Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Six Degrees of Judy Garland in BATTLEGROUND

William Wellman.  Man, what a good director from Hollywood's classic days.  He directed the silent action film, WINGS.  The World War One story, a 1927 release, became the first movie ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Not only did Wellman give moviegoers exciting aerial sequences, they saw male nudity, a lesbian kiss and one man affectionately kissing another.  Again, this was 1927.  I loved his direct yet witty and wonderfully wacky way with comedy --  like 1937's NOTHING SACRED with Carole Lombard and Fredric March, 1942's ROXIE HART with Ginger Rogers and 1943's LADY OF BURLESQUE starring Barbara Stanwyck in a murder mystery based on a novel by famed stripper Rose Lee -- and his social dramas that packed a punch to the gut -- like 1931's THE PUBLIC ENEMY with James Cagney and the 1943 western OX-BOW INCIDENT.  And there's his classic Hollywood-on-Hollywood story about the price of fame, the 1937 drama A STAR IS BORN.  That was famously remade as a musical drama in 1954. The remake brought its star, Judy Garland, an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

One of my favorite films directed by William Wellman is the 1949 MGM movie about men in war, BATTLEGROUND.  We follow a group of soldiers in Belgium in the snow and fog during the Battle of the Bulge.  I watched this movie on TV when I was a kid because my dad loved it.  As I grew up, I watched it again a number of times and realized why dad, a World War Two veteran, loved it.  BATTLEGROUND is a mighty fine film.  A good, tough war drama.  A good, tough war drama that could also be called SIX DEGREES OF JUDY GARLAND.  Have you ever noticed how many guys in this movie worked opposite Judy in other MGM movies?  Van Johnson, giving one of his best movie performances, stars as Holley.
 By his side in battle in BATTLEGROUND is actor JOHN HODIAK.
Van Johnson teamed with Judy for the 1949 musical comedy IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME...
John Hodiak was Judy's leading man in the musical comedy THE HARVEY GIRLS.
There are other Judy Garland vets in BATTLEGROUND.  George Murphy plays 'Pop' Stazak.  He starred opposite Judy twice.  He played her dad when teen Judy was LITTLE NELLIE KELLY (1940).  When Garland was a young woman, he played the vaudeville partner who has fallen in love with her in the patriotic show biz musical FOR ME AND MY GAL (1942).
Broadway talent Gene Kelly made his MGM movie debut in that musical.  He did pretty well doe himself, didn't he?
Leon Ames has a role in BATTLEGROUND as The Chaplain.  He was the father of the Smith Family in the 1944 Vincente Minnelli musical starring Judy Garland, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS .

And there was Marshall Thompson as Jim Layton.
He didn't star opposite Judy but he did have a bit player scene with her and one cheerfully loud word of dialogue in another film directed by Vincente Minnelli.  It was Judy Garland's first drama.  A World War Two love story called THE CLOCK co-starring Robert Walker in 1945.

Thursday, August 25th, is Van Johnson Day in the TCM "Summer Under the Stars" line-up.  You can see Van with Judy for IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME in the morning.  Then you can see Van in William Wellman's excellent BATTLEGROUND at 8p ET. It got Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.  If you have time to catch BATTLEGROUND, enjoy its SIX DEGREES OF JUDY GARLAND.














Men & Sex Make News in TV & Film

Roger Ailes, the head of conservative and controversial Fox News, made headlines himself this summer when he was sued for fired for sexual harassment. More than one female employee accused him of sexual harassment and filed suit.  Said former Fox News host Andrea Tantaros:  "Fox News masquerades as a defender of family values but operates like a sex-fueled, Playboy Mansion-like cult."

Reportedly, Roger Ailes got a $40 million severance package.  $40 million.
Wow.  Did you ever notice that Fox News had something in common with the 20th Century Fox studio back in the classic Hollywood era?  Like Warner Brothers was known for "Murderers' Row," its top-notch gangster movie stars such as James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, 20th Century Fox was famous for its Fox Blondes.   From the 1930 through the 1950s, the studio showcased blonde stars such as Alice Faye, skater Sonja Henie, Betty Grable and its superstar sex symbol of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe.
Fox News seemed to carry on that Hollywood tradition, if you will, with its share of Fox Blondes giving us the news.

