From 1952 to 1972, it wasn’t hard to know of Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein hosted the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts on CBS television and became something of national celebrity. Few classical musicians outside of opera could claim such widespread fame; Van Cliburn (courtesy of the Cold War) and Glenn Gould (courtesy of J. S. Bach) are the only other names from the same generation that come to mind.
In the Young People’s Concerts, Bernstein stood at the conductor’s podium and shared his thoughts about various pieces of classical music and occasionally pop (he sang the Kinks “You Really Got Me” from the grand piano). The plan was simple: he would lecture—entertainingly to some, pedantically to others—pause and then conduct the New York Phil to illustrate whatever aspect of music he was addressing. He was learned, eloquent, accomplished, and a shameless ham.
When I reached my first stint in grad school (as it happens, at N.Y.U.), I had soured on Bernstein and found in one of my roommates a kindred spirit. The conductor’s antics on the podium and his palpable self-promotion irritated both of us, and, worse still, Lenny’s hosting of a cocktail party for the Marxist and racist Black Panthers, famously chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic, turned my stomach.
But the passage of years has altered my opinion. Don’t get me wrong: Bernstein was a ham, an egotist, and a lefty dupe; yet he was still a great conductor, likely one of the four or five greatest of the last century, and a genuine personality. Anyone who knows his Beethoven, Schumann, or Mahler will be hard pressed to find better performances. And although I haven’t heard his Haydn, he’s reputed to be a superlative interpreter. Take those virtues and mix them with the vices, and you just may recognize the ingredients for a biopic.
Bradley Cooper surely must have thought so; his Maestro hit the theaters and Netflix around Christmastide 2023. Cooper not only stars as Bernstein, but he also directed and co-wrote the screenplay. There’s no denying that, allowing for the miracles make-up can accomplish, he has an almost uncanny resemblance to Lenny: the abundant hair, growing wilder as he conducts, the slightly nasally northeastern accent, the blend of gemütlichkeit and chutzpah, the star quality. It’s all there in Cooper’s rendering of this strangely magnetic and difficult man. It almost goes without saying, he must have watched hours of Bernstein conducting; before the orchestra, he manages to capture all of the passion and pure showmanship that were Lenny’s trademarks.
The film begins with Bernstein quietly and poignantly musing about how much he misses “her.” This moment tells us we’re in for more than a story of Bernstein alone. Felicia Montealegre Bernstein (née Cohn), his wife, constitutes the other half of the story. Her introduction takes a few minutes. Before she enters, Lenny must take his first step toward becoming a classical (and Broadway) music icon. His chance arrives in 1943 when the famous conductor Bruno Walter becomes ill, clearing the way for the young Bernstein to lead the New York Phil in a demanding program including Schumann, Wagner, and Strauss. It was a great success, the stuff of instant celebrity.
But in Cooper’s telling, another aspect of Bernstein’s life emerges. When he gets the call to fill in for the ailing Bruno Walter, he’s shacked up with someone, and the someone is not a woman. Hence, before future wife Felicia appears, we learn (as many knew already) that Lenny was bisexual, and that revelation is not exactly a minor theme, but a thorn that will stick in the marriage to the woman he has not quite met.
Bernstein’s fame opens him to the New York/New England cocktail circuit (to which he may have been no stranger) where he meets Felicia. Before long the two are lovers and then man and wife. She feels she knows him through and through, and declares to Lenny at one point, with a tragic modern confidence, “One can be as free as one likes without guilt or confession.”
Little does she know how much he agrees. As he observes, he loves people and cannot stand to be alone; like an alcoholic, he’ll love the person he’s with compulsively. As Bernstein’s sister tells Felicia, “There’s a price for being in my brother’s orbit, you know that.” Whether or not she does then, she will find out as marriage, three children, and a series of affairs punctuate their life together. In Maestro, Bernstein’s dalliances are mostly with other men except for one instance in which he tells a young girl that he slept with both her parents.
The betrayal Felicia feels in her loneliness expresses itself in her acrimonious attacks (“If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen.”) over the years. Yet the two can’t live without one another. Her diagnosis with breast cancer and slow decline renews the bond between them and lends a bittersweetness to the closing minutes, a tribute to Cooper’s directing and Mulligan’s acting.
Roughly the first half of Maestro is shot in black and white—reminiscent of the way most of us saw Bernstein on TV in the fifties and sixties—and the color of the second half has an almost golden tint, as if Cooper wants us to imagine an aged, faded picture. The idea is intriguing although I can’t say I’d have thought twice about it if Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique had chosen a more conventional method.
Except for his being 6’1” (Bernstein was 5’7”), Cooper does a superlative job as Bernstein; visually, the elongated nose, anti-Semitic to some viewers, simply makes him look more like the man he is re-creating. I won’t say Mulligan’s performance overshadows his, but her realization of the complex Felicia remains unforgettable and heartrending.
Does Maestro champion bisexuality as one critic I read claimed? The almost callous self-regard of Cooper’s Bernstein to the detriment of his marriage renders any politically-correct grandstanding all but irrelevant. The film is sometimes a bit slow. Unfolding in short episodes, it is a “talkie” in the non-historical sense: lots of dialogue. But the chemistry between Lenny and Felicia, along with the scenes of his conducting (the final movement of Mahler’s second in particular), enliven the action and maintain interest pretty much from start to finish.
When all is said and done, Maestro proves fascinating and enjoyable. People who knew Bernstein well may quibble with certain details, but that’s a risk directors and writers take when they try to re-produce a celebrated life. For viewers under, say, fifty or even sixty years old, Maestro may be their introduction to Lenny. And, love him or hate him, he’s someone worth knowing and hearing.