While most Oscar-hopeful films wait until the fall to enter the rat race, a few tend to pop up over the summer. They’re the movies that might get a few technical awards nominations, but usually win attention for one or two main acting roles in an otherwise enjoyable-but-predictable movie. This is exactly what Florence Foster Jenkins is. A lighthearted biopic with some excellent performances but without the emotional resonance that would’ve made it the Oscar-bait the people behind it were hoping for.
Florence Foster Jenkins is a 2016 British-French biographical comedy-drama film directed by Stephen Frears and written by Nicholas Martin. The film stars Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who became an opera singer known for her painful lack of singing skill. Other cast members include Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Nina Arianda and Rebecca Ferguson.
Protagonist: St. Clair
Want: For Florence to have a successful show at Carnegie Hall.
Need: To not hand hold so much and experience his own life.
Antagonist: Florence Foster Jenkins
Want: Show at Carnegie Hall
Need: Needs a serious reality check but is likely too far gone.
Pre-Existing Life: Florence and St. Clair run the Verdi Club where they are able to perform and their audience panders to them though they have zero skills. They also donate lots of money to various composers and shows; big fans of the music scene. Florence is also sick and St. Clair does not live with her.
Inciting Incident: After an amazing performance, Florence decides she wants to take up singing lessons again and will need a good pianist: Enter Cosme McMoon. St. Clair must talk Cosme into not mentioning ever what a terrible singer Florence is, even though it could hurt his own reputation.
First Act Decision: After several lessons, Florence’s professionally acclaimed teacher tells her she’s never been better. She decides she wants to pursue singing and put on a concert. St. Clair and McMoon reluctantly agree.
Progress: St. Clair bribes all the patrons so that everyone in attendance will applaud and not heckle his horrible singing wife.
Reversal: St. Clair’s secret girlfriend insists on coming to the show with her rowdy friends. During the concert, they can’t stop giggling. St. Clair works to remove those who would laugh at his wife before she notices. At the end of the night, they must call the doctor when she’s over exerted herself and we learn of her syphilis. St. Clair lots off steam at a party as his apartment.
Midpoint: After making a recording, St. Clair goes out of town with his girlfriend while a bored Florence starts sending her record to radio stations. She decides she wants to perform at Carnegie Hall and St. Clair can’t change her mind.
Reversal 2: St. Clair hangs out with his girlfriend and overhears people laughing at his wife’s record. He gets in a fight, causing his girlfriend to be fed up and take off. He’s lost her forever now.
False Climax / Low Point: Florence performs to great applause at Carnegie Hall, though there is an initial hiccup. Florence wakes up to rave reviews. The next day, St. Clair must hide The Post and the negative reviews inside it from Florence. When she finally finds it, she faints and hits her head.
Climax: Florence gives St. Clair a final hopeful speech as she slips in and out of a happy dream of her performing with her loving husband nearby (potentially a portion of the Carnegie Hall show we did not see), before passing away.
This movie was adorable but I struggled watching it. Maybe my twenties have made me too apathetic. To have a character with such a difficult past, but it treated for the last half of her life with kid gloves simply because she is rich, was angering to me. I’ve seen too many headlines from places like Deadline and Forbes that complain about the millennial generation’s “need to be coddled” when we’re simply asking for quality of life, but sure, let’s make a movie about how no one could simply tell this woman: You can’t fucking sing for shit. Oh well.
Pandering aside, the structure and story are typical of biopics and it falls into the same trap as movies that come before it: repetition. Many biopics showcase a person who is unwilling to let go of some obsession or addiction. In Walk the Line it’s alcoholism and here it’s singing and ego. It makes for a compelling character, but it also comes with the issue of going back to that same problem without any new information coming forth or anyone learning. Florence digs her heels in deeper with every sequence and the people around her never learn either.
When other scripts struggle with repetition and a lack of movement, the midpoint usually serves as a way to liven up the pace and story. Here, Florence wants to perform at Carnegie Hall. We knew this from the beginning though so it’s not a strong midpoint, just another sequence with some theoretically bigger stakes. Initially, this is okay but when you’re having this issue in your own writing you’ll start feeling the strain of it just after your halfway point in the second reversal. This is supposed to be a firm moment of emotional setback. In a romantic comedy, this is the moment where the protagonist loses their friends before they lose their significant other in the low point. Florence can’t lose those around her because that would be a low point for her. She relies too much on her husband and Cosme.
Instead of trying to format the story to the structure that will make it stronger, the script attempts to walk the line in between structure and real events. But the myth of the real life Foster Jenkins is so much more magical in the vague stories we know and the recording Carnegie Hall has, it’s basically impossible for the film to live up to the hype without one of the main three characters taking a huge emotional loss earlier in the film to balance out the myth. This is the biggest trick with writing a biopic. If the structure isn’t inherently there you have to make the emotion bigger to really resonate with audiences.