There’s possibly no cheesier word in the Valentine’s Day greeting card section than “soulmates.” But it seems a fitting distillation of what kept virtuoso conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre, together through 27 often strained years of complicated marriage, as depicted in Bradley Cooper’s transfixing biographical love story, Maestro.
Amplifying its force with thrilling use of the subject’s music, this is a layered examination of a relationship that might be grossly over-simplified today as that of a closeted gay man and his “beard.” But Cooper and co-screenwriter Josh Singer dig deeper to depict a unique union, fraught with conflicts yet unbreakable — even when it’s broken.
The Bottom Line
A soaring crescendo into sorrow.
It’s intended as no slight to Cooper’s A Star is Born remake, his impressive first turn in the director’s chair, to say his follow-up is a considerable leap in terms of accomplishment. Coincidentally, Maestro also marks the second film in a year to focus on a celebrated classical music conductor with a vigorous presence both on and off the podium, a messy personal life and a passion for Mahler. It makes for an unofficial companion piece to Tár, whose fictional protagonist, Lydia Tár, was a Bernstein protégée.
The difficulties of balancing fame and love are a theme shared by both movies Cooper has directed. But Maestro builds additional complexity by investigating the challenges faced by a prodigiously talented man angling to head up a major orchestra at a time when Americans were not generally considered equal to the great European conductors. A gay Jewish American stood even less chance.
The common practice — even in the artsy and relatively broad-minded midcentury Manhattan culturati scene depicted here with intoxicating flair — of queer men taking wives for the sake of appearances and out of the desire to start a family was often less a matter of deceit than necessity.
The fact that both Bernstein (Cooper) and his clarinetist boyfriend for a time, David Oppenheimer (Matt Bomer), married women and had children yields a wry laugh but also sadness when Lenny steps outside his apartment and runs into David and his family on Central Park West. Bomer is quietly affecting in an earlier scene when Lenny springs an introduction on him to the new woman in his life, Felicia (Carey Mulligan), bristling with his customarily febrile excitement and only registering the awkward moment into which he has dropped them both as an afterthought.
There’s a sense of being high on his own genius in Cooper’s terrific performance, of a relentlessly driven artist so focused on his own needs and desires that any chaos he creates or unintended emotional hurt he inflicts are shrugged off with evasion or blithe dismissal. Bernstein is a man of enormous hubris, and Cooper walks a tricky line, never letting him become unsympathetic even at his most insensitive.
Those contradictions are also tempered by the irrefutable evidence, at every turn, that he adores Felicia. Even after a massive blowup during which she calls him out on his BS with a character assassination of gale-force fury, she remains the first person with whom he wants to share every triumph, right until the end.
Mulligan has never been better. That explosive argument is a stunning scene, one of the movie’s high points, given a surreal edge by the tops of the Thanksgiving Day parade floats filing by outside the living room windows of their upper-floor apartment at the Dakota. “Your truth is a fucking lie,” she hisses at his arrogant defensiveness. “It sucks up the energy in every room.” It’s a torrent of rage that conveys the toll of bottling up every humiliation, every time he has made his family feel secondary, particularly after he begins a long-term relationship with Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick).
Bernstein’s disregard for his wife’s feelings and her growing discontent is evident when he arrives with Tommy and another gay friend in his open-top sportscar for a weekend at their Connecticut home. Preparing to speak to her husband about how to deal with the questions of their eldest daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke), stemming from gossip she has heard at college, Felicia watches their arrival from across the swimming pool. Matthew Libatique’s camera observes her coolly from behind in a striking wide shot, the jagged tension of a section of Bernstein’s West Side Story prologue brilliantly heightening the simmering discord.
Another loaded scene immediately follows, in which Leonard sits down to reassure Jamie, brushing off the rumors as the result of professional jealousy. We see on Cooper’s face that the lie costs Lenny, but denial is such an inescapable part of the life of a gay man in the public eye at that time that even blatant dishonesty with his daughter takes on moral shadings beyond black and white.
The movie is framed by the filming of a television interview with the aged Leonard, sitting at his piano with the eternal plume of cigarette smoke drifting from an ashtray by his side as he gets choked up playing a piece he wrote for his late wife. Whether or not the prosthetic nose was necessary or appropriate can be debated in other forums. But the resemblance to Bernstein, especially in his later years, is sufficiently convincing to allow Cooper to disappear into the role. Kudos to the hair and makeup team.
The starting point for the biopic spine is the early-morning phone call in 1943, when Bernstein, then a 25-year-old assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic, is informed that the guest conductor has been taken ill. He’s asked to step in at short notice without rehearsal to lead the orchestra for the first time in a performance that makes him a star overnight.
