I very much enjoyed this warm, hilarious, affectionate film about the worst opera singer of all time, an eccentric 1940s New York socialite whose amazingly godawful singing emerged on the other side of terrible to become its own kind of remarkable. At one point, Jenkins’ vocal coach stares into her eyes and tells her in a honeyed voice that there’s no one else like her, and in a weird way it felt like he actually meant it, though probably not in the way the lady herself thought.
Unlike most of us without a shred of singing talent who must settle for butchering songs in showers, cars and karaoke, Jenkins had a couple of magic ingredients to her advantage. One was a massive fortune inherited from her father, another was her protective husband and manager, St. Clair Bayfield, who made sure that her audience would always consist of carefully selected high society figures and hack critics bought off to heap praise on his wife. A passionate lover of music, Jenkins was a generous benefactor to the artistic scene, and her loyal fans kept her cocooned away from ridicule. However, further in the film St. Clair is faced with the insurmountable challenge of maintaining the illusion when one of Jenkins’ private recordings goes viral and she ends up giving a solo performance at Carnegie Hall.
The movie is buoyed by the three fantastic lead performances. As the titular lady, the great Meryl Streep pulls off yet another spectacular transformation, playing a character who is both rather ridiculous and endearing. It’s easy to believe the affection Jenkins’ close circle had for her, and there’s something touching about her willingness to put her health at risk in order to fulfill her cherished dream. Streep has a blast mimicking her character’s unique (to put it mildly) approach to singing – the squawks, the vocal strangulations and the sheer off-pitch awfulness of her first singing scene had me in stitches. However that scene wouldn’t be anywhere near as hilarious without the priceless baffled reaction from Jenkins’ mild-mannered pianist, played here by The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg in a superb comical turn.
The big surprise of the movie though is Hugh Grant as St. Clair, which might be the best role he’s ever had. I always considered him something of a lightweight (though a charming and highly watchable one), but his performance here has a new, surprising maturity and tenderness. At first, the film invites you to write off St. Clair as just another of Grant’s cads, who makes a show of doting on his wife and then is off to canoodle with a much younger mistress. Then it’s revealed that their relationship is rather more complicated: because Jenkins had contracted syphilis from her first no-good husband, her marriage with St. Clair is sexless by necessity, but there’s a genuinely deep connection and love between the two.
Despite a few sombre detours, the film keeps things light and bubbly, and backs its deluded heroine all the way. A more even-handed movie might have examined the morals of buying off the gushing reviews, and whether it’s actually fine and fair for a professional critic to point out that Jenkins’ warblings are in fact terrible. But I can’t blame the filmmakers for wanting to be kind to this foolish, brave lover of music.