“Florence Foster Jenkins”–An Example of The Elasticity of Marriage and the Caregiving Spouse

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I have learned most of what I know about history and society and morality from reading good novels and watching good movies (I admit I go to TV more for the escape). But fictional portrayals of family care giving in books and movies usually leave me cold. There’s too much sentimentality and nobility, or conversely cold conniving and self-interest.

When I saw Away from Her several years ago, I loved it for Julie Christie’s performance and because it moved me emotionally, but I wasn’t dealing with an impaired spouse myself at the time and accepted the soft focus presentation of  memory loss without question. I suspect that if I were to re-watch that movie  or Iris, based on the loving memoir by philosopher-novelist Iris Murdoch’s never-complaining husband, I might react with a little defensive impatience since everyone in both films  exhibits a niceness I obviously can’t always muster.

I certainly didn’t go see the new Meryl Streep/Hugh Grant movie Florence Foster Jenkins expecting to feel my soul exposed. But, I was shaken by how honestly it captures the complexity of a lopsided marriage in which one of the spouses has become the caregiver for the other.

The movie is about an actual Manhattan socialite known  both for her great philanthropy and for giving hilariously bad public concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall, despite having absolutely no singing ability, let alone talent.

I appreciated that there were none of the dreamy flashbacks or usual movie platitudes about cognitive loss that drive me crazy, maybe because Mrs. Jenkins does not have  Alzheimer’s. However  her ailment, with its own traumatic results, could be seen as an equivalent for the early twentieth century and required her husband to play a role many of us dealing with dementia issues will recognize.

And as good as Streep’s performance is in the title roll—and she is wonderful at making Mrs. Jenkins a real woman rather than an over-the-top caricature—even non-caregiver viewers will probably agree that Grant carries the movie.

Struggling to find my own balance as wife and caregiver, I found myself mesmerized by Grant’s performance as a husband forced to go beyond and at the same time fall short of normal spousehood. Others in the film might approve or condemn the decisions he makes concerning both his wife’s happiness and his own, but as Grant portrays him, the complex layering of his feelings for his wife at any given moment defies simple labeling like selfish or supportive.

And watching this husband try to keep his wife’s world intact as long as possible was painful and true—historically accurate evidently but also  emotionally real and close to home at least to me.

In other words, if you have a chance, go see it. And let me know what you think.

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8 thoughts on ““Florence Foster Jenkins”–An Example of The Elasticity of Marriage and the Caregiving Spouse

  1. We went to see this movie yesterday with friends who had heard it was “hilarious, filled with laughs”…well, there were a few chuckles, but it is more poignant and thought-provoking, in my mind.

    You’re so right, though, about Hugh Grant’s role – it shows his “going along” with or accommodating her fantasy, with great dignity and tact, for the greater good of the marriage, he believes. And also shows his compensatory strategies, which I’m sure every caregiver needs in some form or another.

    The movie raises some good questions: If your partner can no longer share with you in the ways they used to, how do you get those needs addressed while remaining loyal to the relationship? What does loyalty mean under the new conditions?
    I guess we’re each left to work these questions out the best way we can.
    Thanks for writing, Alice – I always look forward to a new post from you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the recommendation, this was not on my radar at all. I did like Away from Her and Iris but agree the movies to an extent glossed over the grittier details that real-life caregivers face on a daily basis.

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  3. Sounds very worth seeing, Alice. I saw “Still Alice” a while back; with the benefit of hindsight, probably a mistake for me. I’d like to see On Golden Pond again to see that classic from a new perspective.

    However, I consult with Dr. Google just about every day looking for the latest about new understanding of MCI and AD, a promising drug, recommendations for lifestyle changes to slow the process, and any other hopeful signs. So the movie I have found myself remembering so often (even though I bet I haven’t seen it in 45 years) is Charly with Cliff Robertson. I identify with him in the 2nd half of the movie: still quite capable, very aware of his future, and racing to come up with a cure to change the outcome. If only I can discover the right combination of word puzzles, fish, yoga, and a couple of glasses of the right champagne, I can beat this thing!

    Oh, the heck with it. I’m heading to the fridge for a beer and some ice cream.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Funny because I read this as I was eating ice-cream from the carton….It is always interesting how our perceptions of films or novels for that matter are affected by where we are in our lives. I remember the Cliff Robertson movie but at the time I couldn’t relate. Now I can see why you would be so drawn to it. As a spouse I didn’t like Still Alice at all, but my daughter identified with the kids and was deeply moved…

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