As an actress, Meryl Streep has been lauded for never hitting a false note. But by warbling off key as a opera-loving socialite in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” the star is likely to land a record 20th Oscar nomination. At the very least, she will be a contender for next year’s Academy Awards — and a lock for a Golden Globe nomination in the best musical/comedy category.
“Florence Foster Jenkins” doesn’t hit theaters until Aug. 12. But Paramount Pictures is trying to build early buzz for the film, which screened early on Monday night at a Peggy Siegal event. Tastemakers in attendance included Barbara Walters, Rufus Wainwright, Carol Kane and host Renee Fleming.
The last time Streep played a character who performed at Carnegie Hall was in 1999’s “Music of the Heart,” as a Harlem school music conductor. Florence Foster Jenkins isn’t as skilled onstage. She’s a wealthy patron of the arts who moonlights as a faulty opera singer, giving her final performance at the landmark Manhattan concert venue. But the running joke of the dramedy directed by Stephen Frears is that Florence doesn’t know how bad her voice really is.
Another actress may have turned the part into a thin parody. But Streep, who has embodied no shortage of real-life people from Margaret Thatcher to Donald Trump, finds new ways to bring Florence to life. Her interpretation comes across like Julia Child meets Susan Boyle, even if Florence doesn’t have the natural talent either of those women. Streep not only studied with a dialect coach to perfect the terrible singing (a hysterical feat that will certainly appeal to actors in the Academy branch), she wears a 40-pound rubber prosthetic for the role.
“It was sort of interesting at the end of the day to take it off,” Streep said at a post-screening Q&A moderated by Tony-winning costume designer William Ivey Long. “I’ve done this before — to wear a different body, it helps you sympathize with the person. It changes the way you move. It gives you the character, and I was suddenly in the body of my grandmother.”
Streep is always celebrated for her dramatic parts, but she’s under-appreciated as a comedienne (despite her Oscar nod in 1990’s “Postcards from the Edge”). She got rare mixed reviews in dark comedies like 1989’s “She-Devil” and 1992’s “Death Becomes Her.” But one of her best recent performances was in 2009’s “It’s Complicated,” as a divorcee having an affair with her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin). It didn’t earn awards attention, because Streep received an Oscar nomination that year instead for portraying Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia” (a soufflé of an impersonation also grounded in comedic touches).
Sadly, this could again be another weak year for actresses in the movies. The two heavyweight Oscar contenders of the year so far (“Manchester by the Sea” and “A Birth of a Nation”) center on male protagonists. Even if “Florence Foster Jenkins” performs modestly at the box office, it could coast into the Oscars race. It feels similar in tone to Frears’ 2005 London period piece “Miss Henderson Presents.” That picture went on to garner an Academy Award nomination for its leading lady Judi Dench.
On Monday night, Streep didn’t sit through the entire film. But when she arrived at the theater, she was horrified that the volume was too high, and quickly had it fixed. “I can’t be everywhere,” she said, with a dramatic sigh.