FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS
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NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Geoff
It’s 1944, and Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) is a happy and carefree heiress in New York City who lives for music. The film starts with a living tableau review at a club that she founded and sponsors financially. First Jenkins descends from the ceiling to play the muse to Stephen Foster, the composer of “Oh! Susanna.” Then she appears as a Valkyrie on the battlefield. She thanks everyone for supporting the arts, and goes home with her husband St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). At home, he lovingly recites a poem to her until she falls asleep. Then with the help of the housekeeper he removes her wig, revealing that she is bald, and apparently very ill. He leaves the house, and goes to the apartment he keeps with his mistress Kathleen Weatherley (Rebecca Ferguson).
Florence Foster Jenkins is taking voice lessons from John Totten, who works with the New York Opera, and she needs a pianist to accompany her. Many come to apply, but she likes the shy and retiring Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg) and sends the rest home. She pays McMoon $150 per week, far more than he expected. On the way out, St. Clair Bayfield briefs McMoon about Florence’s quirks: don’t sit in the chairs famous people died in them, and they are for display only; don’t touch or ask about her briefcase; and no sharp objects around her. Bayfield says nothing about Florence’s inability to sing.
The next day McMoon shows up for practice, and learns how bad Florence is: she’s terribly off-key, she has no sense of rhythm, and she often simply can’t hit the notes, or manage the vocal complexities, of the songs she chooses to sing. McMoon has a hard time keeping a straight face, while Bayfield and Totten soldier through the lesson. Afterward, on the elevator ride out, McMoon can’t contain himself any longer, and busts out laughing.
Arturo Toscanini visits Florence, ostensibly to give her a record, but also to say that his next performance at Carnegie Hall will not be able to go on unless he gets one thousand dollars in funding. Florence hands over the money without a second thought. When Bayfield hears that Toscanini came by he asks without hesitation, “How much did he want?” indicating that Jenkins is often a source of cash for New York’s music performances. Later, she and Bayfield attend the performance at Carnegie Hall, and she is very happy.
After several months of lessons, Jenkins decides that she wants to give a recital. Bayfield seems happy with the idea, but Totten makes clear to Bayfield that he won’t attend, claiming that he will be out of town at the time, before the recital is even scheduled. McMoon panics. He thought he was just there to help with the lessons, in private, and doesn’t want to be a laughingstock playing in public with Jenkins. Bayfield cryptically assures him that won’t happen.
What follows is an elaborate ruse to protect Jenkins from criticism: the performance is closed to the public, with tickets only going to known friends and bribe-able reviewers. The critic from the Post wants to attend, and Bayfield offers him a ticket with fifty dollars in an envelope. When the reviewer says he can’t take the money, Bayfield informs him that it’s either both or neither, and the reviewer gives back the envelope.
The night of the recital, McMoon is still nervous, but Bayfield assures him that everything is set. McMoon and Jenkins start performing, and, although a few people snicker, and Agnes Stark, the new wife of an old friend has to be escorted out laughing, the performance goes well, and Jenkins is spared any humiliation.
That night, there is a raucous party at Bayfield’s apartment with his mistress. McMoon asks Bayfield about his situation with Jenkins and his mistress, and Bayfield assures him that he and Jenkins have an understanding. McMoon, drunk, falls asleep on the couch, to wake up to Jenkins knocking at the door. McMoon rushes into the bedroom, where Bayfield is asleep with his mistress, and tells him Jenkins is at the door. Bayfield scrambles to hide his mistress, and greets Jenkins, who has the reviews. They sit on the couch and read the reviews, which are carefully worded, with phrases like, “Florence Foster Jenkins has never sounded better.” Although there are close calls, Jenkins leaves the apartment without learning the truth. Bayfield’s mistress is furious at having to hide, but Bayfield points out to her that Jenkins pays for the apartment, and he can hardly shut her out. He then offers to take her for a trip to play golf, and they reconcile.
