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Florence Foster Jenkins: a user’s guide to aging the female voice

In a brief scene in the 1931 Warner Bros. horror film, Svengali, an aging heiress takes voice lessons, falls in love with her teacher, and upon finding her love unrequited and her voice uninspired, throws herself in the river. That the film hastily banishes her for these infractions isn’t much of a surprise, for we don’t tend to remember bad voices, nor do we dwell on older women who would dare possess them. In fact, were it up to Hollywood, we’d hardly dwell on older women at all. Unlike her male peers who continue to be paid handsomely well into their 50s, when an actress reaches the age of 34, her salary drops precipitously. Assuming she can even find her way to the screen, of course, for as popular male stars inevitably grow older, their on-screen love interests typically do not. It would seem that Hollywood follows the bleak mantra implicit in Sunset Boulevard: to see an aging actress is unpleasant, to love one is perverse. But what does it mean to hear an older woman sing or speak on screen? Does Hollywood’s ageism apply to perceptions about the female voice?

Florence Foster Jenkins, a new movie starring Meryl Streep with a planned release date later this spring, may provide an answer. Directed by Stephen Frears (who made The Queen with Helen Mirren and Philomena with Judi Dench), the film is based on a true story of a surprising musical career. Born to a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Florence Foster Jenkins left home against the wishes of her parents to marry and become a singer, a dream that cost her everything when her husband abandoned her, leaving her with syphilis and an inability to fully support herself. Undeterred, however, Jenkins taught the piano until she inherited a great deal of money in her 40s and began singing lessons in earnest. By all accounts, no matter how hard she worked Jenkins remained very bad at her craft. And that would be the end of the story, were it not for Jenkins’ refusal to succumb to the fate of Svengali’s heiress or Hollywood’s female romantic leads. Rather than cave to criticism of her efforts, Jenkins persisted, until eventually, in 1944, at the age of 76, she gave a performance at Carnegie Hall that was uproarious, ridiculous, and sold-out in a mere two hours.

It would be easy to dismiss Florence Foster Jenkins as delusional, but history can’t seem to dismiss her at all. Her recordings still sell, her life story has become a successful play, and now, one of the greatest actresses of our time will play her on screen. When people write about Jenkins’ oddities, and there were many, they tend to discuss the curious concurrence of her inability to sing and her confidence that she had every right to do so. They ask, “Didn’t she realize everyone was laughing at her?” That she seems not to have cared produces a collective shudder of sympathetic embarrassment. However, rarely does someone point to her age at the peak of her fame, which is remarkable, for the list of singers giving a public debut in their mid-70s must be incredibly short. I wonder if our horror at Jenkins’ determination is a substitute for a more frightening question: “Wouldn’t we laugh at any older woman who dares to speak without being asked?”

A theorist of voices, Michel Chion writes, “Only a woman’s voice can invade and transcend space… No need for a curtain. The curtain drop is a masculine artifice.” Yet the world is full of curtains. Curtains define the stages on which women play roles written by patriarchy. They determine which women are seen and which remain invisible. And on most of us, they close before we’re ready. The voice, however, poses a challenge to the regulation of women’s bodies. A woman’s voice isn’t bound to space or character; it’s an idea that demands action. Beautiful female voices lure us to death, as with the sirens of Odysseus, or call us to life, as with the mother’s voice heard in the womb. Voices that aren’t beautiful expose the flaws in the logic of how we characterize women. They insist that a woman can be something other than a seductress or a mother.

We might be tempted to point to Meryl Streep to refute claims about the limited representation of older women in Hollywood. Since reaching the age of 60, she has played Margaret Thatcher, a fairy tale witch, a failed rock star, and a British suffragette. Indeed, there seems to be an incredible mismatch between Meryl Streep, who has more Oscar nominations than any other actress in film history, and Florence Foster Jenkins, who performed so badly that one review of her Carnegie Hall concert declared she could sing “everything but notes.” Although she sings from time to time in her earlier films, it’s only in the past decade that Streep has ventured wholeheartedly into musicals, a career shift that has been received mostly with acclaim. In making that same leap toward a musical future, however, Jenkins was seen as an affront to a number of artistic and social standards—that women ought to fade quietly out of view, that people who sing should have a particular kind of training, that youth is more valuable than passion. Yet are these women really so different? Meryl Streep has remarked that she wants to portray women who assert: “I’m not what I look like.” With enormous angel’s wings strapped to her back and a crown of pearls atop her head, Florence Foster Jenkins certainly didn’t look like a “respectable” American socialite. She didn’t sound like one either. And that’s the point. There may be only room enough in Hollywood for one Meryl Streep, but any of us could be Florence Foster Jenkins. By using her voice in a way that she loved, Florence Foster Jenkins tore down curtains. I hope she inspires the rest of us to do the same.

Featured image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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