HOLLYWOOD – One of the best lines uttered in Stephen Frears’ film “Florence Foster Jenkins” comes from Meryl Streep in the role of Florence — which the actress gracefully repeats for me during her interview for The Japan Times.
“Florence said, ‘People can say she couldn’t sing, but no one can say she didn’t sing.’ ” She adds a dramatic pause before continuing, “That’s really is what it’s all about: making the effort, regardless. Following your passion. Doing what you love, loving doing it, and — hopefully, as was the case for dear Florence — being surrounded with love. By a cocoon of love.”
As possibly the most celebrated actress in the world today, Streep is someone who knows a lot about being surrounded by love. The 67-year-old saw even more of it when she came to Tokyo in October to promote “Florence Foster Jenkins.” The film was chosen to open the 29th Tokyo International Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 25 to Nov. 3, and it opened in theaters across Japan on Dec. 1.
“I’m very proud to be here representing the film,” she said at a TIFF press conference on Oct. 24. “I bring greetings from Stephen Frears, (co-stars) Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg, all of whom are very busy working. But I’m currently unemployed, so I was available to come, and I’m very happy to be here.”
The real Florence Foster (1868-1944) was a Pennsylvanian heiress who fell in love with music early in life. A career as a pianist was in the cards, until an arm injury dashed her dream. She eventually founded a music-appreciation society and married Frank Jenkins, who unfortunately gave her syphilis. She left him at once and never spoke of him again. She took up with St. Clair Bayfield (Grant, 56), a Shakespearean actor who became her manager. They lived apart and he had a mistress, but he was Florence’s best friend and her protector, trying to insulate her from the realization that her singing voice was not good, to say the least.
“I’m old enough to remember a singer in the 1960s named Mrs. Miller,” Streep says. “She performed hits of the day, like (Petula Clark’s) ‘Downtown,’ and her singing was … unusual, in any case. However, I imagine she thought herself a good singer. I remember her first album was titled ‘Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits.’ It was mostly meant in fun and for laughter, yet I’d be curious to know what she eventually thought about her singing career when all was said and done.”
Florence believes her singing is just what’s needed to motivate American troops as World War II starts to kick off. St. Clair hires Cosme McMoon (Helberg) as her pianist and he is initially shocked by her voice. St. Clair persuades him not to let on and eventually Cosme and Florence start writing songs and one gets on the radio, though listeners believe it’s intended to be comedic.
“St. Clair and Cosme are really the two pillars that hold Florence up,” Helberg says, “apart from her sustaining love of music and her desire to enrich the world through music.”
The 35-year-old Helberg is perhaps best known from American TV’s long-running sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” He acknowledges that “Florence Foster Jenkins” has been a wonderful opportunity for him. “I never had illusions about my place in this business. I am a character actor,” he says. “I didn’t think this was a commercial project, which it is turning out to be, but I couldn’t have cared less as long as Meryl Streep was in it. I mean, I’d have played her pedicurist, never mind her pianist. I was in awe of her before working with her, and I still am.”
Streep returns the compliment.
“Simon made something wonderful of this character,” she says. “It could have been a cardboard cutout or stereotype. Simon infuses it with pathos … he has a very expressive face and doesn’t need that many lines. In scenes together, we often worked back and forth just off each other’s faces.”
No other actor has had as many Oscar nominations as Streep — 19 in total, with wins for “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “The Iron Lady” (2011). Does that mean the academy will take notice of Helberg? Some critics think so.
“Oh, don’t … no, no. Don’t say anything!” he says. “If it really happens, great, terrific. But don’t jinx it. Who knows? We’ll see.”
Frears’ other work includes directing a wide array of films such as “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985), “The Queen” (2006) and “Philomena” (2013).
“Stephen is an artist,” Streep says. “His approach is sometimes offbeat, it’s inclusive of the actors’ contributions, and he has a wide-open mind. He serves the film first, not a deadline or a necessarily corporate vision.”
When asked how she thinks “Florence Foster Jenkins” will fare in Japan, Streep takes a moment before answering.
“I think it should do well because it is both interesting, sometimes in an embarrassing kind of way, and quite amusing — but not ribald, not slapstick. Isn’t Japan known for its custom of trying to save face? Here’s a case of other people trying to save face on Florence’s behalf. She’s usually blissfully unaware that anything needs saving, so it’s an unusual perspective on face-saving.”
The film’s tag line is: “Every voice should be heard.” A piece of graffiti scrawled on one poster in Los Angeles adds, “Even hers.”
“Florence Foster Jenkins” is now playing at cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com.