. Don't know where, don't know when, but oh, we'll meet again some sunny day.

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