Silver-screen underdogs: why cinema loves a loser

Posted by on Apr 21, 2016 in Current Articles | 0 comments

Silver-screen underdogs: why cinema loves a loser

From the worst soprano in history to a ski-jumper so terrible they had to change the rules the cinema gods love a trier. Will films about Eddie the Eagle and operatic catastrophe Florence Foster Jenkins finally give their subjects a triumph?

All of us are bad at something, and most of us are bad at many things. Life is filled with skills we dearly wish we had, but dont.

And then theres Florence Foster Jenkins. Born in 1868, Jenkins was a New York heiress whose wealth and Herculean self-belief allowed her to make herself into something else: an opera singer. By the 1940s, in her 70s, she was regaling the cream of Manhattan society with regular performances of Strauss and Mozart, appearing at grand venues in lavish costumes. The only snag was that Jenkins couldnt sing. Not couldnt sing in a sniffy, hairsplitting sense audible only to music critics, or when compared to the great sopranos. Jenkins couldnt sing in ways that still defy belief notes hit randomly and fleetingly, her voice hoarse and screechy, her phrasing verging on the avant garde. You might describe what she did as outsider art, if Carnegie Hall could be called outside. Either way, she could not sing. And yet, she sang.

Now, the unbreakable Jenkins is the heroine of a biopic directed by Stephen Frears. She is played, of course, by Meryl Streep. In fact, in the odd manner of these things, there are now two Florence Foster Jenkins movies. The other is called Marguerite, a lightly fictionalised account that renames and relocates her to 1920s France, but is the same tale of a socialite with a lack of vocal talent matched only by her need to air it, staging concerts in front of vetted crowds who applaud to drown out their laughter. The real Jenkins was too lost in music to register an opinion of the movies, but you assume she would have welcomed delighting us in stereo.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins. Photograph: Nick Wall Photography

The movies do love an underdog, reflecting back our sense that were allhere making the best of a bad hand. In the language of pitch meetings, its called relatability. Around the end of the last decade, the same form of it became a feature of TV talent shows, The X Factor having been hijacked in 2009 by the runaway success of Jedward. You may remember the pallid Dublin twins whose awfulness as performers enchanted viewers more than any of their slickly half-talented competition. No-hopers became the real winners, and in the case of Jedward, so it proved, the brothers stumbling into a brief career entertaining gawping ironists and their unhappy children.

But theres more to this than Florence Foster Jenkins. British audiences will soon be meeting Eddie the Eagle, a movie portrait of ski-jumper Eddie Edwards, the West-Country plasterer whose self-funded appearance at the 1988 Winter Olympics (two last-place finishes) showed that same defiance of all human reason. Having hung around in development long enough to once be talked about as a vehicle for Robbie Williams, the film now finds rising star Taron Egerton inEdwardss steamed-up bar-glasses, his story presented as a showcase of great British pluck.

Again, the loser gets the last laugh. Eddie the Eagle has just begun a worldwide release schedule taking in 75 countries. Although the gold medallist in the same competition, Finlands Matti Nyknen did also have his own biopic 2006s Matti. Its release was limited to the Nordic states. (And this despite a spell as a male stripper and a charge for attempted manslaughter after a traditional Finnish finger pulling contest).

Catherine Frot in Marguerite. Photograph: Allstar/CANAL+

Eddie and the two Florences feel likesuch obvious crowd-pleasers you wonder why this kind of talent-free story isnt told more often. The answer is that the themes involved are strange and complex, the tones potentially treacherous. Back in 1976, the world was charmed by The Bad News Bears, in which a hopeless LA kids baseball team were coaxed into shape by a profane and soused Walter Matthau. But that charm relied on the fact these were children, simply racking up valuable life experience. They were never supposed to turn pro.

There is a fine but crucial distinction to be made here between talentlessness and failure. The most perfect glum detail in the Coen brothers hymn to loserdom, Inside Llewyn Davis, is that the peevish 60s folk singer Llewyn is actually very gifted. Hes just not Bob Dylan. As a million acoustic guitarists uploading clips of themselves doing Like a Rolling Stone to YouTube will testify, there are many good musicians out there. Now as ever no one cares.

