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Making things up is part of the process of making a bio-pic. The question is whether abbreviations and approximations serve as springboards for a director’s imagination or whether they’re just shortcuts—and from what to what. The center of “Maestro,” which Bradley Cooper directed (and wrote, with Josh Singer), is the bond between Leonard Bernstein (played by Cooper) and his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Their relationship begins in 1946—Bernstein, in his late twenties, was in the early stages of his musical career, and Montealegre, nearly four years younger, was a rising actress—and ends with her death, in 1978, when Bernstein was world-famous as a conductor and a composer. The prime conflict in their relationship is Bernstein’s sex life: he was bisexual, and most of his relationships, prior to meeting his future wife, were with men. To center that conflict, the movie cuts out a crucial decade and a half in the couple’s life, leaping from the mid-fifties to 1971 as if his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, their turbulent life during the nineteen-sixties, and Bernstein’s political complications in those years were just yada yada.
The drama of “Maestro” (streaming on Netflix starting on Wednesday) begins on November 14, 1943, the day that Bernstein, then twenty-five, became famous. As the assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he substitutes at the last minute—for an orchestra concert that was being broadcast nationally on radio—for the celebrated conductor Bruno Walter, who’d fallen ill. When Lenny (the character, distinguished from the real-life Bernstein) gets the crucial call that morning, he’s in bed with a young man named David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer). Soon thereafter (in movie time; in real life, two-plus years), Lenny meets Felicia (the character), at a party at the pianist Claudio Arrau’s house, in Queens—it’s just about love at first sight. Yet their engagement extends for years owing to Lenny’s hesitation; Felicia goes into the marriage with no illusions, telling him, “I know exactly who you are.” She achieves fame as a dramatic actress in the early days of television, and also acts onstage, but puts her career aside to do whatever his career required, along with running the Bernstein household and raising the couple’s three children amid Lenny’s whirlwind of activity.
The formative years of Lenny’s career and the first years of the couple’s marriage are filmed in black-and-white, and some of these scenes—Lenny playing serious musical games with Aaron Copland (Brian Klugman), joshing around creatively with Jerome Robbins (Michael Urie), and watching a rehearsal with Felicia of a dance from “On the Town” in which he’s suddenly, fantasy-like, a participant—have a vital, youthful creative exuberance. These early scenes of Lenny’s rise culminate in a scene of the conductor reaching the end of a concert, received by the audience with roaring acclaim. Lenny runs offstage (to the sound, plastered onto the soundtrack, of the exultantly melancholy Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony), he and Felicia share a passionately congratulatory kiss, and he goes back out to take another bow, leaving Felicia alone, facing the camera, cigarette in hand. Cut to 1971 and to color, with Felicia, in a mint-green dress, her back to the camera, at the family’s apartment in the Dakota—cigarette in hand (essentially reversing the view of the previous shot). She and Lenny are hosting a party, where Lenny meets a young guest, a musician named Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), and is instantly smitten with him. Felicia catches the two men kissing in the hallway and, moments later, criticizes Lenny: “You’re getting sloppy.” It’s implied that Lenny has been having sexual relations with men throughout their marriage but that he has been sufficiently careful to keep them out of her purview, and out of the public eye. But, with Tommy, Lenny is indiscreet, if not in public view, then, at least, in Felicia’s presence. Lenny grows increasingly unhappy with the hypocrisy of a double life, and he and Felicia separate, only to reunite. When she’s diagnosed with cancer, Lenny stays at the family’s rustic Connecticut home to care for her and to hold the family together.
Throughout “Maestro,” Cooper, as writer and director, proceeds by way of indirection. He seems unwilling to lay the story, the characters, the dialogue, the action, the drama on the line clearly, plainly, frankly. The movie proceeds by way of hints and winks, understatements and elisions, that are part of a transaction between director and audience: with a word to the wise, the audience gets the idea of Lenny and Felicia that Cooper wants to put out. The movie’s general lack of candor matches its scrupulous avoidance of controversy and complexity, which does no justice to the complex and controversial characters at the center of the film.
