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Doug GirardotDecember 07, 2023
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro” (IMDB)

Biopics are tricky things. In one sense, they are contests to see which production company can hire the best makeup and costume artists, and—if you’re lucky—actors who can perform good enough voice impressions of historical figures. It is easy to deride them as yet another symptom of Hollywood’s current lack of imagination and its greediness for existing intellectual property.

But “Maestro”—the new motion picture about Leonard Bernstein, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper—transcends these baser tendencies.

True, there are some elements of a million-dollar game of dress-up. But throughout the film, viewers can be excused for lapsing in their suspension of disbelief: Cooper and Carey Mulligan (who plays Bernstein’s wife, Felicia Montealegre) so completely embody their roles that it’s easy to forget that this is a dramatic performance, not actual footage of the couple.

In the case of Leonard Bernstein, more visibly than any other classical musician of the 20th century, the art was inseparable from the artist.

Beyond the lifelike recreations of Bernstein and his family and friends, the film offers a portrait of a soul struggling to navigate the world of classical music. It paints this portrait through the lens of his marriage to Montealegre—a marriage made particularly complicated by the fact that Leonard Bernstein was gay.

Cooper shrewdly recognizes that this seeming mismatch of husband and wife will inevitably hover over any discussion of the composer’s career. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, more visibly than any other classical musician of the 20th century, the art was inseparable from the artist.

“Maestro,” written by Cooper and Josh Singer, charts Bernstein’s and Montealegre’s marriage from their first introduction in 1946 to Montealegre’s death in 1978. At the relationship’s core is the acknowledgment that Bernstein is a homosexual. (“Bisexual” might be a more accurate term to understand Bernstein’s sexuality, but that is not settled.) Montealegre accepts this about her husband, whom she calls “Lenny,” and allows him to have liaisons with men, as long as he keeps it discreet.

But over the ensuing decades, it becomes harder for Montealegre to be at peace with this tenuous arrangement, as Bernstein becomes less reserved about his dealings with men. Things get more complicated as Bernstein’s and Montealegre’s three children come of age, and Bernstein must decide between telling them the truth about his sexuality or maintaining appearances for the sake of family harmony.

All the while, Bernstein attempts to redefine himself away from his primary identity as a composer to focus instead on his career as a conductor. In the film, Bernstein laments how the music he has written for the stage (which would go on to include “West Side Story” and the operetta adaptation of Voltaire’s Candide) was, to him, unserious; Montealegre counters that his primary goal should be to compose.

The best scenes in "Maestro" are, fittingly, those centered on Leonard Bernstein's music-making.

His music allows Bernstein to communicate the nuances of himself that regular speech sometimes can’t—and likewise allows his wife to understand him. The film’s best scenes are, fittingly, those centered on his music-making. Similar to “Amadeus,” a film about Mozart, Bernstein’s compositions and conducting are woven into the texture of the story.

Reality dissolves into art, and when Montealegre and Bernstein’s relationship is inserted into the narrative of “Fancy Free”—Jerome Robbins’s ballet, for which Bernstein wrote the score—it becomes the vehicle through which Montealegre is confronted with the difficult reality that she will always have to compete with men for her husband’s affections.

Later, a brilliant shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique shows Montealegre standing backstage as Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic, his batoned silhouette looking over her shadowed figure in a dazzling spectacle of lighting.

The film’s showpiece comes as Bernstein leads the London Symphony Orchestra in the finale of Mahler’s “Symphony No. 2 (Resurrection)” at Ely Cathedral. It is a shot-for-shot remake of footage of the real-life concert, but that doesn’t make it any less exhilarating to see Cooper embody the conductor in his athletic performance, sweat plastering his graying hair to his forehead as he leads the chorus in singing about the triumph of life over death.

This sublime performance convinces Montealegre of her love for her husband, strained as it has become over the decades by silent mistrust and vituperative arguments. “There is no evil in you,” she whispers into his ear as they embrace amid the applause, taking back an attack she made on him earlier in the film (a single-shot fight in their New York City apartment in The Dakota on Thanksgiving Day, as balloons make their way through the background).

The film leaves open the same difficult questions that Bernstein’s life itself raised: What was the nature of Bernstein’s and Montealegre’s love? Did Bernstein marry to fit the conventions of a society that relegated homosexuality to the realm of the taboo—or was it something that he truly wanted?

It is a credit to Bernstein’s children that they collaborated so closely with Cooper and the rest of the production team on the film, even when many delicate parts of their lives would be scrutinized.

In the process of presenting this narrative, “Maestro” leads the audience to question what a relationship or a marriage is truly composed of. Is it defined by the passion of the relationship’s early days? Or is it being there for one another day after day, as when Bernstein comes back into Montealegre’s life and cares for her as she succumbs to breast cancer?

It makes sense for a film about Bernstein to have so much ambiguity. In 1973, he gave a series of lectures at Harvard entitled “The Unanswered Question,” named after a quotation from the 20th-century American composer Charles Ives. Cooper begins the film with an epigraph taken from these lectures: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

“A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

Tension lies at the heart of “Maestro.” The film shows Bernstein’s efforts to grapple with his love for composing for theater with his greater ambitions of being a part of the cultural elite, which he imagined possible only by focusing on his work as a conductor rather than as a creator. The audience also sees him grapple with his love for his wife and children, as well as his romantic love for men throughout his life.

Cooper shows that although Bernstein seemed able to toe these lines guilelessly, it was a deeply uncomfortable position for him and certainly for those closest to him in life.

The film necessarily could not cover everything in Bernstein’s illustrious life (such as when he infamously hosted an event for the Black Panther Party at his home at The Dakota, arousing the suspicion of J. Edgar Hoover). But Cooper does succeed in showing the almost comical richness of experience throughout Bernstein’s life.

In one scene, Bernstein runs into an old flame (played by Matt Bomer) along with his wife and infant son and daughter along Central Park, and he jokes with an uncomprehending child about how he had slept with “your mom and your dad.” On the other end of the film, a montage shows the elderly Bernstein gripping a red Solo cup in a neon-lit bar, joined by one of his young conducting protégés.

Bernstein’s life, at least as depicted in Cooper’s biopic, reminded me of some of the writings of Richard Rohr, O.F.M., about Catholic theology and spirituality. The church, Rohr has argued, needs to embrace an ethos of “both-and,” rather than a dualistic “either-or.” Recognizing that multiple things can be constituent parts of the larger truth is a complicated process, both in religious terms and in life in general, but is a necessary step in a world that is rarely black and white. In so many things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

In the case of Bernstein, he was both a composer and a conductor; he was both a gay man and a husband in a heterosexual marriage. These indeterminacies are part of what makes “Maestro” such a lifelike—and, therefore, compelling—portrait of a man.

More: Films / Music / LGBT

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