In “Maestro,” playing the legendary American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, Bradley Cooper has a light in his eye — a glow of merriment and mischief, of gleeful cosmopolitan desire. His Lenny is a prodigy, a prankster, a seducer, a monk of creative devotion and, through it all, a man of epic contradiction. In public, he tends toward the proper and stentorian; in private, he’s recklessly exuberant enough to give new — or maybe old — meaning to the word gay. He’s a layered soul, a quality that extends from his professional life, where he’s a reverent conductor of the classics and a jubilant composer of Broadway musicals (as well as a serious composer who longs to be thought of as classic), to his personal life, where he’s an ardent hedonist, unapologetically attracted to men, as well as a devoted husband and family man.
It turns out that the tempest-in-a-teapot controversy over Cooper’s decision to wear a prosthetic nose was entirely misplaced. The enhanced nose works terrifically well (you forget about it in a minute, as it becomes part of Bernstein’s regal ethnic handsomeness). But it’s the eyes that matter. Cooper, as an actor, has always had a preternatural gleam. In “Maestro,” those eyes burn with delight, as he infuses Lenny with a giddy abandon that makes him a spectacle unto himself. He’s got so much life force he expects the whole world to revolve around it.
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The film opens with a prelude, shot in color, in which the aging Lenny plays a forlorn piano piece at his Connecticut country home, then submits to a TV interview in which he confesses how much he misses “her” — Felicia, his late wife and soulmate. The film then cuts to a startling black-and-white shot of what we think, for a moment, is a concert-stage curtain. It turns out to be the bedroom window of Bernstein’s loft apartment. It’s Nov. 14, 1943, the fateful day when Bernstein, the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, is called to go onstage, without rehearsal, to step in for the orchestra’s guest conductor, Bruno Walter, who has fallen ill.
Bernstein, framed in silhouette, lights up a cigarette (he is almost never without one) and voices the appropriate regret over Walter’s condition. But then he puts down the phone, leaps out of the bed he shares with his dreamboat lover, David (Matthew Bomer), and runs through the apartment and right into Carnegie Hall. The film cuts to the aftermath of the concert: Lenny, onstage, giggling with joy, which is his form of generosity. What he’s really laughing at is that a star is born, and the star is him.
Almost any filmmaker you could name would have given us a scene of that concert: Bernstein conducting, the electricity of the music running through him, as he becomes the new rock star of the classical-music world (and the first American conductor on a level with European legends like Arturo Toscanini). But Cooper, who directed “Maestro” and co-wrote it (with Josh Singer), is after something less obvious and more revelatory. It’s part of the film’s playful daring that we almost never see Bernstein, in his ’50s and ’60s heyday, up on the podium, slicing the air with his baton and shaking that signature black pompadour. Instead, “Maestro” takes its cue from Bernstein’s interior thrall. It’s a movie that, like Lenny himself, goes where it wants to, leaving out what it wants to leave out, heeding its own pleasure centers, giving us privileged glimpses of Bernstein’s life as if we were eavesdropping.
Cooper, in the second film he has directed (after “A Star Is Born”), places himself on a high wire and carries it off. In “Maestro,” he works with a pointillistic intimacy that invests every moment with fascination and surprise. We see almost nothing of “West Side Story,” but here’s a backstage riff on “Fancy Free,” the 1944 ballet created by Bernstein and Jerome Robbins (it ultimately became the musical “On the Town”), as Lenny composes in the bathroom with an open door, the queer wit ricocheting through the room. And here’s Lenny, in a fantasy sequence, as one of the sailors, dancing out his destiny. We see little of Bernstein’s greatest hits as America’s conductor superstar (the Young People’s Concerts, etc.), but we see the anguish with which he longs to be embraced as a major composer, as if conducting were just his day job. We watch Lenny mock-kvelling over the sexy feet of his lover, and we see him at a party thrown by his sister, Shirley (Sarah Silverman), where he meets the Chilean American actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), and the two connect like the stars of a Hollywood screwball comedy.
She’s in sync with his giddy embrace of life, and matches him quip for quip. Yet it’s not just fun and games. Throughout the movie, Lenny talks about how much he wants to do and be everything at once. He has too many dimensions, and every time he says this it’s both true and a signifier: of the spilling-over-the-sides fulsomeness of his sexual identity. He can’t be contained. And given Lenny’s fundamental orientation toward men, what is the love he and Felicia have together?
We expect that the movie is going to “explain” their relationship. Cooper does something more audacious: He presents it, from every angle, in all its mystery, as a romantic partnership as unique as any other. Felicia understands, early on, that Lenny has his other life; she accepts it with open eyes. Yet we see the two of them in bed together, so it’s not as simple as all that. And for a while their partnership works beautifully. As they get married and have three children, the two seem to have transcended worldly pettiness and emotional possession. How much is Lenny motivated by love, and how much is he motivated by the political need to maintain “cover” in a world where homosexuality is still essentially forbidden? That the film refuses to quantify that question is part of its haunting humanity.
But if Lenny and Felicia share a certain rapt idealism about what their marriage can be, in the end they’re human beings, full of jealousy and possessiveness. Their arrangement works until it starts to wear the two of them down. Lenny, in the daze of his superstardom, begins to get “sloppy” (at a cocktail party at their magnificent Central Park West home, he comes on to a new prospect right out in the open). But it’s not just that. Mulligan’s Felicia descends into a kind of slow-motion depression, since everything Lenny does is about him. The scene where she lets him know that, cutting him to the quick by spotlighting the ugly anger beneath his joy, is scalding in its power (even as the outsize image of Snoopy becomes the scene’s domestic motif).
“Maestro,” like the great television series “Fosse/Verdon,” is a stunning portrait of the artist as a charismatic narcissist in thrall to a marriage he believes in yet can’t completely live up to. Most of the music we hear is Bernstein’s own, and its astringent rapture is the soundtrack to his anguish and ecstasy. When we do finally see him conduct, leading an orchestra inside a cathedral in a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, it’s a magnificent scene in which Cooper shows us how Bernstein becomes the music and the music becomes him. This is Lenny at his most transcendent.
Yet we squirm at the moment where he feels compelled to lie to his oldest daughter, Jamie (Maya Hawke), about the rumors she has heard about him. “Maestro” forces us to confront the tragedy of a homophobic society. At the same time, it’s not using that reality to make excuses for Lenny. The film is honest enough to show us that there’s no resolving the contradiction at the heart of his marriage to Felicia, which starts as devotion, flirts with betrayal, succumbs to a kind of despair, returns to devotion and is always about love. “Maestro” can’t help but be dominated by the grandeur of Bernstein’s passion, his outsize flaws, and the tightrope he walked between the need to find the meaning of beauty and the desire to stay fancy free. Yet Cooper and Mulligan make the movie a duet to remember.
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