Meryl Streep makes bad look good

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins, who lived from 1868 to 1944, was an eccentric heiress who used her considerable financial resources to stage and promote her musical career. She needed to use her own money because, despite having as a child been somewhat of a piano-playing prodigy, she was a terrible singer, probably both tone and beat deaf (possibly because of advanced syphilis). With her common law husband St. Clair Bayfield as her manager, she self-produced and self-promoted small concerts for friends and acquaintances, most of whom thought her outrageous costumes and bizarre vocals were hilarious. But it seems she wasn’t in on the joke. She had no idea how bad she was until she had a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and legitimate critics came and savaged her. Devastated, she had a heart attack a week later and she died a month after that.

Stephen Frears’ charming, funny and moving biopic of Jenkins, written by Jenkins’ biographer Nicholas Martin, stars Meryl Streep as Florence, Hugh Grant as St. Clair and Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, Florence’s accompanist. The film takes place during the last year of Florence’s life and condenses many events into a short period, all leading up to the Carnegie Hall performance. After seeing a particularly powerful performance by a famed soprano, Florence is inspired to sing again, after many years performing only tableau vivants and patronizing arts organizations. St. Clair helps her hire Cosmé and Carlo Edwards, a well-known vocal coach, to work with her. Cosmé is astonished by Florence’s lack of talent and St. Clair and Carlo’s dishonesty, but Florence is paying so well, he keeps playing for her. After rapturous applause following a small, private concert for her friend and glowing reviews paid for by St. Clair without her knowledge, Florence gains even more confidence. She makes a record and when St. Clair is out of town with his girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) – as he and Florence have an “understanding,” he says – Florence sends it to a radio host. The record is a hit and this leads to Carnegie Hall.

The film, as biopics do, simplifies a great deal. Florence is depicted as utterly clueless about her talent, or lack thereof, and St. Clair is carefully managing the world around her to protect her. While St. Clair clearly adores Florence, he is also profiting from her happiness, since he was never good enough an actor to have had a career leading to the lifestyle he led. In reality, St. Clair was a successful actor who worked constantly in supporting roles and was one of the founders of Actor’s Equity. And Florence seems to have been much more involved in protecting herself from critics, having written under pseudonyms some of the implausibly good reviews that appeared in the less reputable press. I think showing Florence as a slightly more cynical self-promoter would have made for a more interesting film, if a less sympathetic lead.

I’m sure the irony of the world’s greatest living actress playing a woman described (often) as “the world’s worst singer” was not lost on the producers of Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep is at her Streepiest in her unsubtle, mannered performance, and she’s delightful, not only when she’s singing badly and sporting ludicrous costumes, but particularly in her deeply sweet moments of doubt and vulnerability. Helberg’s broad comic performance provides the eye-popping double takes needed to signal the audience that we’re supposed to laugh. But the film’s hero is Hugh Grant, giving the best performance of his career as an oddly devoted husband in an impossibly weird marriage.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Nicholas Martin

Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg

Rated PG-13

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

The Westons are a hurricane

August Osage CountyIn 2008, Tracy Letts’s three-and-a-half hour comic tragedy August: Osage County won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play, and it was considered one of the theatrical events of the first decade of the century. Transforming the play into a film was a no-brainer, but whittling three-and-a-half hours to a more cinematically appropriate two and recasting box office draws is not a no-brainer; it’s hard. And for some reason, the great TV producer John Wells, who had never directed a film before and certainly not such a prestige picture, was picked to helm this process. I’m not sure if anyone could have successfully made the transition (except maybe Mike Nichols), but Wells was clearly overwhelmed by the task of working with Letts’s adaptation and a nearly pyrotechnic cast. The movie is a searing, funny potboiler, but if you’ve never seen the play (as I have not), it’s hard to imagine how this movie could have come from the great dramas of recent memory.