That call is the first of several scenes in which Cooper effectively compresses time and location, having the elated Lenny leap across his bed, pausing only to give Bomer’s David, sleeping next to him, a celebratory smack on the ass as he strides directly down the aisle of Carnegie Hall.
The script doesn’t get caught up in details, skimming over key career moments like the development of On the Town with choreographer Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie) as just one element of Bernstein’s ceaseless flurry of activity. Instead, Cooper and Singer make it clear from the outset that the focus is less the artist’s career than his symbiotic relationship with Felicia, giving equal weight to both protagonists even if it’s obvious that was not the case in real life, where Lenny soaked up the spotlight.
The scene in which they meet is a glittering cocktail party hosted by Bernstein’s chic, socially connected sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman, fabulous) that’s like a fever dream of postwar New York in its heyday as a beacon of creativity. In a living room jumping with guests — including Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) and Adolph Green (Nick Blaemire), hilariously mugging their way through “Carried Away” at the piano — Shirley introduces her brother to Felicia, recently relocated from Chile. Her poise, sophistication and wit are a great match for his hyperarticulate charm; both are instantly bewitched.
Montealegre was the daughter of a Costa Rican mother and American father, educated in Chile at what would appear — based on the elegantly clipped tones and subtle accent of Mulligan’s superb voice work — to have been the best British schools. Just beginning to break into the 1940s New York theater scene, she takes Lenny downtown to a playhouse where she’s understudying for the lead and he reads a scene with her on the empty stage. Declaring her far too talented to be anyone’s understudy, he seems to be anointing her for a blossoming career in television and theater.
When they visit the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home at Tanglewood, where Bernstein studied and later conducted and taught students, she listens as a mentor advises him to clean up his act, change his name to Burns and drop the frivolous distraction of musical theater if he wants a serious career.
In a daring flourish that Cooper pulls off with aplomb, Felicia asks what he would be giving up. He literally shows her by ushering her into a performance of Fancy Free, the Robbins ballet that would become On the Town. As the sailors leap about the stage, one of them gets flirty with Lenny, drawing him into the dance. Felicia and other figures from their lives follow, cleverly giving her — and us — a taste not only of the frenetic whirl she’s signing up for, but also of his sexuality and the push-pull struggle of fame, family and fidelity that would define their marriage.
Whether or not Bernstein saw wedlock as cover is left open to interpretation, but his love for Felicia is unequivocal. Their contract as depicted here is unorthodox but genuine, her strength of character and kindness providing a solid foundation. “There’s a price for being in my brother’s life,” Shirley tells her in a revealing moment. “You know that.” When they separate, Felicia even chides herself for underestimating that price: “It was my arrogance to think I could survive on what he could give. I miss him. That child of mine.”
Cooper orchestrates the steady build of emotionality with great assurance. He expertly deploys music like a heavenly choral version of “Make Your Garden Grow” from Candide to underscore Lenny’s depression, his artistic restlessness and fear of being alone.
One of the most powerful scenes is a recreation of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in 1973. Cooper captures the precision, the physicality and the ecstasy of Bernstein’s conducting in a plangent piece that ponders the continuation of life after death. When he rushes over to embrace Felicia at the end to the sound of thunderous applause, it’s a moving prelude to a final act of devastating sorrow, as her illness brings him back to her and pulls the family together.
As much as a tribute to Bernstein’s charisma and musical genius, this is a psychologically nuanced study of a love that didn’t conform to the standard rules of marriage but was no less binding. The instantaneous change in Lenny, when Felicia’s condition causes him to completely realign his focus and dedicate himself exclusively to her needs, resolidifies any fracturing of their bond. Even after her death, when he’s dripping with coke sweat on a dance floor, wrapped around a male Tanglewood student a fraction of his age, his devotion to Felicia still resonates.
The film is expertly cast, down to the smallest roles, and made with enormous care and attention in every craft department. Libatique shoots primarily in the snug 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in black and white for the early decades, shifting into color and 1.85:1 for the later years. The many scenes at Tanglewood or in Connecticut give the impression of eternal summer — a motif echoed in an Edna St. Vincent Millay poem — taking on more muted tones as Felicia’s health declines. Mulligan is heartbreaking in those scenes.
The period evocation in Kevin Thompson’s production design is alive with specific detail, including a gorgeous recreation of the Dakota apartment. Mark Bridges’ costumes further enhance the vivid sense of time and place, in the stylish skirt suits, cocktail dresses and cardigans worn by Felicia, Shirley and the other women; the more playful outfits of the three Bernstein children; and most of all, the iconic looks of the man of himself, from his formalwear to his turtlenecks and his striped mariner t-shirt, bandana, jeans and sneakers.
Perhaps the most crucial craft contribution is the enveloping sound design, making you hear famous Bernstein works like his epic-scale Mass, his opera A Quiet Place or his magnificent overture to Candide as if for the first time.