Beyond "Maestro's" Prosthetics and Into Bernstein's World
I have written about the use of prosthetic noses on this platform once before, in the context of Ryan Murphy’s limited series, American Crime Story: Impeachment. I argued that prosthetics have the capacity to amplify people’s prominent features to either comment on their public perception or, more insidiously, to play into misogynistic and antisemitic tropes around desirability.
To get this out of the way: I do not feel upset in this way about Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a wonderful movie I caught at this year’s New York Film Festival. I was ready to hate it! Those promotional photos were jarring. I still do not think the fake nose, hiding the very handsome Cooper’s already-big nose, was entirely necessary, and I probably would have reconsidered including it in the final product. But Cooper’s Maestro nose, in context, reads less to me like internalized antisemitism and more like Cooper’s deep, spiritual obsession with getting it right—an obsessiveness I do not think all Maestro viewers will appreciate, but an obsessiveness that really worked for me.
Maestro is a biopic—and it’s not. It’s a glimpse into Leonard Bernstein’s long, loving, difficult marriage to Chilean Jewish actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) and a dip into the inspiration behind his iconic and eternal musical gift. I loved Maestro because Bradley Cooper’s singular interest in and passion for Bernstein leaks through every shot in the film. I have always liked Bradley Cooper, the movie star, but for the first time I saw Bradley Cooper, the artist, at work.
In order to create the most personal version of the story they’re telling, artists should be weird, obsessive, and do things you or I wouldn’t do, as long as they aren’t bothering anybody but themselves with their annoying actorly processes. Let Austin Butler continue doing the Elvis voice forever, let Lady Gaga mention Lee Strasberg in every interview she ever gives about acting, and let Bradley Cooper don a slightly-larger-than-normal nose if that’s what he believes he needs to bring Bernstein to life.
There is a scene in Maestro where Bernstein, freshly in love with Felicia, dons a sailor suit and performs part of a ballet from On The Town while she watches. It is lush and frenetic, with the gorgeous score blaring and Broadway dancers accompanying Cooper in the fray. Bradley Cooper is not a very good dancer, but that’s why this scene stuck out to me and endeared me to him. It’s always refreshing to watch a megawatt star eat crow in service of the work. The scene reminds me of “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” in the 1955 film adaptation of Guys and Dolls, where Frank Sinatra—possibly the biggest star in the world at that moment—dances in the ensemble. There’s comfort in the knowledge that an artist you admire is also a team player. I found this whole sequence dizzyingly romantic and creatively inspiring, shot beautifully and timed perfectly.
Maestro is not a “proper” Leonard Bernstein biopic, which is its strength in terms of storytelling originality. But breaking the established format also means Maestro somewhat flattens Bernstein the man. The film only briefly touches on Bernstein’s romances with men, and on the philanthropic and left-wing work he became known for, and which left him with a hefty FBI file upon his death. There is a lot of missing historical and political context for audience members less familiar with his life and work. But, where most biopics are flat and shiny, spotlighting title performances without giving those performers the writing to back them up, Maestro’s choice to center the story on the Bernsteins' marriage grounds it better than a standard biopic ever could. Cooper’s attention to detail—and his gorgeous chemistry with Mulligan—means I understand more intimate parts of both Lenny and Felicia than I ever would have watching the Bohemian Rhapsody version of this movie, where prosthetic features could have stood in for layered acting performances and the dialogue could have been entirely lifted from the personal life section of a Wikipedia page.
Cooper and Mulligan are wonderful together in this film, tenderly and subtly playing their romance over decades of marital bliss and strife. Maestro’s depiction of Jewishness is somewhat shallow—it’s especially light on examining why Bernstein’s music sounds the way it does, the answer being “lots of influence from Jewish sacred music and klezmer.” However, It’s certainly a double bill performance-wise. The film is almost as much Felicia’s story as it is Lenny’s, and Mulligan’s performance pulls a lot of that weight. I wish I understood a bit more about Felicia’s inner life—why she stopped acting until she and Bernstein separated in the 1970s, for instance—but I found Mulligan’s performance sweet and respectful, with big walls up that come crashing down in key moments.
Towards the end of the film, Lenny and Felicia argue in their Upper West Side apartment on Thanksgiving. It’s an all-out war, and accusations fly about affairs, drugs, homosexuality, and the love that still exists between the two of them. Just as the fighting words become most poisonous, the Snoopy balloon from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade floats past their window. It’s a darkly funny way to punctuate the film’s thesis statement: How do you go about your life when a figure more famous than words exists in the middle of your marriage? Movie stars like Cooper and Mulligan were the perfect people to give this scene its heft, and to dignify just how significant and powerful both Lenny and Felicia were, culturally and to each other. The sun would struggle to be married to the sun.