‘Maestro,’ the new biopic on Leonard Bernstein, reveals as much as conceals

Bradley Cooper’s latest, a Leonard Bernstein biopic that he cowrote, coproduced, directed, and stars in as our deeply conflicted, sensitive hero, may not be a maestrowork of filmmaking, though surely it will be an Oscar contender. But who knows? Perhaps it will meet the same fate as a somewhat similar film, Todd Field’s Tár (2022), about a world-renowned fictional conductor and her fatal flaws that had Cate Blanchett salivating for a Best Actress win—along with five other nominations for the film—that all, one by one, slipped out of grasp as the night wore on.

Maestro focuses on the intimate Lenny, whom we first meet on the morning of November 14, 1943, when we find the magnetically handsome 25-year-old awakened in bed with his male lover. The phone rings and he’s informed that Bruno Walter is ill and cannot conduct that afternoon’s Carnegie Hall live coast-to-coast radio broadcast performance by the New York Philharmonic, and he must step in, with no time for rehearsal.

The musical, the romantic, the historic, and psychological dimensions of the 129-minute film we are set up to watch are all established in these first shots. From that moment on we know that Leonard Bernstein will become one of the most familiar household names in American culture, celebrated across the globe as the most accomplished American-born and -trained composer/conductor/educator ever to cue a downbeat. He’s not only gay, he’s Jewish, too.

Bradley Cooper

Made with evident love, Maestro deals with these wrenching challenges and contradictions honestly, with special attention given to his troubled marriage (1951-1978) with Felicia Montealegre that lasted, with considerable tension and interruptions, until her death of cancer. The deal was clear: They delighted in each other’s company as complex, highly educated, witty, urbane professional artists (she was a film and stage actress), and they did have three children together. But essentially, their marriage was for convenience. Privately, he freely pursued sexual and romantic relationships with other men, sometimes, insultingly, within her sight. One witness to all this, a good family friend, observed, “Leonard required men sexually and women emotionally.”

For Cooper, all the international glory Bernstein earned is subsumed in favor of the larger story he wants to tell: the more personal one showing how a gay man of that era negotiated public and private space and still was able to achieve almost unprecedented renown and fortune. Among the movie’s most impactful scenes is a quiet, but telling one: His eldest child Jamie has heard gossip that her daddy is homosexual, but to “protect” her (and himself) he lies to her, saying these rumors all come out of jealousy of his talent and success. In that scene, Bernstein is wearing a Harvard sweatshirt with his alma mater’s name spelled out in Hebrew letters. The Harvard motto is “Veritas,” Latin for truth.

As an aside, I can personally attest that Bernstein also lied to me. I had met him casually a few times in and around musical circles in New York, but we had a formal sit-down interview in the late 1980s when I was writing my biography of his fellow composer, dear friend, and mentor Marc Blitzstein. (I also interviewed his siblings Burton Bernstein and Shirley Bernstein.) I inquired about Blitzstein’s love affairs, particularly about one man, Bill Hewitt, with whom he had a relationship lasting three or four years. The Maestro clammed up, claiming they were only professional colleagues and he knew nothing about Marc’s private life or partners. From my own research and informants, I knew on the spot he was not telling me the truth.

Along the way, we see how torn Bernstein felt, almost schizophrenically, not only between his extroverted public and introverted private lives, but between his conducting and composing lives, and even, as a composer, between popular Broadway stage music and the more “serious” music he preferred to be remembered for. The Fates had their own plans for him: The single composition he’s most universally identified with is the extraordinarily advanced score he wrote for West Side Story.

Broadway figures such as Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Jerome Robbins, fellow composer Aaron Copland, conductor Serge Koussevitzky, actors Dick Hart and Mendy Wager, sister Shirley Bernstein, Lenny’s lover Tommy Cothran, his Amberson corporate director Harry Kraut, all are portrayed in key scenes (“Bernstein” means “amber,” one of many Jewish names from precious stones or metals).

In a way, Felicia is the more heroic, self-sacrificing figure in this West Side story (they had an apartment in The Dakota on Central Park West, as well as a country mansion in Fairfield, Conn.—both homes, or cinema versions of them, well represented in the film). True, she married and became Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, but she paid a high emotional price for this long-suffering privilege. “If you’re not careful,” she advises him, “you’re going to die a lonely old queen.” Maestro includes reimagined interviews with Bernstein from the period after her death, in which, perhaps again somewhat conveniently for his reputation, he mourns her passing tearfully and misses her every day. Carey Mulligan portrays her splendidly, throughout the long decades of the relationship, right down to the sickly end.

The cigarette in his hand or on his lip is a constant feature throughout the film, and Bernstein is seen “partying” with cocaine and other drugs when they started becoming fashionable. In his last scene at Tanglewood, the summer music festival and school in the Berkshires where Bernstein taught and performed for years, he is shown mentoring William, a young aspiring conductor, and at a dance party later that evening coming onto him rather abusively, it must be said, considering the age and status difference. The implication is that such seductions were not rare. Bradley Cooper is astoundingly well made-up to portray a man from his mid-20s to his 70s, his voice becoming ever more gravelly as he ages.

Yet there is much that never gets any notice at all—although I hasten to add, it could not possibly all fit into one movie. Clearly, Cooper had to limit his scope. Two, three, many films could be based on Bernstein’s monumental life.

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper

For example, it seemed odd to me that a man of his station and generation would not have been drawn to seeing a psychiatrist to help him sort out his various neuroses. Indeed, Bernstein is known to have undergone some course of psychoanalysis with a specialist “curing homosexual men of their inversion,” but we don’t see that. Nor do we find anything about his left-wing political passions of the late 1940s, nor his subsequent encounters with HUAC and how he and his handlers negotiated their way out of its clutches (his film score to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront, about a union informer, was part of his rehabilitation). We don’t learn about the famous fundraiser in their elegant Dakota digs for the besieged Black Panther Party, nor his opposition to the Vietnam War, nor about his dedication to the new State of Israel (nor about his later criticisms of it). Nor, I should add, does Cooper indicate that later in life Bernstein had acquired a substantial waistline.

For what it covers, as a non-linear human interest story that happens to involve some very well-known people, Maestro is magisterial and wonderful, with Bernstein’s music (and Mahler’s and others’) accompanying and providing commentary. For what it leaves on the cutting-room floor, as it were, some viewers will feel deprived. In the end, it’s all highly watchable, insightful, and satisfying, a not always flattering insight into the lives of the rich and famous.

Cooper prefaces his film with a trenchant quotation from Bernstein that serves just as well for this very movie: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” He dedicates the film to the three Bernstein children, Jamie, Alexander, and Nina.

I saw Maestro in the theater, but it will shortly be available on Netflix. The trailer can be viewed here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.