A great movie for your viewing pleasure

Florence Foster Jenkins: If you have not done so already, you might take a moment to Google that name and view some of the actual historical film clips of her "performances" online and listen to some of her recorded songs as well.

Try looking at her singing on YouTube if you dare. The experience is akin to viewing Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space for the first time with no previous warning or explanation.

That is exactly what happened to me in August five years ago as I bicycled around artsy Door County in Wisconsin and holed up for a bit in Sturgeon Bay. I noticed a small 84-seat studio theater in the tiny town which was featuring nightly performances of the play Souvenir, starring only two professional actors.

Knowing absolutely nothing about the subject matter, my partner and I attended that same evening. We have seen a great many plays over the decades in a huge variety of locations and most of those on and off Broadway. We were set for a hopefully tolerable evening. What we got in that up-close venue was some of the most remarkable live theatre either of us may ever experience.

Set in New York during World War II, the narrator was also the hired accompanist to the "singing" of Jenkins, a high society patron of the arts with aspirations to be a performer.

And perform she did but not nearly the way she imagined. To say it is off-key is a massive understatement and even off-the-wall falls short.

The intimate theater we sat in allowed us to have the same initial drop-jaw reactions which the audiences of Jenkins no doubt had as well. But the reactions did not end there. They morphed rapidly into huge fits of uncontrollable laughter which happened repeatedly and for so long that it instilled feelings of hysteria and even panic that could not be stopped.

When this wasn't happening, I noticed unbridled anticipation for her next song in the show which always produced even more eye-watering bouts of laughter. It is said that when actress Tallulah Bankhead was in the balcony at the Jenkins Carnegie Hall performance she had to be taken out on a stretcher in a similar reactionary fit.

And just when you feel your body can't take any more hilarity, the point of view suddenly shifts and we feel the heartbreaking epiphany of Jenkins with a profound silence.

However, the movie about Jenkins, using her full name and recently nominated for several Oscars, is a different experience. Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep doing her own singing. Maintaining such perfect off-key moments is no easy matter.

While her performance did gross her a twentieth Oscar nomination for Best Actress it did not net another statue. The movie script differs in that it not only includes the accompanist (Simon Helberg) but greatly expands to include the second husband of Jenkins (played well by Hugh Grant) and other orbiting characters.

It is also revealed that Jenkins suffered from advanced stages of syphilis and while this may account for some eccentricities it only dilutes the story. There are some belly laughs but they in no way approach the theater uproars of Souvenir. Yet it is still quite worthy of a viewing in the company of fun loving friends.

Copyright The Gayly – November 27, 2017 @ 6:50 a.m. CST.