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The Missing Love Story in Maestro

Bradley Cooper’s biopic never really captures Leonard Bernstein’s passion for music.

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper as Felicia Montealegre and Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro”

What do the sex lives of historical figures tell us that we don’t already know? What, for instance, do we stand to gain from learning that Marilyn Monroe called Arthur Miller “Daddy,” that Sanskrit made Oppenheimer horny, and Elvis saved himself for marriage? Why do we want to watch Napoleon do it but not Princess Diana or Lucy and Desi?

According to Bradley Cooper, who has impersonated Anthony Bourdain, Chris Kyle, Jon Peters, and, in his second directorial feature, Maestro, the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the private lives of the significant and notorious may rival their contributions to humankind in complexity and entertainment value, but only when audiences need to be reminded that the stars are just like us. The greater the man, the stronger the libido is a story we tell ourselves a lot these days.

Women are held to a higher standard than men, of course, as Todd Field told us last year in Tàr. While Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tàr loses her job as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic after the New York Post accuses her of impropriety with mentees, Cooper’s Bernstein exchanges perspiration with a young conducting student on a makeshift dance floor at the Tanglewood Music Center to the coital clanking of Tears for Fears’s “Shout.” Whereas Field presents Tàr’s actions with moral ambivalence, Cooper presents Bernstein’s as a form of vindication, the possibility of a happy dénouement for a widower who has lived his life trapped in the closet.

For a quarter of a century, Bernstein was married to a woman, Felicia Montealegre, with whom he had three children. This marriage, which lasted from 1951 to Montealegre’s death from lung cancer in 1978, is the concern of Cooper’s film, which co-stars Carey Mulligan as Felicia. We see Lenny play the piano. We see Lenny conduct the orchestra. We see Lenny kiss Felicia. We see Lenny kiss a man. We see Lenny snort cocaine. We see Lenny smoke, and smoke, and smoke, and smoke, and smoke, and smoke some more. In 1970, Tom Wolfe lampooned the opulent lifestyle of a couple committed to humanitarian deeds as “radical chic.” But Maestro’s perspective on the Bernsteins’ privileged existence is not derisive: It’s awestruck, a smitten portrait of the accoutrements and leisure of wealth that artistic genius occasionally affords its possessors.

The Bernsteins’ marriage, like the one Cooper explored in his 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, is a creative partnership doomed by tragedy, through which we are enticed to taste the bitter fruits of the American dream. The journey from the middle-class suburbs of Boston to Harvard and, eventually, the podium at Carnegie Hall happens before Cooper’s film begins: Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic debut commences the first act of Maestro, another sentimental lamentation for the burden of success, disguised as a love story.

Maestro’s release has been eclipsed by the prosthetics that Cooper (who also co-wrote and co-produced the film) used to get in character. Cooper’s elongated profile in press materials aroused charges of antisemitism; some critics objected to the equivalence of a Jewish character with a nose, and others seized the opportunity to address the ethics of representation in Hollywood casting, while still others thought the backlash, by paying so much attention to the nose, was itself antisemitic (Bernstein’s children came out in defense of the prosthetics, which they saw as an innocent effort at facial resemblance).

Kazu Hiro, the Japanese makeup artist responsible for the nose (which took five hours, daily, to put on), insists that his work had as much to do with achieving vocal verisimilitude as visual likeness; a bigger nose would aid the actor’s nasal rasp, as he evoked the emphysema that Bernstein suffered in his mid-fifties. References to Bernstein’s Jewishness are in fact scant. We see his mentor, conductor Serge Koussevitsky (Yasen Penyakov), advise him to change his name to Burns (which Lenny did not but his fellow pupil Harold Byrns did); later, a sweatshirt advertises his alma mater in Hebrew.

Bernstein’s religion directly informed his music and his politics, but in a movie more interested in carnal passions, the public life is sidelined in favor of the Lenny we didn’t know: alternately devoted and indifferent, a family man helplessly distracted by the boys in the band. His male partners—clarinetist David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and Tom Cothran (Gideon Glick), music director at KKHI, a classical radio station in San Francisco—are given bit parts, and little is made of the erotic charge in his lifelong friendship with composer Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman). In his 1994 biography of Bernstein, Harold Burton writes, “So many of the leading musical figures in the New York left-leaning musical intelligentsia were homosexual that the American Composers League was once dubbed the Homintern,” which would make a delicious premise for a film, though this is not the story that Cooper—or Bernstein’s children, with whom the director consulted frequently—decided to tell.

Maestro instead chooses to focus on how Bernstein’s bisexuality affected his family, and his relationship with Felicia in particular. When the film introduces young Lenny, he is in bed with a man; soon after, he meets Felicia at a party from behind the keyboard, where he seduces her to sing along. It is her 24th birthday, and this is love at first sight. Within minutes, they are talking over each other, and retreat to an empty theater where they rehearse a scene—two actors sharing a first kiss on a ghostlit stage, as if to suggest a private intimacy that is also for show. Through overwrought photography and drone shots, Cooper parallels the couple’s individual climbs to the top: Felicia bowing at the opera; the Broadway premiere of Lenny’s first musical, On the Town. Their courtship was a long one, plagued by Felicia’s misgivings about marrying a man attracted to men, but finally she relents: “I know exactly who you are,” she tells him, “Let’s give it a whirl.”