While Bayfield is off golfing with his mistress, Jenkins shows up at McMoon’s apartment. She is aghast at his unwashed dishes, and insists that she will wash the dishes while he plays the piano for her. He plays one of his own compositions, and she likes it. She tells him that she played the piano as a child, and once played for the president, but that she was sick when she was younger, damaging her left hand and causing other issues. She tells him that she married young when her father wouldn’t let her pursue a career in music, but that her first husband was no good. She tells him about meeting Bayfield twenty-five years earlier when he was an actor, and how she has taken care of him ever since, hiding bad reviews from him at times. She tries to play the piano, but her left hand is damaged and she can’t. McMoon sits by her and plays the left-hand part for her, while she plays the right. The warm moment is spoiled when she sees a knife and panics. McMoon tosses a towel over the knife and gets her a glass of water to calm her.
Jenkins is at home and Bayfield has returned. Despite just having spent time with his mistress, he is clearly devoted to Jenkins and very concerned for her well-being. Her regular doctor isn’t available, so a doctor unfamiliar with her examines Jenkins. He is visibly affected when he looks at her back and sees the effects of her syphilis. Jenkins blithely tells him that she is taking mercury and arsenic, the usual cures, thus explaining her mental issues. The doctor prescribes rest. Speaking with Bayfield privately, he says he’s never seen a case of second stage syphilis that lasted for over twenty-five years. He warns Bayfield about contagion, and Bayfield assures him that he and Jenkins have always abstained from physical love.
Jenkins records several songs on records, making it hard for Bayfield to shield her from public reaction. Bayfield is out to lunch with his mistress when he sees some soldiers who have a copy of the record, upsetting him greatly. His mistress demands that he focus on her rather than on Jenkins, threatening to leave, but Bayfield is compelled to confront the soldiers and tries to get the record back. After he fails, he finds that his mistress has left the restaurant, and left him.
When one of the songs gets into the hands of a radio DJ, he plays it over and over. Bayfield is horrified at the publicity, but Jenkins hears soldiers calling in, and decides that she will perform at Carnegie Hall, and invite a thousand U.S. troops to the performance. Bayfield knows he won’t be able to control the outcome the way he has in the past, and McMoon is terrified of being humiliated, but Jenkins is insistent. As before, Totten, and now Toscanini, refuse to be present.
The night of the performance, Jenkins is panicking, both because there are thousands of people in the audience, and because McMoon hasn’t arrived. Bayfield does his best to calm her, but to little avail. With the audience in a near-riot, and the stage manager insisting that they have to go on, McMoon shows up, saying that he was delayed by a group of thugs. Jenkins is still panicking, but McMoon assures her that they’ll be great. Jenkins is touched, and opens her briefcase and adds him to her will.
The two go on, and at first, it doesn’t go well. People laugh out loud, and the crowd starts mocking Jenkins and McMoon. Stunned, they stop performing. Agnes Stark, who had to be removed from the recital, stands up and shouts down the crowd, telling them to be respectful of the effort that Jenkins and McMoon are making. Eventually, everyone settles down, and Jenkins and McMoon resume performing. Bayfield sees the critic from the Post getting up to leave and intercepts him. He tells the critic that a poor review would crush Jenkins, and that she doesn’t deserve that after all she has done for music performance in New York. The critic says that he will tell the truth, and storms out. The performance concludes successfully. That night, McMoon falls asleep on Jenkins’s couch. As Bayfield is preparing to leave for his apartment, Jenkins asks him to stay for once. He’s caught off guard, but he happily complies, sleeping above the blankets.
The next day Bayfield wakes McMoon, and they go out to collect every copy of the Post within several blocks, and throw them in the trash. Later, Jenkins is having lunch with her friends, discussing the performance and reading the reviews. She finds that the Post is missing, and excuses herself. Jenkins finds a copy of the Post, reads the review, and loses control, staggering into traffic. Bayfield realizes too late what has happened, and chases after her, to find her collapsed in the street.
Jenkins is in bed, dying. She asks Bayfield if everyone was laughing at her all along and if he was laughing at her. He tenderly tells her that he never laughed at her. She tells him that people may say she can’t sing, but they can never say she didn’t sing.
The film ends with notes that Bayfield lived modestly for the rest of his life and continued to support the arts with Jenkins’s money, and that McMoon was never very successful as a musician, but developed an interest in bodybuilding later in life, and judged competitions.
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