Here's my note on the Roger Ailes business and how it relates to gender/race diversity and respect:  I have a hunch that Roger Ailes, who made millions as head of Fox News, had a white male agent who not only was aware of his client's sexual misconduct but also submitted female talent to him for employment consideration -- the kind of female talent that appealed to the Fox News camera, the company's attitude and to Roger's hormones.  Roger and his agent were probably drinking buddies.  Between Ailes and his agent, there was probably an old Caucasian Boys' Club camaraderie.  It was a club that had its exclusions.  My point is, the problem is not just with the executives and perhaps the on-air males who may have also acted irresponsibly, it stretches to and includes the men who  represent them and make them rich.  The world of high-powered broadcast TV agents appears to be predominantly white and male.

I repeat -- it's just a hunch and just my opinion.

Since January of this year, I've been eagerly waiting to see THE BIRTH OF A NATION.  This race drama set during the days of slavery in America electrified film festival audiences and caused major buzz -- the kind that results in Oscar nominations.  It's a Fox Searchlight release.  This story of a slave revolt was written and directed by Nate Parker.  The new independent filmmaker also stars in the film.
 Here's a trailer.

Recently, news broke that the filmmaker was charged with sexual assault in his college years at Penn State.  Parker was acquitted of the 1999 incident.  Parker learned this month that the accuser had committed suicide in 2012.  This is a messy, complicated situation. So much so that the AFI (American Film Institute) has cancelled its scheduled special screening of the film for later this week.  The question & answer session with the filmmaker after the screening has also been cancelled.  VARIETY reported the resurfacing of sexual assault allegations as the result of the cancellation.  Nate Parker has responded to all this.  He's now a married man with children. He said about the news of this court case, "I was sure it would come up.  I was cleared of everything, of all charges."   He maintains that the sex was consensual.

According to The Los Angeles Times, "There is no proof that Jane Doe took her life because of the events that took place at Penn State..."  Parker maintains his innocence and posted a Facebook statement of sorrow upon hearing of her suicide.  Hollywood waits to see if all this will freeze the hot Oscar buzz for his film which is due to open in early October.

On today's date in 2003, top Hollywood action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his plans to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan. He'd be a Hollywood actor tossing his Republic hat in the ring to be Governor of California.

That brings us to NBC.  Two members of the Bush Family, the family that gave us two U.S. presidents, are now on the TODAY Show on-air news team -- even though they both came to NBC without any prior TV experience or journalism background.  Jenna Bush Hager has been a TODAY contributor for a couple of years now.  Billy Bush was hired by local WNBC in New York City.  He did lifestyle features and went network within six months.  His first network exposure was in segments for TODAY.  Then came ACCESS HOLLYWOOD host duties.  Now he's on TODAY full time.  NBC News loves the Republican Bush Family.

Schwarzengger was married to Democrat Maria Shriver, a journalist for NBC News.  When there was buzz that he'd be running for Governor of California, news outlets like Yahoo news were alerted that he'd probably make the announcement at a scheduled press conference.  But, at the last minute, the press conference was cancelled leaving some journalists to speculate he would not be running after all.  Wrong.

Arnold made the announcement that he was running.  He made it on this date in 2003 -- on NBC's TONIGHT Show hosted by Jay Leno.
Schwarzenegger ran on the Republican ticket, won and was Governor of California.  He and the Catholic Maria Shriver separated in 2011.  They married in 1986.  The year of their separation was the same year Arnold publicly admitted to fathering a child with a longtime member of their household domestic staff before he was elected Governor.  He'd kept the child a secret from Maria.

Nevertheless, he's still got the right stuff to be the newest member of the NBC prime time talent pool. He replaces Donald Trump (now the Republican presidential contender) as host of the reality game show, THE APPRENTICE.
Keep in mind that, back in 2001, The New York Times reported NBC would be acquiring Telemundo, the nation's second-largest Spanish language broadcaster, for nearly $2 billion.  Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants could've hurt NBC right in the pocketbook. Millions of Latino/Hispanic TV viewers in the U.S. were angered by what he said.

