Virtuoso Performance: ‘Maestro’ Moves Leonard Bernstein’s Inner Conflict to Centre Stage


Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in 'Maestro' — a role that's already earning the actor Oscar buzz. Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix

The Oscar talk swirling around Maestro began immediately after October’s New York Film Festival première of the biopic, which is a valiant attempt to bottle the colossal whirlwind energy of New York composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. Journalists were touting the film as the one to beat at the Academy Awards on March 10 – not only for Best Picture, but also for Bradley Cooper’s performance as Bernstein and Carey Mulligan’s wonderful take as his wife, Felicia Montealegre.

I can’t say they’re wrong, because awards season tends to reward such self-aggrandizing fare, even if I have reservations about the movie, which homes in on Bernstein’s turbulent love life while shedding so much of his biography. No movie could contain it all: the piano playing, conducting, composing, teaching, social activism, television hosting and liberal sex life that kept him on his toes, dancing between Montealegre and an ensemble of male partners.

Cooper makes operatic music out of the high and low notes he selects. He also throws spectacular “look at me” directorial flourishes and capital-A acting at the screen, as if he is in competition with the very subject he is embodying. Between Bernstein, who died in 1990, and Cooper, it’s hard to tell who’s taking up all the oxygen in the room. 

The actor-director, who has been nominated for nine Oscars but hasn’t won a statuette, was in the audience at the October screening of Maestro at the Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall, but because of the SAG-AFTRA strike, he wasn’t allowed to speak on behalf of the film. Instead, it was largely promoted by Bernstein’s children: Jamie, 71, Alexander, 68, and Nina, 61. Jamie, whose 2018 memoir, Famous Father Girl, was a vital source for Cooper’s film, expressed her appreciation for the way it captures her family’s public and private struggles, and shares the spotlight with her mother. “Being Mrs. Maestro, that is no small job,” she said, adding that Montealegre had to set aside her acting career, because “there was only room for so many egos in that household.”

Leonard Bernstein leading what is now known as the New York Philharmonic, 1941. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


Earlier in the day, the Bernsteins attended a lunch hosted by Netflix – which financed the film – at Carnegie Hall, where the musician made his breakthrough debut 80 years ago. Nina fondly recollected one-on-one time with their busy father. “It was a really special moment when you got to have him all to yourself,” she said the next day, picking up the conversation in an interview. “He would say, ‘Let’s play catch up,’ and he’d turn on the radio to the pop stations to see what was new.” Nina spoke enviously about the solo time her elder siblings enjoyed, when the Beatles, the Kinks and Motown artists were topping the charts. “By the time I came along, it was the ’70s, and forget about it,” she says, laughing. “It was garbage!”

Bernstein’s seemingly limitless appetite – whether he was consuming Beethoven, the Bee Gees or Broadway musicals – and his refusal to pick a lane, contributed to his musical range as well as the hurricane that was his life, which spun between loving husband and father and free-spirited, bisexual playboy. In a 1955 interview with Edward R. Murrow, which is recreated in the film, Bernstein compared himself to a schizophrenic for succeeding as both conductor and composer, just like his Austrian hero, Gustav Mahler. “The conflicted passions that he had are all reflected in his composing,” said Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 48, the openly gay, Montreal-born music director at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, in a separate interview. “If you express music like Mahler, you get joy, sadness, torture, marvellous moments and moments of fear.”


Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre in Maestro. Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix. Insets: Clockwise from top left: Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein (Jason McDonald/Netflix);  with Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre; Maestro poster (Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo)


Nézet-Séguin talked about his role as a consultant on Maestro, whispering conducting notes into Cooper’s earpiece, and noted Bernstein took the art form from baton-wielding traffic cop to rock star performance. He also said Bernstein – who famously recorded the Mahler symphonies for vinyl – channelled the internal conflicts that connected the two conductors into his work. Maestro shows how Bernstein’s passionate way of living informed the emotion of the music. “The life story … is explaining the soundtrack.” 

A version of this article appeared in the Dec 2023/Jan 2024 issue with the headline ‘Virtuoso Performance’, p. 18.