The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Florence Foster Jenkins.
The opening scene is really beautiful, and frames the story so well. Can you discuss how that was conceived?
Meryl Streep: Well, it’s interesting that you mention that scene, because the script that we both received didn’t start that way. It started with a trial. And Bayfield was trying to get the inheritance that was due him— based on the will she always carried in her little suitcase. But in the film script we received there were evil cousins. And this sort of adheres to history: Somehow, the briefcase disappeared. And in the script, the evil cousins stole it on the night that she died. So he was without an inheritance, and he went to court to receive it. They actually shot it… Hugh should talk about that though.
“There’s only one thing harder than the ends of films, and that’s the beginnings of films.”
Hugh Grant: Yes, that’s right. We shot it. And I was rather good in that scene as well, actually [laughter]. Poor old Bayfield is being given a hard time in that scene by the family lawyers. This is three months after Florence’s death, and they’re saying, “come on you’re just a gold digger… you picked up her dry cleaning and you say you were her husband.” Because the problem was that they never got married officially. It was just sort of a declaration of love that they had—
Streep: It was a common-law marriage. They had rings… It was a little private ceremony at their home. But she had a husband already, which was a problem.
Grant: Yes. Who had given her more than just a ring! So anyway, yes, it used to start like that. And there’s only one thing harder than the ends of films, and that’s the beginnings of films. It’s so difficult to set the right note. And what happened was, that trial scene was designed to make the audience intrigued, and then you cut back to earlier in their story and you’re supposed to be wondering, “does Bayfield really love her, or is he just a gold digger?” But we felt that wasn’t quite right because the audience didn’t bond with him through that approach, and if they didn’t bond with him then they wouldn’t bond with her either, or the rest of the film. So the opening you saw today was shot months later, actually, as a new way of starting the film.
Streep: And it was my idea, the monologue for Bayfield… I just want to say!
It’s also a great way to open the film because it’s the one chance the audience has to see you as a duo, as a couple performing together, doing the craft that you love.
Grant: Well, I was nagging Stephen Frears throughout the entire shoot for more references to the fact that Bayfield was a failed actor. Because I thought it was charming that we both had insufficient talent and were slightly delusional. I always thought it’d be boring if people thought he was just a smooth, aristocratic ringmaster. And it was much more interesting if you knew that underneath, really, without this crazy world… he was nothing. He was an out-of-work actor.
Streep: It adheres more closely to what that relationship was, because we read their love letters — they were together for 35 years — and they wrote each other fervent letters and they referred to their love of art and music. And that’s where their affection connected.
Do you think, on some level, that she knew she had a bad voice?
While we were making it, there was a sort of a tug about what the story really was. Is this the story of Bayfield’s dilemma? In which she’s an object… she’s deluded, and he’s got multiple things going on. Or is she also a nuanced character? Do you question what she knows? And to me, it was more interesting to imagine that there was a sentience to her, a self-awareness and a sort of decision somewhere in her head to be happy. In spite of everything. In spite of her illness, in spite of his girlfriend… You know, I don’t know. I don’t know what the real Florence knew or cared about. So that was something that really engaged me.
They’re both part of this ‘club,’ and they’re all enjoying it immensely. How did you conceive that club? Was it just a bunch of hard-of-hearing people, or were they on her side?
Grant: That was very much one of my questions to Stephen Frears early on. To which I got the traditional Stephen Frear’s answer: “No idea!” I asked why the Verdi Club would fall for this? Why are they applauding so wildly, do we think? And my personal theory was that a lot of it was, in fact, just a love of Florence and what she represented. Her enthusiasm and all that. And then kindness. But I think also that those music societies in New York in the ’40’s were full of people who were all highly socially aspirant. They were all broken old countesses and such, and people who wanted to be in something.
Streep: People who had no other outlet, really. If they were educated and wealthy, they were not women in business, women in medicine, women in law, and women in government. The women who had a lot of money and education had clubs. And they could give their husband’s or their father’s money away.
Grant: They definitely didn’t want to be thrown out of the Verdi club, because then they might be thrown out of the Wagner club, or the whatever club.
Streep: Right. It was socially aspirant. It was where women found their place in the hierarchy of society. But I think one of the things that concerned me was that we not make fun of these ‘old biddies.’ One of the reason we couldn’t shoot this in New York was that we couldn’t find a group of women of that age who actually had gray hair! And that’s absolutely true.