There’s a tendency, in considering bio-pics, to rummage through published biographies and play gotcha with whatever the filmmakers have omitted. It’s a bad critical habit, but the temptation to do so responds to a feeling—the sense that many of these films tone down or filter out realms of passion that don’t fit into sentimental Hollywood templates. It’s the feeling that the famous people at a movie’s center are far more complicated, and in far more conflictual relations with their times and their peers, than popular movies are likely to let on. When the characters’ emotions are missing, it’s natural to search for the practical circumstances that gave rise to them. The danger of yielding to that feeling is that one spends more time and effort thinking about what a movie isn’t than confronting what it is. Yet this emptiness, in its way, often proves—as it does in “Maestro”—so pervasive that a movie seemingly undermines itself. For all its turbulent action and extravagant expressiveness, “Maestro” is hollow; even its strongest moments play like false fronts, like veneer far fuller, stranger, more struggle-riddled lives.
Lenny, like the real-life Bernstein, was extraordinarily accomplished in a wide range of musical activities. He was a great conductor, a talented pianist, a gifted teacher and public emissary of musical culture, and a major composer of concert music (including symphonies and song cycles), popular musicals and operettas (such as “On the Town,” “Candide,” and “West Side Story”), and movie scores (including “On the Waterfront”). “Maestro” suggests, in a crucial early scene with the Boston Symphony’s venerable conductor, Serge Koussevitzky (Yasen Peyankov), that Lenny’s sideline of composing popular works posed an obstacle to his coveted appointment as the elder man’s successor; Koussevitzky considered it to be out of keeping with the high-culture dignity that the position demanded. Lenny persisted in composing for the stage nonetheless, and with great success; he also craved recognition as a “classical” composer, and this proved harder to achieve. At the same time, it was clear to him that the public role of a conductor invited scrutiny of his private life that the essential indoorsmanship of composition wouldn’t.
When I saw “Maestro,” I deliberately avoided the temptation to read biographies of Bernstein; I had them on hand, in case I’d need to check a fact, but I steered clear of them until I’d seen the movie a couple of times. But viewers nonetheless bring their own interests and experiences to a movie, and I’d read, years earlier, a biography of a musician who played a central role in Bernstein’s life and career but who isn’t mentioned at all in “Maestro”: Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bernstein’s predecessor at the New York Philharmonic. They’d begun an intense friendship in 1937, when Bernstein was an undergraduate at Harvard. Mitropoulos, who became the conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra soon after, promised him an assistantship which never materialized; he recommended him for graduate study at the Curtis Institute, and even offered financial support. (Bernstein credited Mitropoulos—a great and pioneering conductor of Mahler’s music, which became Bernstein’s calling card—as his inspiration for becoming a conductor.)
In “Maestro,” when Lenny is seen angling with Koussevitzky for the Boston position, he swears that he will give up popular composing. When Koussevitzky (who was himself Jewish and faced prejudice) suggests that Lenny change his last name to Burns, Lenny doesn’t say no. Koussevitzky reveals a subtle homophobia, insisting that the younger man should “conduct his life” so as to be “clean” in his life and work. “Maestro” suggests, gently but unambiguously, that Lenny’s marriage was helpful to him in achieving his ambitions as a conductor. How much so emerges in the biography of Mitropoulos, by William Trotter. Mitropoulos, who was one of the prime candidates to succeed Koussevitzky, reportedly fell out of the running when Bernstein, who also wanted the job, told Koussevitzky of Mitropoulos’s homosexuality. And, when Mitropoulos was coming in for sharp criticism during his tenure at the New York Philharmonic, in the nineteen-fifties, Bernstein hinted that the orchestra would do better to have a family man—i.e., someone like himself—at its helm.
The ambient homophobia of the era, the intense pathos of self-concealment and hypocrisy that a bisexual man in the public eye had to endure, is as much a story of the times and their benighted mores as they are a private drama. So, while watching “Maestro,” I was shocked by the omission of even a hint of the kinds of machinations that went on behind the scenes in order to bring Bernstein to the pinnacle of his classical-music fame, as conductor of the New York Philharmonic. What’s more, even if Cooper chose to treat such stories as mere rumors—whether as a horrifying McCarthy-style betrayal or even just as a fear of exposure and scandal—they’re emblematic of the era. Yet Cooper doesn’t dramatize how Lenny arranged his sexual affairs in the years between his marriage (in 1951) and the relationship with Tommy that sparks the movie’s critical conflict.
