Last year in Venice, Cate Blanchett introduced us to Lydia Tár, a fictional conductor who was tormented and would watch old VHS tapes of her mentor, the renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. He talked about how music can evoke emotions that we may not understand or realize we are capable of. Now, Bradley Cooper has directed and starred in a heartfelt and talkative film, with stunning hair and makeup, about Bernstein and his complex marriage with Costa Rican actress and activist Felicia Montealegre Cohn. Carey Mulligan portrays Montealegre Cohn with a sharp English demeanor and self-deprecating common sense.
Felicia, unfortunately, must confront the fact that her celebrity husband is hogging all the attention and causing her great embarrassment with his affairs with younger men. The film is captivating, filled with Cooper and Mulligan’s lively banter and overlapping conversations. Cooper has faced backlash for his use of “Jewface” in the past, but not for portraying a gay character. The use of prosthetics in his portrayal of a Jewish character may not be as significant as initially perceived in the larger context of the movie. This may be seen as a form of poetic justice, considering Nicole Kidman’s use of a far more exaggerated prosthetic nose in The Hours, playing a notorious anti-Semite, Virginia Woolf.
In the beginning of the film, shot in striking black-and-white, we see a young Bernstein full of boundless creative energy, but not the refined and self-indulgent European type. He embodies the solid American qualities of strength, honesty, and directness, almost like an athlete outside of competition. He maintains a prodigious work ethic without any inner turmoil. His voice is light and high-pitched at this point, in contrast to the deep and serious tone of his older self. His attraction to men is just one aspect of his life that he is at ease with. When he meets Felicia at a party in the company of his sister Shirley (portrayed by Sarah Silverman, who recently shared her mixed feelings about non-Jewish actors often being cast in supporting roles), there is an immediate spark between them. This is when the movie takes on a screwball tone as Lenny and Felicia engage in rapid-fire dialogue, a tone that persists throughout the film except for the final, poignant scenes.
Over time, the sharp black and white aesthetic is replaced by vibrant colors that give many photos the appearance of Sunday newspaper spreads. However, this change also adds a sleazier and less innocent tone compared to the previous monochrome style. Here, we see Bernstein, who has become bloated from consuming too much Kool-Aid, charming those around him and reveling in his own immense prestige. He also engages in relationships with younger men and deceives his adult daughter about the rumors she has heard, cleverly dismissing them as mere jealousy.
Regarding Cooper, he bears a striking resemblance to the esteemed man, especially when showcasing Bernstein’s menacing and greedy upper teeth, which are revealed with a wide grin as he passionately tosses his head back at the podium. It’s possible that such a skilled and studied portrayal may come off as slightly self-absorbed, but as always with Cooper, his theatrical technique is quite impressive – though there are instances when his intense piano playing makes him appear somewhat like Michael Douglas portraying Liberace.
Ultimately, Cooper’s Maestro triumphs because it openly acknowledges the sacrifices that art requires from its creators, as well as the sacrifices their loved ones must make. Bernstein always stayed true to himself, even if it meant sacrificing his love for his spouse. There is a melancholic acceptance of this truth.