|Hugh Grant in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS.|
Michael Caine was once asked about all the schlocky films he starred in and he defended them by surmising that most actors probably only have five films that they’ll really be remembered for, and he felt confident that, despite the many duds, he had five great ones. He was wrong. He’s had a lot more than that. His classics would certainly include ALFIE, THE ITALIAN JOB, GET CARTER, SLEUTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, EDUCATING RITA, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, THE CIDER HOUSE RULES, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and THE QUIET AMERICAN. Quite a resume, despite JAWS 4: THE REVENGE and BLAME IT ON RIO.
It’s a fun game to play as you consider the career of your favorite movie star. What are the five great films they’ll be remembered for? Or are there more? Some talents with decades less experience have just as many great films as the Cockney superstar does. (Tom Hanks certainly comes to mind.) And still other talents have a resume, chock full of terrific films, that we may not readily realize. One of those actors is Hugh Grant. He’s not only got five, he already has seven. And he’s been at it for almost 30 years less than Caine.
|Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS|
You know Grant’s list of six biggest critical and popular hits: FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, NOTTING HILL, BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY, ABOUT A BOY and LOVE, ACTUALLY. And his seventh just opened - FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. It’s one of his best films, and it might just be his finest onscreen work ever.
Sure, Meryl Streep received most of the attention before FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS opened. After all, she has the title role and well, she’s Meryl Streep. And her performance as the infamous, tin-eared American socialite who fancied herself a great singer is a hoot and a half as she croons like a shivering cat in a wet alley. Streep will likely net her 20th Academy Award nomination for her larger-than-life performance in this comedic biopic. She’s funny, bawdy, brazen, and yet amazingly touching. And the way Streep completely loses herself once again in a character is a marvel to watch.
Still, the greater revelation in the movie is her costar Hugh Grant. Oscar buzz is heating up as strongly for him and it is very well-deserved. He plays St. Clair Bayfield, Florence’s husband, enabler and number one fan, and it’s the most complex part in the film, and he is extraordinary throughout. It’s also the lead role of the piece as he’s onscreen almost twice as much as Streep is. Plus, his character has the story’s true arc. He goes from a man who is doing all he can to help Florence realize her dream, and at the end realizes that it’s wholly his dream too. His devotion to her trumps all other things in his life outside of Florence that we see. His own apartment, friends, hobbies, extra-marital girlfriend…ultimately, none of it matters as much as his love and devotion to his wife. It’s a showcase role, and Grant aces the part.
|Hugh Grant in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994).|
Grant is not an actor like Streep who disappears in a part. We can always recognize Hugh Grant in there. And he’s cultivated a particular kind of role that is his stock and trade – that of the emotionally stunted man who stammers, blinks and clumsily wrestles with his feelings throughout the story. Think of his self-denial and comical torture as he grapples with his true feelings for Andie MacDowell’s character in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994). His Hugh Grant-ish persona reached its zenith in ABOUT A BOY (2002) as the rakish loner who struggled to connect and be a stand-in father to Nicholas Hoult’s needy youth. There are similar characteristics to be found here in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS as well, but the part of Bayfield stretches Grant’s skills farther than any role ever has before.
He’s more serious and grounded onscreen than he has been previously. And Grant shows an amazing maturity. He is older now (56 in September) and doesn’t shy away from showing his age and wrinkles. In fact, there’s a certain world-weariness to him in 2016 that makes him all the more fascinating to watch. He’s deeper and more nuanced and he also brings a natural gravitas to the work. When he’s onscreen in this film, even opposite a scene-stealer like Streep, you keep watching him.
FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS is a character study, of the two of them, a romantic comedy about these lost souls who found each other. Both were failed artists that clung to the periphery of the arts, serving as benefactors and enthusiastic fans. Yet both still itched to be onstage. Old habits die hard and their need to be loved pushes both of them in the story. Florence’s dreams are worn on her sleeve, but Bayfield’s are kept more hidden.
|Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult in ABOUT A BOY (2002)|
Florence thinks she’s a great talent but her lack of self-awareness is due to many past tragic circumstances. For starters, an unloving father disinherited her as a young woman until he reluctantly came around, but the damage was done. Then she found love with a man at 18 and married him, but he gave her syphilis on their wedding night. In those days, syphilis could kill. The fact that she lived 50 years with it was a miracle of genetics and chutzpah. But the disease took its toll on her all those decades. It ruined her dexterity. She had to give up the piano. It added bloat to her tiny frame. And it made walking difficult, as well as her mobility. She even lost all her hair to the vicious disease. (One of the most moving scenes in the film is when we discover that her perfectly coiffed locks are an expensive wig.)
Worst of all was the way that her incurable STD hindered her brain. She started to lose her mind and it likely kept her from certain self-realization, including her understanding that her vocals were too pitchy and very flat. Syphilis also prevented her from having children, and even enjoying a sex life with Bayfield, as she didn’t want to endanger his health by potentially passing it on to him. Yet, even with such inhibitors, the two had a full and loving marriage in many ways. Bayfield strove to make her happy, even if it meant paying off friends and critics to say nice things about her singing when she stepped out into the public arena to share her talents. He catered to her whims and delusions, helping her with singing lessons, recording a record, and setting up a concert for her at Carnegie Hall.
As Hugh Grant plays him, Bayfield becomes Florence’s Pied Piper in a way, leading others to her and convincing them of her worth. He gets everyone around her to love her and see her as he sees her. Those who discover Florence may start out snickering at her awful singing, but soon they realize that her passion for music is contagious and worth a public’s admiration. Bayfield’s POV of her helps everyone in the story see things differently, and the same happens with those of us watching in the audience. We fall in love with this ridiculous woman, despite ourselves. In fact, we fall in love with both her and her husband.
And it wouldn’t work without Grant’s delicate performance. Nicholas Martin has written an incredibly nuanced script, and veteran director Stephen Frears deftly directs it all as he always does, but it needed an actor to make his side of this outrageous story plausible and even admirable. Streep had the easier task in rendering a woman who is an island, but Grant has to be the boat that takes us to and fro such a place. Without his convincing us of Bayfield’s unabashed enthusiasms, we might dismiss both of them as caricatures of the elite. Instead, we see them as tragic figures. We may laugh, but ultimately we applaud them. And shed tears for them too.
At the end of the film, as his arc comes to its close, Bayfield realizes that he may have never been the great actor he wanted to be. He never got to play Hamlet, though he still dabbles in his soliloquies for various audiences, but the greater role was that which he played opposite Florence. His actions gave her a wonderful life and opportunities to express her art, as compromised as it may have been. That ginormous role was enough for him. He was her scene partner, director, producer, and muse. Who needs the Bard when you can be all that?
Grant himself has never played Hamlet. He’s not a classically trained Shakespearean actor, but rather one who has succeeded based on more naturalistic inclinations. (More of a Michael Caine than a Laurence Olivier, if you will.) But Grant has proven himself to be one terrific film actor in many superb films that he has been listed above the title. In FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS, he sets a new bar for himself. It’s his seventh great film, and who knows, he may even give Mr. Caine a run for his money.