In the age of the studios, the bowdlerization of life stories was essentially a response to ongoing threats of censorship; today, it’s the threat of controversy. “Maestro” may not be literally authorized by the Bernstein estate and the couple’s children, but it certainly has the coöperation of all concerned—the Office of Leonard Bernstein is thanked in the credits and Bernstein’s music figures copiously on the soundtrack. (How different from “Priscilla,” the script of which Lisa Marie Presley criticized and which was not granted permission to use any of Elvis Presley’s music.) The first matter on which positive depictions of famous people risk foundering is ambition, which comes off as a dirty word, even though it’s the central question in virtually every celebrity bio-pic. How did they get to where they got? How did a middle-class musician become world-renowned? And, by the way, very rich? Hollywood tends to avoid the subject, even though—or, rather, because—it’s also the story of Hollywood. (Cooper isn’t shy about weaving self-promotion into the fabric of the film, however; his self-depiction in impersonating Bernstein in the rightly celebrated filmed performance of Mahler’s Second, in 1973, in Ely Cathedral, is a brazen, Oscar-striving money shot.)
Bernstein was nearly blacklisted in the nineteen-fifties—twice. He had signed petitions for, or lent his name to, many organizations that were later revealed, or merely said, to have Communist connections. First, when he risked being denied a passport, he was aided by a well-connected attorney and his own obsequious affidavit. Bernstein’s biographer Humphrey Burton speculates that, during a second round of similar accusations, he had help from a young senator from his home state of Massachusetts (and a fellow Harvard alum), John F. Kennedy. Bernstein’s more famous, or, rather, unduly infamous political activities—a fund-raiser for Black Panther members at his family’s apartment, which became the subject of derisive reporting, most prominently, by Tom Wolfe—is yet another tale of the whiplash of fame, the power afforded by celebrity and the price that a public image exacts. (Montealegre, who was more politically active than her husband, organized the event; Bernstein, who privately deemed the event a mistake, confronted public protests against his ostensible antisemitism because of his support for the Panthers, who were anti-Zionist. The couple’s public image was enduringly marked by the reporting on this event.) The omission of Bernstein’s political activities and sympathies from “Maestro” suggests that the character of Lenny didn’t have any; Cooper avoids polarizing his movie’s audience by not putting his protagonist squarely on any side of political advocacy.
“Maestro” is the story of a musician and an actress who are inescapably a part of their places and times, and whose behavior, including toward each other, is inflected—and even warped—by the pressures and conflicts, the scrutiny and even the persecution that they faced in their professional and private lives. Yet the movie’s omissions come to the fore, above all, because—for all its well-judged focus on the centrality of the marriage to his career, on the anguish of Felicia’s self-effacement in nourishing Lenny’s work and enabling his way of life seemingly at the cost of her own life force, of her own soul—“Maestro” does precious little dramatizing of the couple’s relationship. The elisions distort every aspect of Cooper’s filmmaking. He directs with an energetic tricksiness—as in the use of black–and-white, the reliance on some coy reveals and forced juxtapositions—that suggest a straining for effect. Curt, vignette-like scenes dispense information while leaving the actors little room or time to fill the screen with presence or thought. The performances are admirably skillful and committed, but literal and narrow, owing to the limits of the script. (It’s exemplary that the movie’s deepest pathos involves Felicia’s final illness—a universal agony that Cooper plays up with shameless sentiment.)
Early on in their courtship, Felicia tells Lenny, “You don’t even know how much you need me.” They’re lying together side by side, seemingly after their first time having sex, when he suffers back spasms and Felicia has parked them on the floor rather than the bed, for his relief. She helps with his wardrobe; she cuts his hair. Felicia runs the household and anchors home life for their three children; smart, worldly, and witty, she makes an appealing appearance alongside Lenny in travels and as a hostess. “Maestro” emphasizes the practical aspect of Felicia’s place in Lenny’s life and work, but the emotional side of their bond gets virtually no drama, except negatively. In the wake of another of Lenny’s indiscretions, Felicia unleashes what seems like decades’ worth of grudges and judgments, ranging from her regret over another lost love before their marriage to her prediction that he’ll end up “a lonely old queen.” It’s the fullest, most emotional conversation they have in the course of the movie. Cooper doesn’t depict the simple, strong daily sustenance of a loving relationship, of a partner as a wise counsellor, a bringer of understanding and insight.
In other words, it isn’t only negative aspects of Lenny’s life that “Maestro” omits. It woefully fails the character of Felicia, whose personality has long remained in the shadows. She is presented as just a figurehead, a symbol of a woman’s self-sacrifice, without the substance that she brought to Lenny’s life and that powered the very artistic calling that she suppressed in order to foster his own. It’s a failure of imaginative sympathy, or, simply, of imagination. ♦