Composers and conductors are among the most fascinating creatures on earth, but none had Bernstein’s unguarded charisma. His insides and outsides were one and the same, which makes him an even more viable movie subject than J. Robert Oppenheimer, who remained curiously opaque in the much-lauded Oppenheimer film. But where to start with Bernstein? Near the end of his life, he repeatedly lamented about two challenging periods: the early-1940s out-of-work summer when his music career seemed stillborn and the 1978 cancer death of his wife, Felicia Montealegre. Her death is the movie’s obvious dramatic focal point — and a story that needs to be told.
Their 1951-1978 union is still widely believed to be a marriage of convenience, but the movie suggests it was actually a vital meeting of two strong, self-created personalities. In an early scene, they admit to their self invention — he with his consciously acquired Harvard accent and she (an accomplished TV actress from Costa Rica) with what sounds like a Park Avenue accent. She was far more solid than he, giving Bernstein the most compositionally productive years of his life and mostly knowing how to handle what he called his “maestroionics.” His daughter Jamie has described her mom as marrying “a tsunami”. And a bisexual one at that.
Far better than expected, the movie starring, directed, and co-written by Cooper is an Oscar-baiting artwork unto itself — with factual veracity underscored by being shot in Lenny haunts, including Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall, and Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Conn., said to be literally haunted by Felicia. Cooper’s natural exuberance is a near-ideal fit for playing Bernstein, even if his much-discussed nose extension doesn’t fit his face very well. Carey Mulligan doesn’t play Felicia so much as she inhabits her. Cooper’s direction — a bit uneven in his 2018 A Star is Born — is daring.
Entire scenes are played in darkness, such as the 1943 phone call notifying the conductor of his last-minute New York Philharmonic debut. When the window shades go up, Bernstein jumps up from the bed he was sharing with a semi-naked guy in what some critics have called a Tarzan moment. Surreal scene transitions include Bernstein stepping into Carnegie Hall still wearing his bedclothes. A fantastical version of the Fancy Free ballet he created with Jerome Robbins has Bernstein swept up by highly tactile sailors. The film switches from color to black and white — amid roughly chronological but not necessarily linear storytelling. Bernstein’s major works are discussed, but their creation isn’t dramatized, with the exception of Mass. Along the way, great musicians from Aaron Copland to Claudio Arrau are glimpsed, but they end up crowded into the margins by the Lenny/Felicia axis, and the vast number of cigarettes that came with it.
Musically, a subtle electronic score suggests even the most stable moments had gathering storm clouds. Plenty of Bernstein’s own music arises in interesting ways, including trouble-ahead music from West Side Story when Bernstein brings his boyfriend to their country house in front of Felicia. Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, the ballet Facsimile, and “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide are also excerpted. Cooper’s own conducting of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 finale is somewhat unconvincing: Cooper seems to be probing himself inward while the real Bernstein channeled the music outward (speaking as someone who once sang this music under his direction). Bernstein was possessed, and as is common with working musicians, had little memory of his own performances. To the film’s immense credit, though, a masterclass scene shows how meticulous Bernstein’s conducting craft could be amid his sweaty gyrations.
Elsewhere in the film, Cooper (the director) may have taken cues from another A Star is Born, the 1954 version in which the alcohol-tortured James Mason delivers the film’s deepest moments without a word of dialogue. In Maestro, the camera lingers on faces while thinking and listening — and goes beyond words. When Bernstein lies to his daughter about being gay, it’s the faces that tell you this was his duty, but he felt terrible doing so. When Bernstein screams into a pillow, you wonder how anything so unfiltered got on camera. More daring is when the camera is trained on silent, cancer-ridden Felicia: Visitors are trying to cheer her up, but we only see her maintaining composure despite all odds — and conveying how trivial the world seems when death is upon you. Her death scene is, well, don’t make social plans afterwards. Not for nothing does Mulligan have top billing over Cooper.
But it’s in these dialogue-free scenes that Cooper’s triple duties come into play. They wouldn’t have been conceivable by writers Cooper and Josh Singer if they hadn’t been sure that the actors (Cooper and Mulligan) could pull them off, or that Cooper the director couldn’t capture them with maximum impact. The soundtrack album on Deutsche Grammophon — with Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting the London Symphony Orchestra — preserves much of film’s dramatic context and is a reminder of how deftly the music flows with the fabric of the film. Cooper, by the way, is listed among the recording’s producers.
Numerous references might only be understood by Bernsteinologists, such as the Spanish-language lyrics in Candide that were Felicia’s contribution and something about getting a hernia. “Any questions?” — the curtain line from Candide — is quoted at significant moments. New Yorkers know the Thanksgiving Day Parade starts near where the Bernsteins lived on Central Park West, but will others be puzzled by Lenny and Felicia having a huge argument while a giant balloon of Snoopy floats past the window? Going back to work while the marriage is on hiatus, Felicia narrates Walton’s Façade, a very curious piece that can still puzzle classical concertgoers.
Obviously, no single film could encompass Bernstein. Missed opportunities include a potentially Oedipal but low-impact scene where Bernstein mentor Serge Koussevitzky tells Lenny to quit Broadway and, even less sensibly, change his name to “Burns” to circumvent anti-Semitism. The Radical Chic politics that got both Bernsteins into trouble isn’t in the script. Bernstein’s final concert in Tanglewood — not seen in the film — was also a missed cinematic opportunity: He was too sick to accurately read the score to his own Arias and Barcarolles and had a major coughing fit during parts of the concert that he did conduct.
Drug-use is shown in the movie, but Bernstein’s great alcohol consumption is soft-pedaled. None of this amounts to significant whitewashing. The exasperating, manipulative but wildly witty Bernstein that I encountered as a journalist over his last five years is very much there. He could call you an “asshole” over practically nothing or kiss you on the cheek saying “I like you!”
On film — as in life — you gotta love him.