Even Paddy Chayefsky could not have made all this stuff up in an original screenplay to follow his 1976 script, NETWORK.



Monday, August 22, 2016

On MAKING LOVE (1982)

Film director Arthur Hiller died this month at age 92.  Probably his most famous movie, one that was a huge hit at the box office and with Oscar voters, was LOVE STORY.  Based on the best-selling slim novel of the same name, it was a rather slim story of two upscale college students who fall in love.  One is diagnosed with a fatal disease which, like in old movies of the 1930s, never robbed her of her looks.  LOVE STORY got 7 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress.  Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw were the stars.  A good ten years before SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE movie characters gushed over and quoted Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in the lushly romantic remake, AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, a happy young husband and wife watched that old movie and quoted it while they were under the covers.  This was in a 1982 film called MAKING LOVEKate Jackson and Michael Ontkean, popular stars from the ABC network prime time line-up, starred in this brave, overlooked film directed by Arthur Hiller.
Producer Aaron Spelling gave us youth-oriented TV shows with a trio of crimefighters.  Think of THE MOD SQUAD.  Michael Ontkean was one of three rookie cops on the series THE ROOKIES.  Kate Jackson was one of CHARLIE'S ANGELS.  They graduated from the small screen to the big screen in this 20th Century Fox release.  Why do I call it "brave"?  Because it was a "coming out" story from a major Hollywood studio back in the days when actors -- especially male actors -- were warned against playing openly gay characters for fear they'd never get leading man roles again.  Hollywood was still nervous and narrow-minded like that even after Tom Hanks won his Best Actor Oscar for 1993's PHILADELPHIA.  Hanks told me that himself in a 1994 interview.  Things are different now.  Playing a gay character could put an actor in the fast lane to an Oscar nomination.  Look at Greg Kinnear, Sean Penn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Colin Firth, Javier Bardem, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson play a happy pair of young professionals in Los Angeles, married eight years without children. They buy a house and plan to start a family but their idyllic marriage changes when the husband is attracted to another man.  The husband, a doctor, is in the closet and must come to terms with the fact that he's gay.  The other man, a openly gay writer who dodges commitment, is played by Harry Hamlin before his years of TV stardom on L.A. LAW.
 This Arthur Hiller film holds a special place in my heart and I like it much more than I do LOVE STORY.  I feel that MAKING LOVE deserves a second look and some re-appreciation.  The screenplay was written by Barry Sandler, a gay man who had come out by that time.  As for Ontkean and Hamlin, you just know that other actors timidly turned that script down.  The two lead actors in MAKING LOVE deserve big applause for taking on those role and committing to their characters.  Actor Will Smith pursued a lead role in the film version of the hit Broadway drama, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION. Smith's character was a gay male.  In the 1993 film, as in the play, there is a same-sex kiss that is very important to advancing the action.  In the movie, you can tell that Smith didn't really kiss the other actor.  Instead, there is an almost laughable kissing sound effect that, when I saw the film in New York City, caused audience members to groan in discontent. The former sitcom star should've fully committed to the character.  Smith wanted to play the role but got nervous about the kiss because -- as reported in Premiere Magazine -- actor Denzel Washington allegedly had cautioned Smith about playing gay roles.  If Mr. Washington had given Mr. Smith that warning, would Mr. Washington reject lead roles in good biopic scripts offered to him if the scripts were about James Baldwin, Langston Hughes or Bayard Rustin -- famous black men who contributed to American history in the arts and civil rights and were gay?

Back to 1982's MAKING LOVE.  We see the two lead actors remove their shirts, embrace, kiss and fall onto a bed.  Let's just say it was a good dinner date.  There was a press junket for this movie held in L.A.  I attended it when I was new to TV.  We entertainment reporters in the screening room didn't expect to see that degree of same-sex physical intimacy in a major studio Hollywood film.