When we next see Lenny and Felicia, they have a young daughter, but before the audience has the chance to settle into this new present, Cooper skips ahead again, past West Side Story and the Young People’s Concerts to an era beset by assassinations and war, or as Lenny describes it in an interview with critic John Gruen (Josh Hamilton), a world “on the verge of a great collapse.” His marriage certainly seems to be: The liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s threaten to make the ostensible necessity of the life that he and Felicia built appear antiquated—and yet, look at what they have. One wonders whether, had Bernstein been born a generation later, he would have heeded Copland’s recommendation, in the 1940s, to marry a “friend,” and what might have been lost as a result. (Burton reports that the elder composer retorted, upon Lenny’s urging to come out in his eighties, “I’ll think I’ll leave that to you, boy.”) When Lenny whisks Cothran away from a party at the family’s apartment in the Dakota, where Felicia catches them smooching in the hallway, we are supposed to get the sense that this happens a lot—and that Felicia resents being forced into a nagging role no less than Lenny regrets having to play it straight. But an earlier run-in with Oppenheim on Central Park West makes clear that secrecy was a career move before anything else: If the first great American conductor couldn’t be Jewish, as Koussevitsky had too pessimistically warned, he definitely couldn’t be gay.

Lenny expresses frustration over his wife’s “futility,” and although he wants to come out to his daughter Jamie, who is upset by gossip about her father’s sexuality, he is bound by Felicia’s command to “be discreet.” Marital bickering crescendos to a separation, abbreviated by Felicia’s cancer diagnosis and the couple’s reconciliation. In spite of his misgivings, Bernstein was foremost a husband and father, Cooper and his children would like us to understand: He wanted it all, but he loved Felicia truly and was not above doing the right thing.

Mulligan, who has tended to avoid biographical roles, lends the Latin American actress, activist, socialite, and style icon a bland transatlantic pathos. Doing her best Katharine Hepburn, Mulligan snaps at Cooper for Lenny’s romantic indiscretions: “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.” The bite in her punch line, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen,” gives way to dramatic irony as Cooper forces the audience to stare into Mulligan’s eyes while she heaves through her death rattle; it is moving, and it is sad, but it feels more like a self-conscious bid for directorial flair than something that needed to be seen.

Felicia’s death is the climax of Maestro, although Lenny outlived her by 12 years, which he spends in Cooper’s film eating cheesecake, driving a brown Jaguar convertible with the license plate “MAESTRO1,” and passing the baton to a younger generation of conductors. He may be an old queen, but he doesn’t look lonely; the closing shot is reserved for a young Felicia turning her back to the camera as though she were Eurydice, leaving Orpheus to mourn from his lyre and take what comfort he can from the company of men.

Martin Scorsese was initially attached to the project in development at Paramount but backed out in 2018 to shoot The Irishman, and custody was transferred to Steven Spielberg, who handpicked Cooper to direct the film (both maestri retained credit as producers). Such a vote of confidence must have inspired Cooper to swing big, and Maestro has the texture of a major work. But the biopic is, with rare exception, a fundamentally silly genre, especially when authenticity takes priority and the subjects loved cameras as much as Lenny and Felicia did. Were Cooper to steal Academy Awards from Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, or even Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy, they would incite less surprise than indignation, for this polycule of lush strings, conventional narrative, historical reenactment (in black and white and color), and complicated heterosexual romance is a masterpiece of Oscar bait. Documentary-interview framing device? Check. A comedian (Sarah Silverman) cast against type as the hero’s salty younger sister? Check. Period costumes painstakingly modeled after archival photographs? Check, check, and check. 2024 could be Cooper’s year, but only if Hollywood continues its pattern of rewarding the veneer of importance over substantive cinematic achievement.

As an elegy for the lesser-known member of this power couple, Maestro undersells Montealegre’s stature as a twentieth-century luminary in her own right. Even if we see her sing, act, host parties, and mother children, Mulligan’s Felicia is, above all, a spurned wife whose untimely illness gives Cooper’s Lenny a chance to live his truth. Maestro’s dramatic arc demands that Bernstein’s belated acceptance of his homosexuality arrive as a consequence of a sacrificial heroine, as if the Juliet of West Side Story were not Maria but Riff. This version of the story undersells her considerable intellect and vitality. When The New York Times published an op-ed denouncing a benefit that the Bernsteins held for the Black Panthers at their Park Avenue apartment in 1970, it was Montealegre who wrote a vigorous rebuttal:

As a civil libertarian, I asked a number of people to my house on Jan. 14 in order to hear the lawyer and others involved with the Panther 21 discuss the problem of civil liberties as applicable to the men now awaiting trial, and to help raise funds for their legal expenses.… It was for this deeply serious purpose that our meeting was called. The frivolous way in which it was reported as a “fashionable” event is unworthy of The Times, and offensive to all people who are committed to humanitarian principles of justice.

This Felicia—the first chair of the Women’s Division of the New York Civil Liberties Union, who was arrested at an anti-war protest in Washington in 1972, co-authored a 1974 report to the New York State parole system with Civil Rights leaders including Coretta Scott King, and collaborated with Amnesty International in the wake of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, where she was raised—is largely absent from Cooper’s film.

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them,” says Bernstein to his interviewers in the opening scene, and by this criterion, Maestro fits the bill (a closing “Any questions?” finishes the screenplay with a cloying reprise). The reasons for Lenny’s inner conflict and Felicia’s willingness to play house for as long as she did are presumed, rather than explored, as is the mysterious, transcendent power of love. Any connection between this turmoil and the couple’s professional accomplishments is limited to Lenny’s fondness for workaholism and mixing business with pleasure and Felicia’s struggles in her husband’s immense shadow.

Live performances of Bernstein’s compositions serve as the score to all this, and yet somehow Maestro never quite grasps the indefatigable love at the center of its subject’s life: music.