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tv Let Bradley Cooper’s Maestro Be the Death of the Biopic

In Maestro, Bradley Cooper plays famed conductor Leonard Bernstein but leaves out the complicating — and fascinating — real-life details for a more streamlined, tearjerking product. It’ll doubtlessly do well at the Oscars.

Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in Maestro. ,(Netflix / Youtube)

I like Cary Mulligan and always find her very winning. She kept me somewhat engaged in the new biopic Maestro, now on Netflix after its theatrical run, playing Felicia Montealegre, the life partner of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. He’s played by Bradley Cooper, who generally has the opposite effect on me, losing me completely.

And he’s never lost me so completely as he did in his last writing-directing-starring effort, A Star is Born (2018), which was so horribly botched I couldn’t wait for his character to die and get out of Lady Gaga’s way. So I didn’t have high hopes for Maestro, though it’s getting many of the usual mindless critical raves accorded to apparently serious-minded, end-of-year, Oscar-bait films with high production values and shiny names attached. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese are producers on this one, and the three Bernstein children were heavily involved in its development. By announcing their strong approval of the film, they helped get it through the bad publicity of the “Jewface” scandal, which was catalyzed by the revelation of the prosthetic nose Cooper wore in order to more closely resemble Leonard Bernstein.

The three Bernstein children’s involvement is probably why it seems that crucial aspects of their parents’ lives were censored or glossed over. That should be a filmmaker’s rule — never seek the cooperation of family if you want to make a good biopic. They’re sure to want a more blandly conventional and affirming version of the much spikier life story.

As you watch Maestro, you keep thinking that there has to be more to these people’s lives than this, especially after an early scene about their multifaceted characters and backgrounds and endeavors. In an exposition dump that you have to see to believe, scintillating Leonard Bernstein meets dazzling Felicia Montealegre at a fabulous 1940s house party in New York City, and each describes the other’s many sidedness in terms of birthplace, regional and ethnic origins, religion, education, career choice, and so on. Leonard says this makes them fated for adventurous lives that pose a challenge to provincial American culture. And he suggests that they’re made for each other.

The central problem in all this love at first sight stuff in Maestro is that Leonard is pretty openly bisexual, and when Felicia becomes aware of this, she agrees that their marriage can accommodate his need to have sex with men as long as he’s discreet about it. And Bernstein is anything but discreet, so she suffers increasing anguish for years until finally the marriage breaks down and they live separate lives for a few years. Her diagnosis of cancer in 1976 reunites them, and Bernstein remains with her until her death in 1978.

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That’s how the film handles their stories. There are far edgier biographical complexities that are barely touched on or ignored altogether, but they’re being aired in many reviews and articles published in response to the film. They include the fact that Leonard had affairs, some of them lengthy, intense, and apparently meaningful, with both men and women during his engagement and marriage to Felicia. Also, Felicia was aware of his other relationships very early on. Leonard sought psychotherapy to deal with what were then widely regarded as “deviant” desires. His engagement to Felicia dragged on for years while he delayed marrying her, due to both the glamorous commitments of a booming career and his complicated love life. She finally broke it off and had a long relationship with the actor Richard Hart — who appears very fleetingly in one scene of the film. Hart’s untimely death then reunited Leonard and Felicia, who finally married.

It was Leonard’s lengthy and open relationship with Tommy Cothran, who collaborated with him on his 1971 symphonic composition “Mass,” that finally pushed the marriage to the breaking point. Tommy is seen here and there in the film as a sweet, long-haired, and mostly nonspeaking figure played by Gideon Glick, though he’s practically a live-in guest and accompanies the Bernstein family on vacations. According to a moving piece by Peter Napolitano, who was in a relationship with Tommy Cothran at the time of his death from AIDS in 1986, Leonard was given an ultimatum by Felicia and made to choose between her and Tommy. He chose Tommy. Leonard left him to return to Felicia only when she was stricken with cancer.

Eight years after her death, Leonard visited Tommy on his deathbed, at the same time as Peter Napolitano was saying farewell. Napolitano ultimately felt that Tommy and Leonard’s relationship was the more crucial one, and left the two of them alone together for a last, tearful goodbye.