MAKING LOVE is compact, unpretentious and economical.  It's a low-budget film.  I don't mean that it looks cheap.  It doesn't.  But, especially if you lived in the L.A. area, you can tell that Hiller's film shoot utilized residential, business and other locations in proximity to the Fox Hollywood lot.  He gave the film a touch that one might associate with Spanish TV.  It opens with each main character -- Zack, Claire and Bart -- in close-up talking directly to the camera, talking honestly about their relationships and innermost feelings.  Zack is a dedicated doctor.  One of his patients is a middle-aged woman who's had a biopsy for breast cancer.  She's afraid that, should she need a mastectomy, her husband will no longer find her sexually appealing.  We see Zack's inner character in the way he treats his patient.  Not only does he listen and comfort as best he can, he makes a house call to check on her.  Yes, doctors used to make house calls.  Claire is a network TV producer.  When we see her in action in a meeting, we wish today's networks were run by women like Claire.  She's constantly pushing for programming that will entertain and also have substance, have quality.  Zack and Claire frequently spend time with an elderly neighbor.  She's played by British acting great Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion, I Know Where I'm Going, Separate Tables).  The time Zach and Claire spend with her let's us know more about their character.  They are not "yuppies" who regard the ill and elderly as inconvenient.  We like this married couple -- two sweethearts who like old movies and music by Gilbert & Sullivan.  Zack is sent to Bart when his regular doctor is unavailable.  That's how they meet.
We like Bart too.  He's not without vanity and he positions himself as being a "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of guy, but Hamlin lets us in to see Bart's insecurities. There are times when he's home alone also watching classic movies like RAINTREE COUNTY.  Director Hiller keeps a working class tone in this look at the three middle class people. He gives us scenes that are significant and subtle.  They don't call attention to themselves.

 When we see handsome, popular Bart enter a gay bar one night, it's all very ordinary local bar stuff -- only the bar happens to be packed with all guys. Bart and a buddy briefly talk about work.  Bart sees somebody cute.  Bart chats with another buddy. And the bar scene looks refreshingly ordinary -- like local gay bars I went to in Milwaukee.  The gay bar crowd wasn't a freak show like in the 1962 political drama, ADVICE & CONSENT.  It wasn't sleazy and carnal like in 1980's CRUISING.  We saw average everyday guys who happened to be gay out to grab a beer, see some buddies, shoot some pool and maybe get lucky.  This was a breath of fresh air when you consider that most images of gay men on film in the 1960s and 1970s fell mainly into the categories of social deviants or victims.

Throughout the film, Arthur Hiller never lets forget that Claire and Zack are two people who truly and deeply love each other -- and will continue to love each other come what may in the marriage. As Claire says in a tense, frustrating moment, "...we've always been there for each" and "...we'll get through it."  That gives this story a wistfulness and tenderness we didn't often see in "coming out" movie released years later.  A lovely theme song sung by Roberta Flack adds to the tenderness.

Zack is honest with Claire and he's honest with Bart.  Zack realizes what revealing his sexuality to Claire may do to their relationship but he loves her too much to lie.  He does not want "one night stands and phony names" in hook-ups with other men. But Bart frustrates Zack and the poor, closeted man does have a one-night stand for the release of it. Claire finds a name and number in Zack's belongings and goes to meet the man.  This is another significant scene.  We don't see an angry, wronged wife charging in to pathetically confront a man who made it with her man.  Claire is heartbroken but she's compassionate. She wants to get a sense of what Zack was feeling.

She meets Ted. Honest, brawny, butch, working class Ted.  Just a regular guy -- who happened to be gay.  Ted was a new gay male image in a major Hollywood studio movie.  He's a big lug.  This supporting role was very well-played by Chicago actor Asher Brauner.  He's a combo platter of frankness, vulgarity and warmth.  Ted and Claire sit on his sleeper sofa and he realizes this sad, polite young woman is the wife a recent one-night stand he had.  He tries to offer some sympathy.  On the end table next to Ted is a small jar of Vaseline that, on the big screen, looked the size of a cereal box.

