Taking on a leading role in a movie is frightening for an actor. But when that film requires you to conduct a real orchestra and seamlessly blend acting with authentic conducting, it’s the challenge most professionals would turn down. And that’s the challenge Bradley Cooper took on for his new biopic Maestro, which stars him as Leonard Bernstein.
The film is co-written, directed, produced, and starred by the Oscar nominee, who also penned the screenplay for last year’s hit Focus Features awards season drama Tar. During a panel discussion for the movie with its director, Todd Field, and star, Cate Blanchett, Cooper was asked about the daunting prospect of portraying a conductor. “It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done,” he said. “You’re putting yourself in the hands of other people.”
But he says he was drawn to the story because it’s an intimate look at a marriage and what it takes to make a great artistic partnership work, even in tragedy. It’s a movie that “hasn’t been told very often,” and he hopes audiences will respond to it in the same way they responded to his directorial debut, A Star Is Born.
In the movie, he won the composer’s relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan. Their marriage, in the movie, which opens this month, is a study of the fine line between a gregarious, loving life of bringing people together and a self-destructive personality disorder that caused pain for those closest to him.
As the title suggests, Maestro is a tale of music marriage and multitasking, with Bernstein juggling his massive professional career alongside a home life filled with emotional turmoil. It’s a complex picture that paints a clearer picture of the composer than the many biopics that frog-march their subjects through a checklist of life events.
And the movie also captures the sweeping nature of his music. Whether in the opening scene, when Lenny bounds out of bed with a naked male partner to play music for him, or in a bravura scene that shows them arguing about their marriage in their Manhattan apartment overlooking Central Park West as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade tootles by, you feel Bernstein’s energy and passion.
While viewers may have to manage their expectations if they need to become more familiar with Wagner’s work, the film does offer representations of some of his most famous compositions. The film’s soundtrack is also a treat for Bernstein fans, with songs like “My Favorite Things” and “West Side Story” appearing. But it’s Mulligan’s performance that truly steals the show. A paragon of cosmopolitan elegance, she conveys the repressed anger and confusion of this profoundly queer woman with grace and depth.