BY NANCY MILLS
FEW DIREC TORS would hear a woman sing
badly and decide to make a movie about her.
But Stephen Frears is always attracted to the
outliers. Over his nearly 50-year career, he has
made films about scheming aristocrats in
18th-century France (Dangerous Liaisons),
con artists (;e Gri;ers), a record store owner
who loves Top 5 lists (High Fidelity) and
Queen Elizabeth II (;e Queen).
Most recently, in Florence Foster Jenkins,
he wrangled Meryl Streep as the eponymous
out-of-tune heiress and Hugh Grant as her
companion and manager. Simon Helberg
from ;e Big Bang ;eory plays Jenkins’ supportive, incredulous accompanist.
Jenkins was a real-life Manhattan music
patron and socialite who envisioned herself as
a great singer. Her friends, who included
opera star Enrico Caruso and compos-er-songwriter Cole Porter, humored her.
“I listened to Florence on YouTube,”
Frears says, “and she’s the worst singer I’ve
ever heard. Her singing is so ridiculous and
touching at the same time. ;ere was tragedy
in her life, and she seems to have dealt with it.
I thought she was wonderful.
“;is naked courage people have is very
a;ecting. ;ere’s a ;ne line between being
courageous and being foolish. Somehow
Florence’s foolishness is invisible—or it wasn’t
what people were interested in.”
According to Frears, “David Bowie listed
[Jenkins’ ;e Glory (????) of the Human Voice]
in his 25 favorite albums. Elton John was a
great admirer. A lot of clever people went to
her concerts because they were so unexpected
When Frears came on board, Streep was
already the producers’ ;rst choice, but Frears
invited Grant into the mix. “I knew Hugh
would be very good in the film,” he says.
Grant initially resisted, having not worked
much recently, but Frears kept pursuing him.
One of the ;lm’s memorable scenes fea-
tures Grant dancing. “Hugh loved all that,”
Frears says. “He took lessons, and they worked
it all out. He makes a fuss about everything,
and then he’s brilliant. But I could see that he’s
barking mad. He’s very eccentric.”
Although set in Manhattan, the ;lm was
shot entirely in England, with Liverpool
standing in for Manhattan. “;ere are four
streets in Liverpool made of the same granite
as New York,” Frears notes. “We shot Carnegie
Hall at London’s Hammersmith Apollo.”
Streep joins a long line of veteran actresses
who have received critical praise for their
work with Frears. Annette Bening, Glenn
Close, Judi Dench (“Right now I’m working
with Judi Dench again in Victoria and Abdul.
She plays Queen Victoria late in life, when she
became obsessed with an Indian servant”),
Anjelica Huston and Michelle Pfei;er have all
been nominated for Oscars for Frears movies,
and Helen Mirren won one (;e Queen).
What’s Frears’ secret? “Knowing when to
keep your mouth shut and appreciating their
talent,” he says. “I give them good parts, and I
treat them with respect.”
Describing Streep’s performance, he says,
“You can only sing badly if you can sing well.
Meryl worked very hard, and she knew what
she was doing. She was constantly freshening
things up. That’s more a characteristic of
American actors. British actors tend to be
trained to do the same thing. American actors
are more free-spirited.”
Frears, 75, studied law at Cambridge
University and got into directing by accident. A
job at the Royal Court ;eatre led to assisting
director Karel Reisz and eventually directing
TV dramas. He came to international attention
in 1985 with My Beautiful Laundrette, which
helped launch the career of Daniel Day-Lewis.
“I think you have to be half-mad to be a
director,” says the man who has been nominated for two Oscars—for ;e Queen and ;e
Grifters. “I’ve had a wonderful life, but it
wasn’t part of the plan. I expected something
much duller.” C
Nancy Mills is a Los Angeles–based journalist
who writes about ;lm and television.
Streep nails the sour notes
OUR DIGITAL EDITIONS
Click here to watch the trailer for
Florence Foster Jenkins. (See page 11
THE COSTCO CONNECTION
Florence Foster Jenkins is available
in all Costco warehouses, 12/13.
Left: Meryl Streep channels Florence
Foster Jenkins at her Carnegie Hall
performance. Above: Jenkins’ piano
accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (left;
Simon Helberg), with Jenkins’ husband, St. Clair Bay;eld (Hugh Grant).
PHOTOS: © PARAMOUNT