Strong women give strong performances

by Leonard G. Heldreth

The terms “middle age crisis,” “seven-year-itch,” and other phrases referring to a personal restlessness at a certain age are usually applied to men, but the films this month examine what happens to four women of a certain age as they review their situations, revamp their outlooks, and turn their lives in new directions. All the films are “based on” true experiences.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Everyone knows people whose artistic aspirations exceed their store of talent—whether it’s would-be poets, unappreciated novelists, painters who can’t give their productions away, or even just shower-singers who never succeed in any of the national vocal competitions. Behind these people are friends and family who often realize the hopelessness of the quest but want to let hope spring eternal—or at least to continue for a while. They frequently smile in the face of absurdities, encourage the aspirants to keep trying, and generally pretend not to realize how ridiculous it all is. Such is the case with Florence Foster Jenkins. The difference between Ms. Jenkins and the people most of us know is the quantity of money she has inherited, and such funding can often enable the most impossible dream.

The film is based on a “mostly true” story of a woman who inherited millions from her father and spent large sums supporting the arts, especially music, in New York City. Such activities made her popular with the culturally elite—people like Arturo Toscanini—but she had a weakness: she wanted to sing grand opera arias but had an absolutely terrible voice. People visibly grimaced when she tried to hit a high note (or even a low one). However, like the king who had no clothes, no one told her she was tone deaf and sounded like a goose that someone was throttling. Letting her desire to sing lead her astray, she first gave small concerts for selected friends (i.e., people who told her how well she sang), then made a few subsidized recordings which she distributed to these same friends. Finally, in 1944, she decided to rent Carnegie Hall for a full-scale concert of opera selections. She distributed 1,000 tickets to servicemen, while her husband made sure that no hostile critics were invited. The concert was a sell-out, and despite some initial jeers at her squawks, the audience came round and cheered her. It was a triumph except for one negative review, which her husband tried unsuccessfully to hide from her.

As Jenkins, Meryl Streep is, as usual, superb (we’ll ignore the president’s evaluation of the Oscar-winning actress). Padded out with about 60 pounds, Streep makes Jenkins someone who’s impossible to dislike, despite her faults and delusions. Streep has sung in films before (she has classical voice training), but never so badly (or so well, given the demands of the role) as she does here. It takes real musical ability to sing this badly, and her arias sound remarkably like the actual recordings of Jenkins played in the film. How much Jenkins’ illness affected her singing (as well as her delusions) is unclear. In an opening scene, her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), sits beside her bed reciting Shakespeare, and when she dozes off, he and the maid remove her wig and her eyelashes, revealing how sick she is (she has been fighting syphilis for decades, having caught it from her first husband on their wedding night).

Hugh Grant is excellent as Bayfield, her current husband, and their platonic marriage arrangement makes sense in context. After he puts Jenkins to bed, he leaves her and goes to the apartment he shares with his mistress, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Although nothing is ever made explicit, there seems little doubt that Jenkins was aware of but chose to ignore the arrangement, although she paid for the additional apartment. Grant makes Bayfield’s affection for and protection of his “Bunny” believable, successfully walking the thin line between being her concerned guardian and a philanderer. Although Streep received a record 20th Oscar nomination for her performance, equally good cases could be made for Grant and for Simon Helberg (“The Big Bang Theory”).

Helberg plays her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, whom she hires as illogically as she does most things. Helberg thinks he has been hired by a serious soprano until he hears her sing for the first time, and then his facial expressions are priceless as he tries to hide his laughter. He finally goes stumbling out of the hotel later, doubled up with mirth, until he realizes the effect on his career of appearing at Carnegie Hall with Jenkins. Then, in a touching scene when she comes to visit him in his apartment, they play a duet together, and he commits to staying with her, and not just for the money.

The film is directed by Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Philomena) and he delicately balances the humor, pathos and drama of the screenplay without letting any aspect dominate. Also, he does finally reveal what is in the briefcase that Jenkins keeps with her all the time. Her last speech affirms her triumph over her critics: they might say she couldn’t sing but they couldn’t say she didn’t sing!

