'Maestro' — Bradley Cooper's biopic of conductor Leonard Bernstein

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday December 26, 2023
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Bradley Cooper in 'Maestro'<br>(© 2023 Netflix, Inc.)
Bradley Cooper in 'Maestro'
(© 2023 Netflix, Inc.)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was the first great American orchestra conductor, leading the New York Philharmonic, to international acclaim. He composed music for symphonies, choral works, Broadway (most notably "West Side Story" and "On the Town"), ballet, and films ("On the Waterfront").

He also was renowned for his engaging enthusiastic "Young People's Concerts" on television from the late 1950s to early '70s, educating youth on classical music, introducing it to mainstream culture. He was a superstar of fine arts, who happened to be gay and/or bisexual, depending on who you ask.

For his second directorial effort following the success of "A Star Is Born," actor Bradley Cooper zeroes in on the larger-than-life Bernstein refracted through the prism of his tumultuous marriage to Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre in "Bernstein" now streaming on Netflix.

The strongest critique of this elegant film is that it defines Bernstein more by his fluid sexuality, even though he states he was most fully alive when he was creating music, relegated to the soundtrack rather than as a source of artistic inspiration.

The first half of the movie feels like we are eavesdropping into personal conversations between the characters, a visual scrapbook of memories hazily recalled, an impressionistic view of Bernstein. At the end of his life, Bernstein (Cooper) is being interviewed, stating how much he misses Felicia, who died of cancer in 1978. He recalls her saying to him, "If nothing sings in you, you cannot make music," and while this creative impulse isn't as strong as it once was, it still exists within his soul.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in 'Maestro' (© 2023 Netflix, Inc.)  

Give it a whirl
Then the audience is thrown back to Bernstein's seminal career break when in 1943 at age 25, he receives a phone call summoning him to substitute for the ailing Philharmonic conductor Bruno Walther, with no rehearsals. Bernstein triumphs, with the New York Times announcing the new national sensation on its front page. He has arrived, but we sense trouble because he was in bed with another man, his lover/roommate clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) when he got that message.

Bernstein, through his salty sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman), meets Felicia (Carey Mulligan) at a party and it's love at first sight for both of them. She's beginning a successful career on Broadway and television, which she will put on hold, after she marries him in 1951. There's a delightful courting scene when Bernstein stages a number from his musical "On the Town," and Felicia imagines him as one of the sailors on leave dancing a sensual solo.

They become friends first, with Felicia recognizing his flaws (his selfishness, workaholism, depression) and when she "proposes" to him, she says, "I know exactly who you are, let's give it a whirl."

Bernstein hastily ends his relationship with David, knowing that if he wants to succeed, it will be hard enough as a Jew and impossible as a gay man. Years later he will encounter David and his new wife on the street, saying to their newborn, "I slept with both of your parents."

Felicia becomes a muse who wants to support his genius while raising their three children, but grows weary of his immense career and influence as well as his many gay relationships. Embarrassed by his carelessness, she asks for his discretion, warning him in a volley of insults hurled at each other during a key yet quasi-campy scene while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade from their Dakota penthouse as the Snoopy balloon passes by.

"Your truth is a fucking lie! It sucks up the energy in every room," Felicia shouts. "If you're not careful, you're going to die a lonely old queen."

Fights ensue, complicated by her bitterness at being ignored ("There's a saying in Chile about never standing under a bird who's full of shit. I've been living beneath that bird so long it's become comedic.") followed by a two-year separation, ended by Felicia's cancer diagnosis, leading to a reconciliation and Bernstein caring for her during the final months.

Bradley Cooper and Matt Bomer in 'Maestro' (© 2023 Netflix, Inc.)  

Desultory gay
The film hints that in his last 12 years after Felicia's death, Bernstein finally accepted his homosexuality, gingerly creeping out of his closet, even sleeping with his students while guest-conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. His daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke), had earlier finished an internship at Tanglewood and heard gossip about his homosexuality. Felicia wants him to deny those rumors. One of the heartrending scenes is Bernstein lying to her, saying the source of such untruths is jealousy over his talent. We witness the hurt it causes him to shield Jamie from the truth.

The movie purports to delve into Bernstein's gay affairs, but the result is desultory and fleeting. David Oppenheim was supposedly Bernstein's early great love, yet we are told nothing of their relationship or anything about him or his inner life, except that he plays the clarinet. Bomer is on screen for six minutes.

Even less is said of his other later major male partner, Tom Cothran (Gideon Glick), music director at KKHI, a classical radio station in San Francisco. Cothran stayed in Bernstein's Connecticut home while he was separated from Felicia. Homosexuality is mentioned fleetingly with no erotic component, the exception being Bernstein rubbing David's feet briefly.

The film makes clear that his conflict over sexual identity is at the core of Bernstein's life yet never reveals how it impacted him personally (outside of it leading to an unorthodox marriage), despite playing a vital role in his life or professionally as a creative artist. One gets the sense that to have said more would have shifted the film's focus away from his marriage.