In the heat of August in Oklahoma, the poet patriarch of the Weston family Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing and his children and their spouses come to the house to help their cancer-ridden, drug-addled mother Violet (Meryl Streep). There are three daughters, bitter Barbara (Julia Roberts), who moved away with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor); put-upon Ivy, who stayed (Julianne Nicholson); and seemingly shallow Karen (Juliet Lewis), who also left Oklahoma, but unlike Barbara was not missed. Violet’s loud, busy sister Mattie (Margo Martindale) and her kind, slow-spoken husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) also come, and eventually so does their son, the supposed loser Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

This is an angry, damaged, and extremely dysfunctional family, and after Beverly is found dead, the festering conflicts explode: Barbara and Bill are separated and everyone finds out; their daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is sullen and precocious; Ivy and Little Charles are having a secret affair; Karen had brought her fiancé, the caddish Steve (Dermot Mulroney); Mattie and Charlie are failing to hold it all together; Violet is angry at all of them, particularly Barbara and Beverly, and she has no filter, no control, a lot of cigarettes, Jackie O. sunglasses, and a fabulous wig.

As these characters tumble towards a series of rather astonishing, rather appalling, and narratively unearned climaxes, it’s easy to see why all of these actors signed up for the movie. Every role is juicy, full of dark emotions and caustic words, and they all seem to be having a good time. All except for Julianne Nicholson, who plays perhaps the only true tragic figure in the story, and her subtlety and control and perpetual sadness make her work quite remarkable up against, particularly, Roberts and Streep. Roberts does some of her best work at Barbara, even if it is as caustic as anything she’s ever done. Barbara is not happy woman.

This is not surprising considering her mother is Violet, who is part Cruella de Vil, part Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, part Mommie Dearest. While she was nominated for a Golden Globe, along with Roberts, Streep’s performance as Violet is one of her worst. She’s uncharacteristically unhinged, chewing up her children and the scenery, ranting and raving with much more energy than a dying sedative addict would have. With Violet as the heart of the film, Wells’s direction of Streep should have been much more restrained, believable. But instead, Streep is personified chaos. I can see the reasoning behind that choice, since the Westons are a hurricane.

August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Written by Tracy Letts
Starring Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Margo Martindale
Rated R
At your local multiplex

I love it when Streep is Streepy

It wasn’t even my lead review the week I wrote about The Irony Lady, but it ended up being the cover story for LGBT Weekly. Ha.

The buzz on The Iron Lady has been that Meryl Streep is amazing as Margaret Thatcher and the movie isn’t very good. Since I don’t read reviews before I write mine, I’m not sure why the buzz isn’t that Streep is amazing and the movie is excellent. Because I loved it. Told in flashbacks from the perspective of an elderly Thatcher heading into the dementia from which she now suffers, The Iron Lady is in some ways a typical biopic; we see her go from an eager and brilliant daughter of a grocer to a prickly and ambitious member of parliament to become, finally, the longest-serving prime minister of Great Britain in the 20th century – the century’s most powerful woman.

True, the film isn’t perfect. It is top-heavy with Thatcher’s elderly doddering, and at times I felt that Streep was perhaps too funny, that Jim Broadbent, as Mr. Thatcher, was too silly. And worse, I was worried that I was developing a deep fondness for someone whom my liberal heart wants me to loathe. But by the end of the film, I found it to be balanced; Thatcher’s downfall in 1990 is depicted as deserving, and her flaws as a mother and wife are never hidden.

But director Phyllida Lloyd and the brilliant screenwriter Abi Morgan do what Clint Eastwood failed to do in J. Edgar. They didn’t make a dull history lesson; they created something artful, inventive, intriguing, wry and entertaining. Much – but not all – of this is because Streep gives a performance as towering as any in her career. There isn’t an emotion that she does not nail, and, of course, her accent, delivery and body are more than imitations of Thatcher. Streep’s performance is funnier, bolder and more moving than anything one could get from documentary footage.

The Iron Lady
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Written by Abi Morgan
Starring Meryl Streep and Jim Broadbent
At your local multiplex