For those wanting other views of this diva, Jenkins’ story has been told with a different emphasis in the Tony-nominated Broadway play Souvenir, in the West End musical Glorious! and in Xavier Giannoli’s  2015 French film, Marguerite, which is set in 1920s Paris and which won a Cesar for its lead actress, Catherine Frot.

The Meddler

The life of Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) is forever changed by the death of her Italian husband in New York City, which happens before the film begins. Because of Joe’s death, she moves to Los Angeles to be nearer her daughter, Lori, a screenwriter. Once she’s settled in, she becomes the meddler of the title in her daughter’s life, calling her several times a day, bringing her food, showing up at her apartment unannounced, trying to reconcile her with her ex-boyfriend, and generally offering advice on anything and everything. It’s not that Marnie wants to dominate her daughter, it’s just that after her husband’s death she has more time and energy than she knows what to do with, a fact that doesn’t make life any easier on her daughter. Finally, the daughter returns to New York to be on hand for shooting a pilot film she has written, and Lori warns her mother before she leaves,  “I think it’s time we set some boundaries.”

With Lori not available for her attention, Marnie turns her energy and financial resources to helping others. She finances a $13,000 wedding for Lori’s lesbian friend, Jillian (Cecily Strong); she encourages Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), an Apple Store employee, to return to college and even drives him to class; she begins considering potential suitors (Michael McKean and J.K. Simmons); she fills an old woman’s hospital room with gifts and eventually deciphers what the woman is trying to communicate. By the end of the film, Lori invites her mother to New York to see scenes from the TV series she is writing, and Melanie realizes that she can fill her time and social needs without stifling her daughter.

From one angle the film shows Marnie’s development from someone who was totally dependent on her roles as wife and mother, to someone who feels more confident standing on her own. She has learned to let her daughter go, one step at a time, assuming that the daughter will come back. The film doesn’t gloss over the problems the two have had, but they now have a better appreciation of what each can offer the other in future relationships.

Perhaps more important, the film demonstrates their ways of coping with grief after the death of their beloved father and husband; the film highlights these details when Marnie visits her in-laws in New York and realizes that two years have passed since Joe’s death, not the single year that she had thought, or when she hesitates in filling out a form where the only choices are “married” or “single.”

Susan Sarandon is excellent as Melanie, despite an accent that doesn’t quite work; Rose Byrne is fine in the smaller role of Lori; and J.K. Simmons is amusing as the motorcycle-riding, chicken-raising security cop, Zipper. Writer-director Lorene Scafaria has acknowledged that much of the screenplay is based on her relationship with her mother, and the DVD has some scenes in which the two discuss the autobiographical elements of the film. The Meddler, despite its unattractive title, is a well-done film about family relationships and how people cope with loss.

Hello, My Name is Doris

Doris Miller (Sally Field) has her life turned upside down when her mother, whom she has taken care of for many years, dies, and the aftermath forces her to decide what she is going to do next. The film opens with the mother in the coffin, all the usual mourners saying the usual things, and Doris, in her 60s, sitting by herself, as isolated in grief as she was socially before the death. The mother and Doris were hoarders, and the house is jammed full of their collections of novels and other clutter, including such items as a single ski. Doris and her brother Todd (Stephen Root) have inherited the house, and he wants to clear it out and sell it; his dominating wife, Cindy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), supports his plans, and they even hire a therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) to talk Doris into letting go of some of the items which are links to her mother.

Doris lives on Staten Island but takes the ferry into the city every day to work as an accountant for an ad agency. As she rides the elevator up to her floor one morning, she is bumped against by John (Max Greenfield), the new 30-something art director at the company. She is immediately taken by his charm and good looks as well as his apology and attempt to straighten and compliment her glasses, which he has knocked askew. Over the next few days as she watches him in their office, she begins to fantasize about him in scenes that mimic the romance novels she reads. With the help of the precocious teen granddaughter (Isabella Acres) of her best friend (Tyne Daly), she begins to cyberstalk John and to set up “accidental” meetings with him. One of these is at a Williamsburg concert of an  electro-pop band named Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winters (played by Jack Antonoff and the band Bleachers); her vintage outfit and blazing colors make her a hit with the audience despite the 30-year age difference—she’s even offered a chance to pose for an album cover in her “cool” clothes.

