We’re in the thick of year-end movie season, or as I think of it, biopic season, when some of our finest actors line up to deliver their most beloved feats of historical imitation to audiences. Oscars.
Right now you can see Rustin on Netflix, starring Colman Domingo as civil rights activist Bayard Rustin. This week, Joaquin Phoenix also arrives Napoleonand next month, keep an eye out for Adam Driver in Ferrariplaying the founder of the Italian sports car empire.
One of the most notable biopics of this year is Maestro, an exquisite new drama starring Bradley Cooper as conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote the film with Josh Singer, gives a dazzling, decades-spanning performance arc.
We first see Bernstein near the end of his life, playing a dark piano piece from his opera A silent place and in memory of his late wife, actress Felicia Montealegre. The film then flashes back to 1943, when twenty-something Lenny makes his electrifying debut at Carnegie Hall, conducting the New York Philharmonic – his first step toward becoming the most famous conductor in the American history.
Cooper captures Lenny’s brilliant musical spirit, his gregarious energy, and his intense appeal to both men and women. Matt Bomer gives a brief but poignant turn as clarinetist David Oppenheim, one of her many lovers. It was at this time that Lenny met Felicia, who was just starting out as a stage actress in New York; she is superbly played by Carey Mulligan.
This first part of the film was shot in black and white by Matthew Libatique, whose wonderfully fluid camerawork conveys Lenny and Felicia’s limitless sense of possibility. A playful sequence uses a musical number by Bernstein On the city to capture both Lenny’s attraction to men and his very real feelings for Felicia.
In time, Lenny and Felicia married, bought a house in Connecticut, and raised three children; Meanwhile, Lenny continues to have affairs. Over the years, black and white shifts to color and the once freewheeling camerawork slows to become a melancholy exploration. Even as Lenny’s career flourishes, the cracks in his marriage to Felicia deepen.
The beauty of Maestro is that he sees the complexity, the tragedy and the undeniable passion and tenderness of the Bernsteins’ relationship. Above all, it gives both protagonists equal dramatic weight; like Cooper’s 2018 debut film, A star is born, it’s a remarkably balanced portrait of a complicated showbiz marriage. He even strives to achieve a balance in the way he presents the two characters as artists.
Unsurprisingly, the film can only fit in a handful of the highlights of Bernstein’s creation, be it a bit of West Side Story score or a reference to his famous polarizing 1971 play, Mass. But there’s also a glimpse into Felicia’s acting career, including her appearance on the arts anthology series. Camera threeshortly before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Mulligan, who receives first place, gives one of his best and most piercing performances. She fully captures Felicia’s anger at her husband’s flirtations, her frustration at having to live in his artistic shadow, and her enduring love for him despite his infuriating flaws.
Cooper plays Lenny as energetic, charming and irrepressible. Sometimes there’s something a little too imitative about the actor’s mannerisms, especially in Lenny’s later years. But this is again a complex and convincing performance; importantly, Cooper does not soften the character’s selfishness or his failures as a husband and father.
When the trailer for Maestro was first published, Cooper’s decision to wear a prosthetic nose sparked controversy, raising questions about, among other things, whether non-Jewish actors, like Cooper, should play Jewish characters. That debate won’t be resolved here, but it’s worth noting that Cooper uses numerous cosmetic enhancements to play Bernstein for roughly five decades, and his performance is too rich to be reduced to a single detail. Ultimately, we believe Cooper not only because of his physical resemblance, but also because he perfectly captures Lenny’s charisma, the way his love for music and for people seems to flow out of him.
We don’t really see him conducting until the end of the film, when Cooper recreates a famous 1976 Bernstein performance with the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral. It’s Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, often known as the Resurrection Symphony – fitting for a sequence in which Bernstein, sweating and waving his baton, truly seems to come alive.