I remember the 20th Century Fox press junket for this film.  Usually a studio has one movie for a junket weekend.  For that particular weekend, Fox showed two movies and provided folks from both movies for interviews.  The other film was the caveman drama, QUEST FOR FIRE.  Pre-historic man plus a feature with gay guys dating in West Hollywood.  At first, I felt that 20th should've combined both scripts and called the movie QUEST FOR FIRE ISLAND.  But...I was so glad to have been invited to that junket.  I loved meeting MAKING LOVE screenwriter Barry Sandler.  I told him how much I could relate to the film and he sent me a very nice thank-you note later.  Kate Jackson, who was very hot from her CHARLIE'S ANGELS fame at the time, was a good interview.  She was quite relaxed and forthcoming.  Michael Ontkean wasn't available.  Harry Hamlin was.  He seemed a tad anxious -- like he wanted to go up to every reporter and say, "Hi, nice to meet you.  I'm not really gay.  Hi, nice to meet you.  I'm not really gay."

Hamlin became a TV star but he didn't get any more leading man movie opportunities after MAKING LOVE. That's a shame.  That's why actors like Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., Jake Gyllenhaal, Greg Kinnear and Matt Damon who could play gay characters later and go on to other leading man roles were very lucky in a Hollywood that had finally grown up in that regard.  (Downey in WONDER BOYS, Gyllenhaal in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Kinnear in AS GOOD AS IT GETS and Damon in BEHIND THE CANDELABRA).

MAKING LOVE.  Two men shirtless and kissing.  What was bold and controversial for a 1982 Hollywood movie could now be shown on network TV in prime time and not cause a ripple. Still, Arthur Hiller gave us much-needed new images of gay men within the poignant story of two married people who love each other very much.  And always will.



Before she joined CHARLIE'S ANGELS, Kate Jackson and Michael Ontkean were cast members in THE ROOKIES.  In MAKING LOVE, they connect. They have chemistry. They work well together and they do manage to tug at your heartstrings.

 I won't tell you how it ends but I will write that it was a relief to see a movie drama about gay male love in which one of the main male characters does not die at the end of the story.  I watched MAKING LOVE just a couple of nights ago.  It brought back nice memories and touched me even more now with the passage of time.  There's a sweetness in its simplicity.  Thank you, Arthur Hiller.

Some of Hiller's other films are THE HOSPITAL and  THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (both with screenplays by Paddy Chayesky), THE OUT OF TOWNERS starring Jack Lemmon, SILVER STREAK starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor and OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE with Bette Midler and Shelley Long.  He directed Oscar winner Maximilian Schell to his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance in THE MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH.












Saturday, August 20, 2016

Barbra Streisand Oscar History

I did not have to beg my mother to let me stay up late on a Sunday night before a school day so I could watch a Barbra Streisand special on CBS.  Why?  Because Mom would be sitting right there with me.  Barbra Streisand albums were in The Rivers Family record collection in our South Central L.A. home.  So, I have been a major Barbra Streisand fan for over half my life.  I listened to NPR host Scott Simon interview the truly multi-talented entertainer on Saturday's Weekend Edition.  In classic Hollywood terms, she's a powerhouse entertainer but not a "triple threat."  Barbra can sing and she can act.  But, unlike Judy Garland and Doris Day, her dancing left a little something to be desired.  A minor point when you consider the other achievements in her long, spectacular career  -- especially on film.  In one very exciting night at the Academy Awards, she won a Best Actress Oscar for 1968's FUNNY GIRL the hit film adaptation of the Broadway musical that made her a new star.  The Broadway show gave her two of what would become her signature tunes -- "Don't Rain On My Parade" and "People".
What made her Oscar triumph moment so exciting was that two Oscars were awarded.  Streisand, a Hollywood newcomer, tied for Best Actress with veteran Hollywood icon, Katharine Hepburn.  As usual, Hepburn did not attend the awards when she was nominated.  She was nominated 12 times.  Hepburn won four Oscars for Best Actress.  So far, that's record number of wins for one woman in the Best Actress category.

