Bradley Cooper—as Leonard Bernstein—director/writer/producer in ‘Maestro’

Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023

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Bradley Cooper and his cast shine in ‘Maestro,’ a film about the life of Leonard Bernstein

Judith Miller
December 18, 2023
Bradley Cooper—as Leonard Bernstein—director/writer/producer in 'Maestro'

Jason McDonald/Netflix © 2023

Passion: that is what unites actor-director Bradley Cooper and composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, the subject of Maestro, Cooper’s latest remarkable film. Both shared all-consuming passions—for music and conducting, for family, love, and life.

Cooper, as far as we know, is thoroughly heterosexual; “Lenny,” as his friends and fans called him, was famously not. But the many men in Bernstein’s extraordinary life are not the focus of this film; indeed, almost none is well developed as a character.

Nor does the movie dwell at length on Bernstein’s music, his lifelong struggle to be taken seriously as a composer, or his ecstatic conducting, though Cooper spent six years studying every wave of the illustrious maestro’s baton.

At its core, Maestro is a love story, not dissimilar in some respects to that of Cooper’s directorial debut, the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born. In both films, Cooper (an obviously secure man, still all too rare in Hollywood) lets his female costars shine. Just as Lady Gaga’s stunning performance dominated Cooper’s first film, the true star of Maestro is Carey Mulligan—destined to be an Oscar contender for her riveting portrayal of Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s complicit, long-suffering wife. Cooper clearly had no interest in making a comprehensive biopic. What clearly fascinated him was the couple’s complex, loving, and fraught relationship.

One of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes is Felicia’s belated effort to inflict some pain upon Bernstein after suffering through his many affairs with men for so long. As a giant blowup Snoopy passes by the window of their New York apartment during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, she accuses him of having “hate” in his heart as a conductor, of using his podium to throw that anger in the audiences’ faces. That is what drives you, she declares, hurling at him the cruelest salvo she can contrive. “If you’re not careful,” she warns him, “you’re going to die a lonely old queen”—the line coming straight from Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, his daughter Jamie’s moving memoir about growing up in the shadow of her brilliant father’s star-studded world. But viewers sense that Felicia does not believe her own insult. She, above all, knows that it is not hate, but love—for her, their children, for men, and above all, for music—that propelled him to the cultural heights he achieved and that kept him there for so long. “What can I say,” he acknowledges somewhat sheepishly about his more problematic affairs with men. “I love too much.”

Cooper is to this film what Bernstein was to American music. His vision prevails.

In his day, Bernstein, like Cooper today, was omnipresent. He not only conducted the New York Philharmonic and several of the world’s other premier orchestras, but also composed music for Broadway, the ballet, opera, and film. A superb pianist, he was also the author of half-a-dozen books, a lecturer much in demand, an activist and a proud New Yorker. He graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, won countless prizes and made a small fortune with his gold and platinum albums. Keenly aware of the importance of legacy, he coached young musicians at Tanglewood and put his Young People’s Concerts on CBS in prime time. A generation of aspiring American musicians grew up watching and wanting to be him. He was a celebrity when the word meant something. As Cooper knows, there is no one remotely like Bernstein today, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons why he wanted to make this film.

But his decision to focus on the couple’s 25-year love story, however subtle and complicated the rendition, means that important aspects of Bernstein’s life are omitted, as several reviewers have noted. There is not a passing reference, for instance, to his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War (ancient history to millennials?), his civil rights activism, or even to the couple’s notorious 1970 fundraiser for the Black Panthers, which novelist Tom Wolfe derided as “radical chic” in New York Magazine—a description that so pained Felicia that Jamie Bernstein would later blame her mother’s cancer on the scathing publicity it triggered.

The film is drenched in gorgeous music—its score is almost all Bernstein—and Cooper recreates with passion and precision some six minutes of Bernstein’s brilliant conducting of Mahler’s Second Symphony, also known as the Resurrection, at Ely Cathedral in England. But the film is not really about Bernstein’s music nor his life as an indefatigable working musician. Older audiences and students of music will know that the movie’s score is pulled from the compositions he wrote. But will younger viewers recognize West Side Story, which remains (surely to Bernstein’s post-mortal chagrin), his most popular and enduring work?

Another intriguing omission is Bernstein’s devotion to Judaism—a “blessing and a curse,” as he called his religion. The son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in a kosher home. As an adult he attended synagogue only sporadically. But he is said to have initially fallen in love with music as a child at his synagogue outside Boston. Its organist and choirmaster Solomon Braslavsky was an early and important influence on him, music scholars say. Yet the film’s only reference to Bernstein’s Jewish pride or to his many Jewish influences is his refusal to shorten his name to “Burns” to sound less Jewish—a suggestion from his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, the great Russian-born conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a fellow Jew who feared that someone with the obviously Jewish name of Bernstein would never be asked to conduct at Carnegie Hall.

