A couple of weeks ago I wanted to see a movie that would be uplifting. Although Sully might have been inspirational, I needed something that might make me smile or laugh. So my choice was to see one of my favorite actresses, Meryl Streep, in Florence Foster Jenkins. Most of us probably don’t even note the sub-title: “Every Voice Deserves to be Heard”. I fell in love with this story – and it was inspirational and humorous for me that Sunday. I’m going to hit a couple of the main points, and try not to spoil it for those who haven’t ventured out to see it yet.
I’d not heard of Florence Foster Jenkins previously. Thus at the beginning I was unsure whether to laugh when Ms. Streep sang or not. Ms. Jenkins suffered from syphilis, which she contracted from her first husband, before there was any treatment. For those who don’t know, it causes a progressive deterioration of the central nervous system. This can mean problems with breathing, muscle tone, dementias, and other significant health deterioration. Back when she was treated, it was often with mercury and arsenic, and the side effects of these can be hearing loss. While I didn’t understand the impact of the syphilis when I saw the movie, other than as it was mildly alluded to, later it helped make even more sense of what was occurring. She’d been a beautiful pianist earlier in life and lost that due to an arm injury. To say that she had a few setbacks in life to overcome is an understatement! And yet with courage, and joy, she moved forward.
Ms. Jenkins with the help of her second husband developed not just musical clubs, called tableaux vivants back then, but then also starred in them, designing lavish costumes and singing. All well and good, except that her singing was less than on pitch or rhythmic, and often one had difficulty understanding her. Still, her trusted pianist—a character I find endearing—grew over time to recognize perfection was less important than joy, that a spirit of sharing is more important than a faultless performance, and that commitment to another is more meaningful than an unqualified successful duo. Through the movie we experience Ms. Jenkins’ great love of music and performance, her second husband Bayfield’s great love of her and protection for her, and Mr. Cosmo McMoon’s piano accompaniment with which even greater success was had. The result in her life was shame overcome, love expressed in so many moments, and an important message given to all: Every voice deserves to be heard.
I suppose the other side of the coin is that she might have been narcissistic, and yet her great joy in providing what she heard as beautiful music for others would have been lost. Others would have had less opportunity to experience her love to them through performances, which even those such as Cole Porter and Enrico Caruso attended. And yet, she might have been in on the truth— that her singing was less than perfect. We see this when she mentioned to a friend, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing”. Her shame exposed and thus able to live a life of truth and joy.
Ms. Jenkin’s life has given me some courage – to try my hand at some creative endeavors I’ve been considering, like painting. I don’t register thinking, “I can’t paint”, and yet, perhaps I can. Not perfectly, not with exact style and technique, but I can try. And I can experience joy in doing so. And perhaps one other person may enjoy the joy I experience as I share my attempt. One can only hope to have a Bayfield’s love and acceptance, a McMoon’s willingness to work with the imperfection, and courage and joy embraced by Ms. Jenkins. I’ll be that support for you. Go try something new this fall – take a risk. Don’t worry about perfection, technique, knowing how to do it ahead of time, just take the risk and try. Confront your shame and conquer it in this moment. Let me know how it goes for you – and I’ll report back on mine as well!