Florence Foster Jenkins

florence-foster-jenkinsPer my aunt’s suggestion, I recently watched Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg. I went in with the expectations of a hilariously funny movie, and there were some humorous moments, but overall I found it to be quite sad. In between cringe-worthy scenes where the protagonist made a fool of herself was a deeper story of love and friendship, passion for one’s chosen art form, and the true definition of success.

As usual, Streep gave a charming performance reminiscent of her Julia Child in Julie & Julia. Streep’s Julia Child was a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus on what she wanted and proved her abilities. As Florence Foster Jenkins, Streep portrayed a large, somewhat zany woman who kept her focus and ended in total embarrassment due to her overwhelming lack of talent. Not much of a stretch there except for different professions.

I don’t know if it was my parent’s high-definition television, which shows every unflattering flaw, or makeup, meant to create said flaws, but Hugh Grant, who did a decent job in the role of Jenkin’s husband, didn’t look so good. True, it’s been years since his performance in Love Actually, however, I choose to remember him as the intelligent, slightly sexy Prime Minister. Maybe because of his appearance in Love Actually, I had a hard time believing him as the weeping husband at the end of the film.

What truly made the film enjoyable for me was Simon Helberg. While I’ve always appreciated him as Howard on The Big Bang Theory, what a lovely surprise it was to see him act far beyond this role. Helberg’s Cosmé McMoon delighted with facial expressions and tones of voice that conveyed much more than the lines he spoke. As I watched him, I sensed that I’d seen his performance somewhere before. The longer I scrutinized, the more I had déjà vu regarding his portrayal of McMoon. Where had I seen this level of acting that was mysterious, charismatic, and quirky all at once?

Then it suddenly came to me. Helberg must have been channeling Gene Wilder because I’ve never seen anyone who could tantalize with just a twitch of a smile or flicker of the eyes the way Wilder did, and yet Helberg captured it perfectly and brilliantly. From that moment on, it was like I was watching Wilder himself. I have decided that Simon Helberg absolutely must remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

When Gene Wilder passed away last year, my heart was broken. Now I believe I’ve found a way to overcome that grief and recapture the magic of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. I know a remake exists, but it misses the mark in too many ways to count. No offense to Johnny Depp, but he’s Jack Sparrow, not Willy Wonka.

Now, one of my life’s missions is to stalk Simon Helberg on social media until I can convince him to take on the role of Willy Wonka. I’m sure he’ll agree that it must be done. He alone can reach back into our childhoods and recreate all the thrilling enchantment we experienced the first time we saw the movie.

Is It Ever Too Late?

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in 'Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory'

When I heard that Gene Wilder passed away a week ago Sunday, I was saddened to know that a small piece of my childhood had faded away like the edges of a watercolor painting. Goodbye, Willy Wonka. Laid to rest are the magical, mythical qualities that made Gene Wilder the wonderful actor he was. I also felt that I had missed an opportunity. It’s my own fault for not acting upon it, but I made the common error of believing I had all the time in the world. Allow me to explain.

Two years ago, I read Mr. Wilder’s novel, My French Whore. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet tale of love and loss set during World War I. I often wondered about the loss portion of the story. Did it mirror Mr. Wilder’s own loss in life, specifically that of his wife, Gilda Radner? In the story, it’s the male protagonist who is lost. Maybe Mr. Wilder would rather it had been him so that Gilda could have gone on living. He had a wonderful, twenty five year marriage to his wife, Karen, so perhaps I’m reading too much into the tale.

All this to say that I wanted to contact Mr. Wilder and ask him to write a sequel, one in which the two main characters find each other again. It would be possible based on the nature of the tale. Mr. Wilder was creative and imaginative: he could have rescued the protagonists from the fire and made it believable. But I missed my chance, and now it’s too late.

I’m familiar with many of the arguments writers offer for ending their stories on a sad note or sometimes with a gut punch to the reader. As long as the story is well-written, the event is believable and not just for shock value, and it fits with the rest of the story, character arcs, etc., then I can accept a sad ending. There are some, however, that have left me reeling.

For instance, The Time Traveler’s Wife. I read it once, and once was enough. The novel still haunts me to this day. I went so far as to pen a letter to Audrey Niffenegger begging her to write a sequel that pulls the lives of her protagonists back from the black and bitter ending she gave them. After the torturous lives they led, why did she have to end her novel the way she did? As an author creating people and situations, she could have opted for a better ending if not a Pollyanna one.

Then there is The Mercy of Thin Air by Ronlyn Domingue, The Girl in the Green Glass Mirror by Elizabeth McGregor, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason. These books live in a locked chest in my house because that is the only way I can contain my emotions regarding them so great are the effects they had on me. If you think I’m exaggerating, after my mother read The Piano Tuner at my suggestion, she called to chew me out for not warning her. To this day she describes her experience with the ending as having the air knocked out of her lungs.

These books are so well written and so heartrending. Why do we do this to ourselves as readers? The question made me re-examine my own novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Did I infuse painful accounts into the storyline that will make a reader sit stunned long after the last page has been read? Will I leave him/her with feeling as if he/she just buried a good friend for whom he/she will mourn all the while knowing it’s a fictional character? Personally, I question whether the loss of the character was counterbalanced by the fact that they led a good long life on the pages of the novel. If so, it’s easier to let them go.

In the world of Dr. John Welles, where I have complete control, some would argue that if I leave readers feeling as if they’ve had their heart torn out, then I’ve done a good job of writing. I’m not so sure I would agree. Others would say that’s just how life is: people live and die, get over it. I must admit that I don’t have the answers to the questions I’ve posed regarding the handling of characters’ lives and the endings of novels. I also know I’m not the only person who feels this way, and in this small fact, I take some comfort.

Without giving away the ending to my novel, I believe I have done a good job of dealing with characters and events. However, if one day I receive a letter from a reader who praises my writing while begging for a remedy to their grief and pain, I will seriously consider what I can do to ease the situation.

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