Her first three films were "big voice" musicals.  There was FUNNY GIRL.  Then we moviegoers saw the film version of another Broadway hit.  Although too young for the lead role in HELLO, DOLLY!, casting her in the role made good Hollywood box office sense.  She was the hot new star.  What other American female singing star who had wowed the public with her records and network TV specials had that kind of voice? Its glistening softness melted your heart and then it could soar and hit the heights like a sonic boom.  Proof?  Wait for her final note in her rendition of "Before The Parade Passes By" in HELLO, DOLLY! Vincente Minnelli's ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER was another film based on a hit Broadway musical comedy. Then Streisand showed you that she didn't need songs to stand out in a role.  She established her own style of screen comedy as the motor-mouthed, pushy but ultimately lovable hooker in 1970's THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT.  Doris considers herself to be a "model and an actress" -- not a hooker.




This too was a Broadway hit and the material was adapted to fit Streisand's comic strengths.  The original play starred the late and extremely gifted African American actress, Diana Sands, and Alan Alda.  This was a golden example of Broadway diversity.  The role of Doris was not written specifically for a black actress.  Sands, who was in the original cast of Broadway's landmark drama, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, got the role because she was right for the part.



 In the early 1970s, the versatile Sands succumbed to cancer.


After I listened to Scott's enlightening interview, I thought about the Oscar history Barbra Streisand went on to make.  Her sharp, smart dramatic work as the social activist in 1973's THE WAY WE WERE earned her another Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
The second Oscar that Barbra Streisand won came in the music category.  She co-wrote "Evergreen," the hit song she introduced in the 1976 rock music remake of A STAR IS BORN in which she starred opposite Kris Kristofferson.

Barbra Streisand got an Oscar nomination as producer when 1991's THE PRINCE OF TIDES was nominated for Best Picture.

With the musical, YENTL, Streisand was able to reach for something in the space opened when top Hollywood actress Ida Lupino shattered a glass ceiling in the early 1950s.  Lupino used camera wheels as wagon wheels to ride like a pioneer into the Hollywood Boys Club of directors and stake a claim. Barbra Streisand was another film actress who took hold of the camera as a film director.  She directed 1983's YENTL.  She co-produced and solely directed 1991's THE PRINCE OF TIDES.  She took on the lead female role in the film and she took charge behind the camera.  The movie got 7 Oscar nominations.  But she's never been nominated for Best Director.

Nick Nolte was a Best Actor Oscar nominee and Kate Nelligan was a Best Supporting Actress nominee for THE THE PRINCE OF TIDES, Amy Irving was a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for YENTL and Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall was  Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for THE MIRROR HAS TWO FACES, a 1996 film starring and directed by Barbra Streisand. Bacall, a star since the 1940s, received her first and only Oscar nomination thanks to Streisand's film.

I think that is Oscar history right there.  Has any woman directed more actors to Oscar nominations for their performances than director Barbra Streisand?  I don't think so.  Yet, I never hear that mentioned in intros of her nor to do I recall reading it in print items about her.  She won an Oscar for Best Actress, she won another Oscar for co-writing the Best Song, she produced and directed an Oscar nominee for Best Picture and she's directed four actors to Oscar nominations for their performances.

It's Oscar history worth noting for Women In Film.  Ida Lupino would be so proud of her.
The stage, screen and recording star talked to Scott Simon about her current concert tour and her new CD.  To hear the interview, find "The Enduring Fabulousness of Barbra Streisand" after you click onto NPR.org.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sing Out, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS!