But Jenkins wasnt a loser. Without a shred of natural ability, she wasnt even in the race. Here, in the gulf between perception and reality, it starts to gets weird. On the Olympic slopes, Eddie the Eagle was at least aware of how farhe was from excellence. Sport is defined by tangibles, by goals scored, by feet and inches. Knowing where youare with art is harder.

1976s The Bad News Bears. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Jenkinss spiritual twin is Ed Wood, the 1950s auteur whose movies are habitually ranked as the worst in film history. His sci-fi opus Plan 9 From Outer Space is the ideal companion for Jenkinss manglings, an addled mix of soaring ambition and utter incompetence. Wood was later the subject of a1994 biopic that took his name as its title, starring Johnny Depp and among the best work of its director Tim Burton who struck a note of rompish comedy spliced with something wistful. (As wistful as the memory of when Tim Burton films starring Johnny Depp didnt bring you out in hives.)

Johnny Depp in Ed Wood. Photograph: Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

For all its elegance, Ed Wood bombed at the box office, which again says something about the toughness of the remit. Many of us nurture a passion for something were no good at with sufficient gusto to do it anyway. Sometimes we might even choose to do it inpublic. That much is the stuff of traditional movie uplift, the human spirit ascendant.

But Florence and Ed Wood were troubled, and troubling. Although its easy to mistake them for punk desperados, their drive was actually weapons-grade self-deception. Wood believed he was making great movies; Jenkins heard an angel every time she sang, with strenuous efforts made by those around her to stop her ever learning that the world heard different. None of that makes their stories less fascinating. But to go through life as a laughing stock, in a fogof clinical delusion, is surely, at heart, a horror movie.

Instead, Frearss Florence Foster Jenkins appears wildly funny. And if Marguerite is more restrained, its hard not to notice her surname is Dumont, a wink to Margaret Dumont, the glorious straight woman of Marx brothers movies. And so we get to the awkward question smack in the middle of these heartwarmers: in the presence of Florence Foster Jenkins, are we laughing with her or at her?

The get-out clause, smartly deployed in both films, is the affection we end up feeling for her, having seen behind the curtain into what was in many ways a sad, shadowed life. But even that is messy. The lady is a lesson in courage, one aesthete declares in Frearss film, and that is why we love her. But the truth about Jenkins is spikier than that. To the woman herself convinced she was a diva there was no courage involved. She thought people loved her because she was magnificent.

In other words, the real Florence Foster Jenkins was something you dont see much of any more: bona fide, old-school camp.

In her 1964 essay Notes on Camp, the writer Susan Sontag offered 58 points that made up the essence of camp. Amid the corny flamboyance and spirit of extravagance, something else was vital: One must distinguish between naive and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Later, she honed the definition into a seriousness that fails, a phrase that could have been written for Jenkins, on stage in a riot of ostrich feathers, unwittingly kicking Die Fledermaus to death. Whereas in recent times, camp like itsnear neighbour, cult became so drenched in self-awareness that it all but ceased to exist, turning instead into a knowing brand used to sell tickets to Legally Blonde: The Musical.

So, if Florence Foster Jenkins is an idol for the age, it is because she remains the real thing: as naive a failure asthey come, oblivious in a time ofconstant calculation. In 2016, to be as bad as she was, in the way that she was, does feel bizarrely inspiring. As our lives become ever more blackly Darwinian, space for any kind of misfit is hard to eke out. In the wake of Eddie Edwardss appearance at the 1988 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee rewrote the rules to make sure no athlete that poor could again lower the tone of their competition. In film, too, committee thinking has killed off the jaw-dropping turkey, the worst film you see now a study in grinding competence.

But another example of the big-screen talentless would find a place for themselves more easily. In 1983, Martin Scorseses The King of Comedy told the story of a dire but madly self-promoting stand-up, Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, in a fable about the coming cult of celebrity and the lengths people go to get famous. The modern world would be a problem for Florence Foster Jenkins, whose sanity relied on shutting out its loud opinions. Rupert Pupkin, however, would be counting his followers.

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