Stephen Frears Hits All the Right Notes with Florence Foster Jenkins

Totally relaxed in his Ritz-Carleton suite on Central Park South, his arms spread wide on a rather tasteful couch, Stephen Frears held court not at all like the monarch in his biggest success, The Queen, (2006). His press conference for his latest effort, Florence Foster Jenkins, will take place one hour later with about 40 journalists in attendance. His stars -- Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg -- would then be asked 95% of the questions. Not surprising. Directors, for the most, part do not drive traffic to web sites, sadly, even ones as near legendary as Frears.

Besides helming six of his past female leads to Academy-Award-nominated performances (Michelle Pfeiffer and Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening in The Grifters, plus Judi Dench in both Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents) and one Oscar win (Helen Mirren as the aforementioned queen), Frears has also persevered as one of the moral compasses of Great Britain from the late 1960s on.

St. Ann’s, his TV documentary from 1969, devastatingly explores Nottingham’s moldy, damp slums. In one memorable scene a teacher notes how her students often sit in the school’s bathroom stalls until she coaxes them back into the classroom. For these children, these were their only moments of silence and privacy in their lives.

Was Frears a revolutionary back then?

“Well, I suppose but in a rather unthought-out way,” Frears notes. “They showed St. Ann’s in Nottingham quite recently, and I was there. It was packed with people who’d come to see the world they grew up in. You know, no one terribly likes the modern world, but the old world was dreadful. So all progress is good and bad.”

Frears afterwards moved away from documentaries, working solely in TV, until My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), based on a screenplay by the then unknown writer Hanif Kureishi, came out and was a surprise worldwide hit. This tale of a young Pakistani man (Gordon Warnecke), his alcoholic father, his at times unsavory relatives, and his love for a white boyfriend (Daniel Day-Lewis), who was formerly a fascist, has hardly dated at all. Besides being revelatory in its depiction of a gay relationship, its respectful, yet unfawning, look at immigrants trying to make it in a new country is straight out of the headlines.

“I was so naïve that to me it was a film about economics,” Frears recalled. “To me, it was about Mrs. Thatcher. The sex . . . I learned about gay sex, which I don’t know much about anyway, from being in the Royal Court Theatre. I used to look at the gay boys and think they were having a much better time than I had. When I made the film, that’s what it reminded me of. So I never grew up thinking of it that gay men died or committed suicide. It was before AIDS, of course.”

In a rave review in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael was moved to write of Laundrette, “It’s an enormous pleasure to see a movie that’s really about something, and that doesn’t lay on any syrupy coating to make the subject go down easily.”

That’s a description of most of Frears’s works, including Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987), Prick Up Your Ears (1987) (a biopic about playwright Joe Orton), and Dirty Pretty Things (2002). Yet while many of his films deal with outsiders trying to find some foothold in society, there is no consistent Frears’s look. Unlike with Fellini or Hitchcock, you can’t identify a Frears’s film stylistically.

“I was brought up to direct what was in front of me,” he explained, “so I was brought up to be a working director.” The screenplays he chooses to direct dictate the visuals.

It’s no surprise then that Florence Foster Jenkins has a slight Woody-Allen-esque feel. The locale is New York City, the era is the 1940s, and the eponymous heroine is an extremely wealthy socialite, who deems herself an extraordinarily talented opera singer. She, however, is extraordinarily wrong on that account. Yet because she is wealthy, generous, and so good-natured, no one will contradict that notion, especially her husband of sorts, Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), and her pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg).

The film is a comedy with harrowing undertones. Frears and his screenwriter Nicholas Martin want us to laugh at Florence, yet adore her and support her antics. We are to condone the friends who egg Florence on and the critics who accept money to praise her in print while we simultaneously condemn them for being insincere and unethical. Yet the reviewer who reveals the truth about the would-be diva, Earl Wilson, is seen as villainous yet respectable. Nearly ever character here has a duality about him or her.

Serendipitously, the day before the film opened this past Friday and before it earned close to $7 million over the weekend, Lesley Brill’s book, The Ironic Filmmaking of Stephen Frears, was released. Brill advocates, “Irony reverses romance. In varying degrees, it is always important in Frears’s films. Even in those with ostensibly romantic conditions, a trace of uncertainty or an ironic countermovement remains.”

Does Frears agree with that his cinema is a cinema of irony? If so, is this because he finds the world so hypocritical?

You want me to be rather serious,” Frears chuckles. ‘There’s a wonderful line of Billy Wilder’s: ‘It’s very, very kind, but I think you have mistaken me for a serious person.’ Of course, I find the world hypocritical. How could you not?”

And now some more of our chatter unfiltered:

BJ: So you do agree with Brill’s title?

SF: Oh, my God! You’ve read the book?

BJ: No, I’ve been able to get some pages off Google Books. If you allow me, Brill continues in semi-academic fashion: “In strongly ironic fictions, cynicism, corruption, and death dominate innocence, health, and fertility. The strong divisions between the good and evil characters of romance become blurred, as do clear moral distinctions. . . . Knowledge leads to truth and clarity in romantic fictions; in ironic ones — and this is especially important to keep in mind in discussing Frears’s films—increasing information usually produces increasing uncertainty. Where romantic miracles deliver redeeming grace, ironic coincidences simply undo what is hopeful. Structurally, ironic narratives do not so much conclude as simply stop, often at some arbitrary looking moment, with little resolution.”

SF: Which side am I on? (Laughs)

BJ: I think you are on a seesaw. (Frears laughs.) With this film, parts can be seen as cynical, but parts are highly sympathetic.

SF: That’s what’s you’re to do. To balance the two elements.

BJ: What’s strange about this film is if you give a synopsis, it can almost be a tragedy.

SF: Yes.

BJ: You’re not sure how much to laugh or . . . .

SF: But when you see it . . . .

BJ: You can see the film and not realize it’s a tragedy until you think about Florence’s life afterwards. Was it hard for you to get the tonal thing going?

SF: Getting that balance is what we were trying to do.

BJ: Are you at this point of your career where you feel you know you can get it? There’s no challenge too great?

SF: Well, it’s in the script. I knew it was there. Lurking.

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Mr. Judell has written on film for The Village VoiceindieWire.com, the New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.

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