How do you celebrate your 45th year as a feature filmmaker? Well, if you’re veteran Stephen Frears, the answer is obvious: Work with Meryl Streep. Florence Foster Jenkins, which opens on Aug. 12, represents the first collaboration between America’s most celebrated actress and England’s most versatile director. Since making his feature debut in 1971 with the Albert Finney crime drama, Gumshoe, Frears’s career has spanned four decades and multiple genres. He’s helmed period pieces (Dangerous Liaisons), contemporary comedies (High Fidelity), wrenching dramas (Philomena) and bloody gangster yarns (The Grifters). Frears discussed those films, and many more, when he sat down with Yahoo Movies for the latest entry in our Director’s Reel series.
The filmmaker’s walk down memory lane began with a pit stop at 1985’s My Beautiful Laundrette, a landmark movie both for its progressive depiction of a gay romance and for giving Daniel Day-Lewis his breakout role. “Dan wasn’t famous in those days, so we were able to treat him quite rough,” Frears chuckles. In 1988, Frears made a splash with his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, which had John Malkovich playing eliagainst type as a notorious French rake. “I’m not sure a conventional Hollywood actor would’ve been as exciting,” says Frears. In 1990, The Grifters made a star out of Annette Bening, and brought Frears the first of two Oscar nominations for Best Director. “It was the first film I’d ever made in America,” he remembers. “It took a long time to cast it — it was as though the town was deciding who I could have.” He returned to the Oscar race in 2007 with The Queen, directing Helen Mirren to her first Best Actress victory for playing Her Majesty, Elizabeth II. “It was sort of the perfect coincidence of actress and part. I was told that the Queen was rather touched [by the film]!”
For Florence Foster Jenkins, which tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of the titular New York socialite, Frears was presented with a particularly thorny problem: how to ask a great actress to be play a legendarily bad singer. “To sing badly, you have to be able to sing well,” he points out. “Meryl’s a very good singer, so she worked very, very hard at singing badly and was very skillful at it.” Frears is just the latest person to learn that Meryl Streep can pretty much do everything.