For classic film fans, here's a new Meryl Streep movie to add to the Irene Dunne comedy phase of her screen career.  I will explain later.  Back in the 1990s, Meryl Streep mentioned Marlon Brando as a great influence on her acting.  She singled out his performance as Marc Antony in 1953's JULIUS CAESAR.  In the same article, she mentioned Lucille Ball.  You can see touches of Ball as Lucy Ricardo in Streep's performance as the singing socialite FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. Meryl Streep is quite warm and delightfully loopy in this film lobbing off lines like "He's raping my ears!" as a pompous pianist plays with too much gusto.  Ironically, dear Florence has no idea that she too rapes ears with her off-key musical output.
Streep's characterization has a touch of Lucy Ricardo in I LOVE LUCY.  She's outfitted like Margaret Dumont in a 1930s comedy with Groucho Marx.  Her character has elements of the kind of woman who would have been played by the famed monologist Ruth Draper.
Meryl Streep can sing and sing well.  She sang "Amazing Grace" in SILKWOOD.  She sang "He's My Pal" in IRONWEED.  She sang the new tune "I'm Checkin' Out" to a Best Song Oscar nomination on POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE.  By the way, all three films brought Streep Oscar nominations for Best Actress.  She sang in MAMMA MIA!  That 2008 film version of the Broadway musical comedy hit did not bring Streep an Oscar nomination but it was huge box office hit here in the States and overseas.  Streep can be funny and sing -- as she did in one of my guilty pleasure favorite films of hers.  In the open of DEATH BECOMES HER, Streep breaks me up in her number as the bitchy Hollywood movie star diva.  She's on Broadway in a wretched musical version of Tennessee Williams' SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH.


Back in the late 1980s, Meryl Streep mentioned in a newspaper article that she was interested in doing a film version on Broadway hit, EVITA.  But Hollywood decided to go with a non-actress instead.

Many years ago, I first heard of Florence Foster Jenkins when someone was talking about Mrs. Miller, a popular and frequent novelty act guest on the Merv Griffin syndicated talk show.  She was not as off-key as Jenkins but she did make one think of those Margaret Dumont characters Groucho Marx constantly teased.  And Mrs. Miller recorded albums.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS was directed by Stephen Frears.  His credits include THE GRIFTERS with Anjelica Huston, THE QUEEN starring Helen Mirren and PHILOMENA starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan -- films that are refreshing to see when you look at today's current slate of cineplex fare.  They're films with juicy roles for middle-aged or senior actresses, films driven by dialogue and relationships -- not by CGI special effects and young, shapely comic book superheroes.  When we first see Florence, she makes an onstage entrance similar to something we would have seen in a classic Chuck Jones cartoon for Warner Brothers.  She strikes the moviegoer as being a ditzy socialite.  True, she does have her clueless moments but she truly, deeply cares about the arts.  She is passionate about classical music.  She gives financial support.  She's such a passionate and financially endowed fan that classical music greats such as conductor Arturo Toscanini can drop by unannounced. Ultimately to ask for some financial support.  Florence may seem ditzy but she knows that her money, as a modern urban song states, is the milkshake that "brings all the boys to the yard."  Her protector, publicist, manager and the main man in her life is her devoted husband, a British charmer and self-admitted second-rate actor named St. Clair Bayfield.  Hugh Grant hits just the right note in this role.  It's an odd relationship.  Yes, he does love her and he's obviously devoted to keeping bad reviews out of her sight.  He has a mistress.  But Florence always remains his top priority over the sexy young mistress. Florence hits sour notes onstage.  She has harmony in her non-traditional marriage.

