At Last, ‘Maestro’ Arrives On The Big Screen

If ever there was a relationship that was the poster child for #ItsComplicated, it was the one between conductor, composer and music educator Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and his wife, actor Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).

Though a biopic about Bernstein’s adult life, Maestro focuses largely on their decades-long union. Cooper’s deep immersion – he spent a half dozen years learning how to conduct – pays off in a magnetic, masterful performance. Accented by the choice to have cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot the first half in black and white, Cooper guides Mulligan to a lovely, moving depiction of a woman captivated by and undone by love, a portrayal all the more striking because the screenplay, written by Cooper and Josh Singer, frustratingly doesn’t go very deep into who Felicia was before or in the marriage.

I’ll get the recent “Jewface” uproar about Cooper playing the Jewish Bernstein, and the size of the actor’s prosthetic nose, out of the way. The large proboscis didn’t bother me because, frankly, Bernstein was not the owner of a petite one. Is Bernstein’s nose (the real and fake one) not something to be celebrated, because he achieved global success in spite of what was an obstacle for others? For what it’s worth, neither Bernstein’s children nor the ADL said it was antisemitic. As I said in my review of Golda about Helen Mirren’s casting, if you accept the premise that a talented thespian should be able to play any part, then Cooper being a Gentile is a non-issue.

Those years he dedicated to conducting were just for a six-minute sequence, one of the many signs Cooper has a deep respect for Bernstein. He also takes notice of Bernstein’s Jewish allegiance in a scene in which fellow Russian-born, Jewish conductor Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov) encourages him to change his name to Burns so he can become “the first great American conductor”, advice Bernstein dismisses. But I do think that Jake Gyllenhaal, who has expressed interest in making his own movie, or another Jewish actor, would bring a degree of understanding and knowledge that Cooper can’t.

I applaud Cooper, from just about the opening scene, for being unapologetic about Bernstein, – closeted both as far as the public and his three children were concerned, but known behind the scenes to be involved with men. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which whitewashed Freddie Mercury’s story, Cooper is interested in presenting an unvarnished view of a man of incomparable talent, and also tremendous selfishness and desires. When he gets the fateful call in November 1943 to fill in as conductor for the New York Philharmonic (with no rehearsal) later the same day after Bruno Walter, the guest conductor, takes ill, Bernstein’s in bed with a man. Nonetheless, when he meets Felicia at a party, he’s immediately drawn to her. Suddenly they’re in an empty theatre and the two become part of a lovely, telling ballet, “Fancy Free”, created by Jerome Robbins and Bernstein (that will become the musical On The Town) in which they’re pulled apart by the other dancers before ultimately reuniting.

Bernstein’s motivations for wanting to be with Felicia and staying with her are clearer than hers as time goes on. He needs someone stable to take care of him as his career ascends, he wants a family, and she protects his secret while ignoring his unbridled efforts to indulge it. Felicia is aware of her husband-to-be’s fluidity but is swept up in his adoration. In Mulligan’s hands, Felicia’s sweetness and delight in being in his company readily come through. But as the years of putting her career aspirations on hold to raise their children while enduring Lenny’s affairs – the movie shifting to color perhaps mirroring her changed state of mind- she slowly becomes less enchanted and willing to stand by, her rage spilling out in barbed confrontation during Thanksgiving.

The limitations with the writing may ultimately not matter that much to audiences because Maestro is a true acting showcase for Cooper and Mulligan. Cooper brings a vibrant physicality to the role, conveying Bernstein’s charm, passion for music, fierce some drive and his unwillingness to compromise as an artist or a husband. In a scene late in the movie (and their partnership), Felicia is at a performance with Lenny and sees him take the hand of his latest young lover Tommy (Gideon Glick) in the dark. As the grief and anger passes across her face, Mulligan beautifully, wordlessly expresses what Felicia has sacrificed and given up, not least of all her acting career, and that she has reached a crossroads.

If you have the opportunity to see Maestro in theaters, you should to fully appreciate the passion project Cooper has brought to fruition, but also for the look of the film and to watch these two actors doing career-best work.   

Maestro is in limited release in theaters beginning November 22 and arrives on Netflix December 20.