Doris finally meets John’s girlfriend,  Brooklyn (Beth Behrs), and goes with her to an LGBT knitting community, but the expected satire of the pretensions of this New York crowd doesn’t occur. In the rest of the film Doris slowly works through some of her problems—getting the house cleared out and selling it, giving up on her hoped-for romance with John, and moving a little away from the image of a dowdy aging spinster that she exhibited at the beginning of the film.

The film has some weak areas. Often it can’t seem to decide whether to laugh at or feel empathy for Doris, and the fantasies she images with John are trite, even for romance novels. On the positive side is a cameo by Peter Gallagher as a self-help guru, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid. Most of the credit for the film’s success, however, goes directly to Sally Field in her first starring role in 20 years. The two-time Oscar winner makes both the comic and the dramatic moments work as well as possible, but sometimes the moments seem to come from different movies. Nonetheless, Hello, My Name is Doris is ultimately a warm, upbeat film about the infatuation of an older woman for a much younger man, and how, when the affection is not returned, she moves on with her life.

The Lady in the Van

The Lady in the Van existed first as an actual event, played out over 15 years in the ’70s and ’80s, in  which Margaret Shepherd lived in a van parked in Alan Bennett’s driveway in Camden, a well-to-do English suburb. After Shepherd’s death in 1989, Bennett (author of plays such as The Madness of King George, 1995, and The History Boys, 2006) wrote an article about his memories of Shepherd, and then he turned the article into a play that premiered in 1999 and was directed by Bennett’s frequent collaborator, Nicholas Hytner. The stage version starred Maggie Smith. The film, also directed by Hytner and also starring Smith, is based on that play. The stage version can still be seen in the movie’s limited sets and sharp dialogue, although some attempt is made to “open it up” by splitting Bennett’s character into two people, one a man who writes the plays and the other a man who does the daily living (both played by Alex Jennings), and by moving the conclusion to a large cemetery. The splitting of Bennett’s character, while giving him the opportunity to comment on himself and the writing process, interrupts the otherwise realistic aspects of the film, as does the final scene in which the dead come back to life and God also participates.

The film opens with a collision between a van and a motorcycle, and only at the end does the audience find out the significance of this event and its effect on Mary Shepherd’s life. Other questions appear as the movie progresses—exactly who is she, how does she speak French perfectly, what is her relationship to the local nuns, how does she play piano so well, why does she react so strongly when loud music is played within earshot, and what is a local man (Jim Broadbent) blackmailing her about?  Some of these questions are answered, some are not. As some of Shepherd’s past is revealed, it becomes apparent that the Catholic Church has had no small responsibility for her current state.

Alex Jennings has fun with the dual role of writer and critic, sometimes letting the critic say to himself, “But it didn’t happen like that,” as the writer tidies up an event or conversation to fit the play. Occasionally, it’s difficult to tell which Bennett is speaking, but essentially the device works well enough. It helps also that the film was shot on the street where the actual van was parked and that Bennett’s house at that time was used for the interior scenes.

The film succeeds or fails because of Maggie Smith’s performance, and she is at her strongest playing this bag lady so at odds with her recent Downton Abbey role. She makes us understand the frustration the neighbors and Bennett felt when this derelict rolled onto their street, but she also makes believable the forces that turned her into the angry, perhaps deranged woman who resists attempts at charity and orders people away from her van. Two-time Oscar winner Smith was nominated for another Oscar for this role. The film is worth seeing just to marvel at Smith’s versatility, but it also hints at an underlying theme: kindness done to others, whether appreciated, often comes back to reward the giver.

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