Around the time of his hits like 1999's NOTTING HILL with Julia Roberts, I heard Grant frequently called "The new Cary Grant" by entertainment reporters.  I think that's because he's dapper, had a British accent and got the girl at the end of the picture.  If you really look at his amusing characters, I feel he was more like a David Niven.  Look at Niven as the lovable cad in William Wyler's DODSWORTH, in the comedy BACHELOR MOTHER co-starring Ginger Rogers, THE BISHOP'S WIFE co-starring Loretta Young and Cary Grant, and PLEASE DON'T EAT THE DAISIES co-starring Doris Day.  Grant gives life and sweetness to this film version of the singer's husband.  You do wonder if, in real life, it was a marriage of sexual convenience and he was gay at a time when one couldn't be openly gay.  I'm sure the answer is available to be researched.  Florence needs a pianist for her recital.  True, she can't sing but she's hiring and she's got money.  That's why it's called show business.  She likes the unassuming and overwhelmed Cosme McMoon played by Simon Helberg, star of the long-running CBS sitcom, THE BIG BANG THEORY.  Florence likes Cosme.  St. Clair hires Cosme.
Shy, talented Cosme has long dreamed of playing Carnegie Hall.  He just never dreamed of playing piano for someone who sounds like Florence Foster Jenkins.  Fear seems to be crouching behind his constant smile.  He walks as if his neck and torso have been starched.  Here's a trailer.
We love St. Clair because he loves Florence.  We love Florence because she loves the fine arts.  "Music matters," she says.  Although she can't sing, she gives her all to perform for our soldiers in World War 2.  She is determined to entertain men fighting for our freedom and liberty.  She's not selfish.  Florence is not like young contestants on reality TV competition show, talented contestants who hunger for instant celebrity status.  Microwave stardom.  They want to be stars for the Red Carpet experience.  Florence wants the spotlight to distinguish herself and help others. She will give money the keep the classical music arts going.  Her ultimate dream is to be a part of the entertainment world that enriched her life and often healed her broken heart.  Who hasn't had a dream like that?  I did.  I have.   I was touched and enlightened by TV and film.  I wanted to contribute to it, be a part of it.  Like Florence, I've occasionally wondered if I really had talent or if I was just a novelty to some people.
St. Clair sees Florence as she really is.  To Cosme, she reveals the heartbreaks of her life.  And there were big heartbreaks.  I have been a Meryl Streep fan for decades, going back to her performance in the 1978 NBC mini-series HOLOCAUST about a Jewish family's struggle to survive the horrors of Nazi Germany.  Meryl's acting skills in her early film career coupled with her brilliance at foreign accents dazzled us.  Look at SOPHIE'S CHOICE, OUT OF AFRICA, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN and A CRY IN THE DARK (the "A Dingo Ate My Baby" movie).  We were so dazzled by her acting perfection and technique that often we didn't get fully absorbed into her characters the way we did, say, Bette Davis in NOW, VOYAGER and ALL ABOUT EVE, Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS, THE LADY EVE and DOUBLE INDEMNITY, Anne Bancroft in THE GRADUATE, Shirley MacLaine in THE APARTMENT and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT or Whoopi Goldberg in THE COLOR PURPLE .  Meryl's mountaintop dramatic talents made her remote, in a way.  Too far above us.  Like Irene Dunne in the 1930s, Streep's early film career was a steady diet of dramas.  Dunne was dramatic in CIMARRON, BACK STREET, THE SILVER CORD, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE and MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION.  A noted signer, Irene Dunne sang in the 1936 musical drama SHOW BOAT.  Then came the 1936 screwball comedy, THEODORA GOES WILD.  Apparently, moviegoers went wild for Irene Dunne being funny and a fashion plate -- and giving them a song on the side.  They loved the newer, warmer Irene Dunne. She scored again thanks to the screwball comedy classic with Cary Grant, 1937's THE AWFUL TRUTH. Dunne proved to be a top screen comedienne.

I feel that Meryl Streep made a similar and calculated Irene Dunne-like turn when she made SHE-DEVIL in 1999 to break up the dramas.  She needed to play kitchen-sink women.  She needed to play someone who seemed accessible and of common clay.  She needed to make us laugh.  Then came her comedies POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE (1990), DEFENDING YOUR LIFE (1991) and DEATH BECOMES HER (1992).  In two of those, she sings.  She's at her funniest while singing in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.
She's at her warmest and most vulnerable in scenes with Hugh Grant.  Like the scene with Florence and St. Clair seated in theater seats when the theater is empty. Streep put a few tears in my eyes with this scene.
Is this a great movie?  Not compared to those other Stephen Frears films that I mentioned.  But FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a very entertaining film with a surprising poignancy, solid and touching work from Meryl Streep and a stand-out performance from Hugh Grant.  To me, it's like a very good made-for-TV movie that's fun to see because...well, there's probably a little bit of Florence Foster Jenkins in many of us.