Last night, we watched Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) to mix it up a bit – not nominated for Best Picture, but Meryl Streep got the nomination for Best Actress. The film was eh, Meryl Streep was, as always, delightful – bellowing unabashedly like a seal with laryngitis trying to sing.
The movie (based on a true story) follows a wealthy socialite and arts patron, Madame Florence (Streep), who very much wants to be an opera singer, but is comically arrhythmic and completely unable to hold a pitch. Historian Stephen Pile ranked the real life Madame Florence as “the world’s worst opera singer”. “No one, before or since,” he wrote, “has succeeded in liberating themselves quite so completely from the shackles of musical notation.”(2)
But does that stop her? Not a chance. Her husband, played by Hugh Grant, masterminds many efforts to keep her in the dark about just how horrible she is, and to encourage her to pursue her passion. While there’s controversy about the actual person – whether she knew how terrible she sounded or not, is up for debate (many say she was very aware and yet persisted) – in the film, she is blissfully unaware until her final concert when she is heckled and laughed at, and receives her first truly negative review. On her death bed, after this catastrophic concert, she tells her husband, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
On one hand, it’s a story of immense privilege – who else but the exceedingly wealthy have the capacity to create such an echo chamber that they can in fact be truly horrible at their craft, and still be applauded by peers (who need or fear their money). It’s the true egoism and entitlement that we see in many of my generation who have never been allowed to fail, or been told that they cannot do something – they (we) are blind to our own inabilities because we have been taught that we do not have them. Is she actually a character to be applauded for her bold pursuit of her dreams? Or is she merely privileged and deceived? Her husband and friends enable her deception – are they loving her, or enabling her?
On the other hand, it is the story of a woman who follows her dreams regardless of her peers’ perception. She longs to sing, so she does. She “dances as if no one is watching.” She shoots for the moon (and ingloriously face-plants, but is told she has landed among the stars). She takes a risk, puts herself out there, yada yada – the inspirational pep talk metaphors are endless. She lives a life that is vibrant and full, and she does so with joy and with gusto.
What’s the lesson from Madame Florence?
Is it that we should pursue our dreams with reckless abandon? Take a risk? Sing, regardless of our skill or ability? Encourage our friends in their dreams, without regard for their limitations? That our fear of failure should be shrugged off because actually our flaws are endearing, and our friends will love us regardless of how off-key we are. That happiness comes in the bliss of pursuing your dreams, even if that involves self-deception.
Or is it that without truth and limits, there is no limit to our ability to self-deceive? That we must have our bubbles burst in order to be healthy, happy well-adjusted adults. That even elaborate ruses come to an end and we must face the truth about ourselves. That from failure, we learn and grow and actually develop the skills to succeed in our passions? Without failures, we simply continue to yodel like a hoarse Alpine llama.
It has to be some combination of both, I think.
When our life adventures and risks are weighed, will people be able to say of us, “she tried” – “he took a leap; took the risk; followed his dreams”? Or will we be sitting back-stage, dreaming, but not singing?
Are there risks you need to take? Adventures you should have? Dreams you should follow?
We all can take a lesson from FFJ – we are often tempted to simply not sing, when we are fearful of our failing.
When our life’s adventures and accomplishments are weighed, will we have an honest appraisal of ourselves – or will we still remain deceived, because we can’t or aren’t willing to see ourselves honestly?
Are we willing to fail?
And from failing, to learn from our failures. To have our bubbles burst, so that we can hone and refine our skills and dreams and goals, to reflect the center of who we are, rather than just who we once thought we were. Can we, as friends, speak truthfully to our friends while at the same time still encouraging them to pursue their dreams?
Without following our dreams – and taking the risks necessary to do so – our lives will always lack the joy and fullness that we long for. But without truth, and perspective, and willingness to deal with failure, our dreams will always be a hollow actualization of themselves.