Nor does the film mention Bernstein’s lifelong love affair with Israel, even before the Jewish state was founded. A committed Zionist, he arrived in Israel in 1947 to conduct what was then known as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. “There is a strength and devotion in these people that is formidable,” he wrote of the Jews of Palestine soon after his arrival in a letter to Koussevitzky. “They will never let the land be taken from them; they will all die first.”

The next year, he conducted a concert for Israeli soldiers in the Negev desert town of Beersheba during Israel’s War of Independence, within earshot of retreating Egyptian forces, according to the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

He toured the country for two months as “musical adviser” to the soon to be minted Israel Philharmonic, performing 40 concerts in 60 days, a grueling schedule. “I am simply overcome with this land and its people,” he again wrote to Koussevitzky.” “I feel that I shall spend more and more time here each year. It makes running around the cities of America seem so unimportant—as if I am not really needed there, while I am really needed here!”

True to his word, Bernstein returned to Israel year after year. After the Israelis reunified Jerusalem and claimed it as their own in the Six-Day War in 1967, he conducted a celebratory concert in the Roman amphitheater on Mount Scopus. His commitment to the Jewish state made him a heroic figure there. “What I remember mostly was how adored he was,” Bernstein’s son Alexander recalled after accompanying his father on a trip.

‘There is a strength and devotion in these people that is formidable,’ Bernstein wrote of the Jews of Palestine in 1947. ‘They will never let the land be taken from them; they will all die first.’

It is therefore paradoxical and a sign of our fractious, polarized, antisemitism-soaked times that initial publicity about the film last August focused not on its beauty, quality, and originality but on Cooper’s fake nose. In a stunningly successful effort to resemble Bernstein as closely as possible, Cooper, who is not Jewish, asked makeup artist Kazu Hiro to fashion a facsimile of his icon’s nose. The initial response from some in woke Hollywood, predictably, was outrage. Daniel Fienberg, the Hollywood Reporter’s chief TV critic, called the nose “problematic” and the film “ethnic cosplay.” Others said Bradley’s prominent nose was fueling antisemitic stereotypes. The less genteel (no pun intended) called it “Jewface,” a hashtag that exploded on X. Even more idiotic critics argued that Bradley, a non-Jew, should not have played the famously Jewish Bernstein. This charge of “cultural appropriation” was also leveled this past summer at Helen Mirren, another non-Jew who appeared to have enlarged her nose to play Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, in the subtle but gripping biopic Golda.

Stunned by the backlash, Hiro, the magician makeup artist, apologized at the Venice Film Festival where Maestro premiered. Cooper himself was forced to explain the decision.

The silly flap subsided only after all three Bernstein offspring adamantly defended Cooper, who had consulted closely with them on his film. “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose,” Jamie, Alexander, and Nina Bernstein declared in their joint statement. “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would have been fine with that as well.”

Schnoz-gate: case closed.

Another sign of our culturally bankrupt times is that Maestro almost didn’t get made. Over 15 years ago, Fred Berner, the gifted director and producer, approached the Bernstein offspring to secure the rights for a biopic about their father. But despite Berner’s sterling record of critical and commercial success, along with Martin Scorsese’s and Steven Spielberg’s interest in the film, financing for the project proved challenging—that is until Cooper came along.

Cooper is to this film what Bernstein was to American music. His vision prevails. He not only stars in Maestro, but he also co-wrote the script with veteran screenwriter Josh Singer. He directed and co-produced the movie. He is also his film’s promoter-in-chief, giving countless interviews about his project. And yet, in some ways, Cooper remains as mysterious and unknowable as the musical genius he portrayed.

The film will stream on Netflix on Dec. 20, but Maestro should be seen in a theater on a big screen. A filmmaker’s film, its individual performances, large and small—by Matt Bomer, as a discarded lover, Maya Hawke, as daughter Jamie, and Sarah Silverman, as Lenny’s sister—are all excellent. Sara Matthew Libatique, the director of photography who worked with Cooper on A Star Is Born, films the early aspiring Bernstein in black and white, only shifting to vivid Technicolor as Bernstein comes into his musical own in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of his shots are simply breathtaking. Film editor Michelle Tesoro elegantly carries this complicated love story through time and place.

Those hungry for a more comprehensive, womb-to-tomb biopic about Bernstein should also tune into MAX this December, when the platform will stream Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note (1998), Susan Lacy’s compelling documentary on Bernstein. At long last, the man who made such an enormous contribution to American music is finally getting his cinematic due.

Judith Miller, Tablet Magazine’s theater critic, is a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief and investigative reporter. She is also the author of the memoir The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

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