I have to say, it’s baffling to me that anyone with an interest in the drama of these people’s lives would’ve left out that farewell scene. To have Bernstein suffer through his wife’s protracted two-year dying agon, holding her in his arms as she expired, and then eight years later make a brief but traumatizing one-time-only visit to his other dying love, seems so intensely significant of the times and Bernstein’s plight and also his crushing sense of guilt, it’s on the emotional level of grand opera.

Other areas of the Bernsteins’ lives are extremely interesting too, and so of course they’re hardly mentioned in the film. Leonard’s immense struggle to compose “serious music,” which wasn’t always well received, is dealt with in a spotty way in the film but gets overwhelmed by his career triumphs. The way the Leonard and Felicia negotiated his Jewish heritage and her Catholicism is another fraught area of their lives together.

And I assume it’s no surprise to discover that their leftist political organizing is entirely ignored. Especially Felicia’s intense activism, which included protesting the Vietnam War and working for the civil rights movement. This led eventually to her support for the Black Panthers, which created quite a scandal. The party she hosted in 1970, very successfully, to raise funds for several Panthers in prison whose bail had been set ridiculously high, became the subject of a famous Tom Wolfe poison-pen takedown in New York magazine called “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”

This party and the backlash against the Bernsteins that resulted was practically made for a movie. So naturally it’s not there, in spite of all that big talk at the beginning of the film about what unusual, brave, and freedom-seeking people Leonard and Felicia were. What better illustration could there be of how the “provincial culture” of America — even the upscale Bohemian version of it, which might be expected to be a bit more sophisticated — would punish people for their attempt at liberated lives?

What’s the point of making all these biopics when obfuscating the most interesting aspects of people’s lives seems built into the genre? What are audiences getting out of these almost uniformly bland and childishly censored products?

This is a movie that persistently represents Bernstein’s homosexual relationships as selfish and unserious and drug addled and the downfall of his “proper” life in a heterosexual marriage with children. Even in the seemingly exhilarating scene late in the film, after Felicia’s death, when Bernstein as an old man goes to a gay club and dances ecstatically, he’s doing it in hellfire-red disco lighting, and erotically close-dancing with his own student who looks roughly fifty years younger than he is. Hell, The Simpsons did a more sophisticated version of this scene in an episode when Homer Simpson finds love and understanding when he’s accepted as an attractive “bear” by his new gay friends. Homer also dances ecstatically in a gay club, with no signs of transgression accompanying his moment of liberation.

Because Maestro focuses so narrowly on one area of tension, Mulligan as the neglected wife is forced to strike the same note of gimlet-eyed resentment over and over until there’s no denying it gets tiresome, for all her plaintive charm and undeniable acting skill. At a certain point, you can’t help thinking, “For God’s sake, woman, just leave him, don’t hang around looking ever more severe and judgy as the wronged wife.”

But that’s Cooper for you. He did the same kind of whanging away on one lugubrious note in A Star is Born, which turned the whole narrative away from the star actually being born, so we could wallow in Cooper’s character’s alcoholic angst as the fading star and ultimately self-sacrificing husband of the rising star. The thing that director George Cukor had done so well with the earlier Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954) was making the husband played by James Mason into a figure of such complexity, he’s — all at once — a sympathetic character and a monster and a hugely damaged but self-aware man who knows he’s a monster and can’t stop himself and even makes ironic jokes about it. That intricate characterization gets systematically undone by Cooper in his version.

Why Cooper likes these oversimplified tales of star marriages with one partner glorified while the other gets martyred is between him and his god, or maybe his therapist. But here we go again in Maestro. Many people will love this thing anyway. Just the shape of it is so crowd pleasing, with its many sobby triumphal endings, trying to hit all the mainstream crowd pleasing notes.

Husband and wife reunited! Group hugs with children! Husband, so often creatively blocked, creates a big fat well-received symphony! Wife dies! Husband freed to be his true gay self! But sad without wife, his true love! Love and art, so embiggening! Only connect! The end!

Maestro is an undeniable tearjerker, which is probably enough for many viewers who have been trained, by now, to be overly impressed if any American movie can have an emotional impact on them. I admit Mulligan can always make me tear up — even at age thirty-eight, when registering sadness, she still has the face of a bewildered child.

But damn, I resent being tear-jerked when the movie’s as lacking in honesty, complexity, and maturity as this one is. It’ll get nominated for many awards, I assume, for having exactly those faults.


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Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin, host of the Filmsuck podcast, and author of Filmsuck, USA.

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