It's unsettling to surmise that Bernstein's three children were involved in the film's making, so, cynically, we can't help but speculate whether they were instrumental in underplaying their father's queerness and portraying his affairs as distractions.

Bradley Cooper in 'Maestro' (photo: Netflix - © 2023 Netflix, Inc.)  

Musical omissions
The film's other major deficit is that while creating music was Bernstein's greatest source of satisfaction, you might not deduce that from the film, which strangely relegates his vast musical accomplishments as lists uttered by interviewers rather than showing the audience why music was so vital to his existence.

No context or history is given to his music even when there are a few scenes devoted to his art. His creative genius is never explored, nor are we given any clues about what inspired him to make music. Did his messy private life play a role in his artistic endeavors?

Nor are we given any hints why Bernstein was such a crucial figure in mid-century American culture as classical music's pop star celebrity. His intense interest in the Civil Rights movement or as an anti-war activist, famously parodied by Tom Wolfe in a New York Times article, "Radical Chic" (famous luminaries mixing with Black revolutionaries in a lavish apartment seemed absurd) is never even mentioned. While we appreciate Cooper's slant on Bernstein's unusual marriage, it comes at the cost of superseding his art, which made that marriage possible.

Also, the opening quote of the film states, "a work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers," yet these creative tensions are virtually ignored in the movie.

One wishes the film had explored Bernstein's art equally with his personal life. We must believe Bernstein was more than just his sexual desires, since we wouldn't be still talking about him 33 years after his death. One can't help but wonder how a queer filmmaker would have approached this biography.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in 'Maestro' (photo: © 2023 Netflix, Inc.)  

Ignoble qualities
On the plus side, the production design of this movie is exquisite, comprehensively detailed, and visually sumptuous. Devotion to historical detail is paramount. And why shouldn't it be, with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, as executive producers! The hairstylists and makeup artists are Oscar-worthy, with Leonard and Felicia convincingly aging through decades.

Cooper is the spitting image of Bernstein, both young and especially older. A hullabaloo developed over the prosthetic nose worn by Cooper, accusing him of anti-Semitism; a Jewish character with a stereotypical big nose. That was thoroughly rejected by Bernstein's children who supported Cooper's attempt at a facial proximity to ground his performance. It is the most famous film schnoz since Nicole Kidman wore one as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours."

The first leg of the film, in the 1940s and '50s is shot in black and white, moving to saturated colors in the '60s, Bernstein's peak period, followed by drained coloring representing his nadir in the '70s. Respective changes in the 4:3 ratio shift screen-size aspects for dramatic effect and to set tone.

The real strength of "Maestro" are the two glorious lead performances, both guaranteed to be nominated for Oscars. Cooper conveys a Bernstein who stole all the oxygen once he entered a room. Some have felt his interpretation is showboaty, bigger-than-life, but this is an accurate flamboyant portrayal, since Bernstein couldn't stand to be alone and wanted to be loved by everyone. Cooper (also a co-screenwriter) is willing to illustrate his ignoble qualities.

Cooper's tour de force is the triumphant reenactment of Bernstein's extraordinary 1973 conducting of Mahler's Second Symphony (Resurrection) at Britain's Ely Cathedral with all the exuberance, sweaty arms, facial, and body movements, plus precision. Cooper supposedly practiced this scene for six years, and it's a showstopper. He manages to balance mimicry while embodying Bernstein's real-life character. Many prognosticators are predicting after nine previous nominations (acting, writing, producing), Cooper will win the Oscar as Best Actor.

Mulligan both matches and even surpasses him. The film is really her journey arc. She's initially gung ho in her union with Bernstein, but gradually after her long-suffering comes to realize the Faustian bargain she's made. She's forced to play house and feels belittled and ignored compared to Bernstein's male conquests.

In one jarring episode, she jumps fully clothed into the bottom of a swimming pool, illustrating her sense of drowning. What is so brilliant is Mulligan's ability to convey a multitude of emotions in a scene: love, jealousy, hatred, ambivalence, regret, sadness, hurt but also hope, even in her tearjerking demise. It is Mulligan's greatest screen performance so far, but she will have fierce competition in the Best Actress category.

What remains is a bold, glossy, bombastic, unconventional biopic, where brilliant individual scenes do not produce a final whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Nor does it flow effortlessly together, with abrupt editing providing no backdrop for the ensuing action, resembling a disjointed patchwork quilt. Rather than being astonished by his musical acumen, we could have experienced its flourishing in the film.

There's passion in the filmmaking but it oddly lacks passion, because Bernstein's musical passion is downsized. Audiences will gain an appreciation of Bernstein's stage presence and charisma. If only we could have seen more of his genius in action. It's well worth watching with some dazzling moments, despite not living up to its full potential as the incandescent symphony it could have been.


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