The False Note in Bradley Cooper’s ‘Maestro’

There’s a heartbreaking scene in Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro,” about the marriage of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) to the actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), in which, as the couple argue in the bedroom of their Upper West Side apartment, Macy’s parade inflatables glide past the windows. A giant Snoopy echoes a Snoopy we saw in a family scene; it also gestures at the awkward gulf between Bernstein’s private and public lives, as if the musician himself were yet another helium-propelled icon from the Thanksgiving pantheon. Montealegre’s accusation, “Your truth is a [expletive] lie!” nails Bernstein’s privilege, condemning the habits and appetites he expects his family to tolerate and support.

The film gets right so much of who Bernstein was, allowing us to take in how he was, all at once, ahead of his time, a victim of his time, a gay man, a bisexual, a father, a nonconformist, a narcissist. “Maestro” is full of heart and craft, with riveting lead performances. It’s a film about a musician that doesn’t exaggerate or glorify the creative process, or suggest artists are either superhuman or subhuman.

The film drops you into the heart of creation so that you feel the excitement of the new, particularly in eras (the 1940s through the ’70s) in which Leonard Bernstein revolutionized how the public experienced classical music. As the decades shift, so does what we see: Early scenes use an aspect ratio (4:3) and color world (black and white) from the ’40s; then the film almost imperceptibly brings in color, before finally stretching the frame out to widescreen — all without banging you over the head with its cinematic cleverness. The cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, deserves special applause for his command of light, space and movement. An opening scene in which the young Bernstein leaps onto a bed, slaps his partner’s butt like a timpani, then runs right into Carnegie Hall in his bathrobe and boxers, is as thrilling as any time-compression or dream sequence I can name.

Although it’s clear that Cooper’s directorial hand is nothing less than breathtaking, the film becomes increasingly disquieting. In the first third of the film, the script sets up an intoxicating premise: a queer Jewish man inhabiting the already-antisemitic world of classical music falls in love with a woman. It can happen. It particularly could happen in a world in which gay artists were always in danger of being exposed and ejected from the institutions they depended on. In the ’40s and ’50s, when Bernstein and Montealegre met and married, psychiatry still considered homosexuality a disorder to be treated or cured. (A note on my language describing Bernstein’s sexuality: In an early letter, Montealegre tells Bernstein “you are a homosexual and may never change.” More recently, his daughter Jamie has referred to him alternately as gay and bisexual.)

Early on, the script follows Bernstein from dating the clarinetist David Oppenheim (the man in bed in that opening scene, played by Matt Bomer) to his courtship with Montealegre, an actress with high cheekbones and an intelligence and warmth that are just as sharply defined. One day Lenny’s walking alone in Central Park and runs into Oppenheim, who’s strolling with his wife, Ellen Adler (Kate Eastman), and baby in tow. By now Bernstein’s also married. Addressing the child, Bernstein jokes that he has slept with both of her parents! And adds with a kind of wild glee, “but I’m reining it in.” The mother and child go one way; Bernstein and Oppenheim head downtown. Soon Oppenheim is clasping Bernstein’s face, and they are both feeling, regretting, reliving what couldn’t have been.

If only the film itself weren’t an exercise in “reining in” Bernstein’s sexuality. Granted, the movie primarily concerns the relationship between Montealegre and Bernstein. It’s about two people creating a family, a family that has issues, partly because the wife spends years tolerating, resisting, commenting on, accepting and suffering from her husband’s dualities. But about a third of the way in, the queer characters all but fade out. They’re there as a light visual presence, but not as people with stories and interior lives.

After Oppenheim and Bernstein’s intimate stroll, Lenny and his lovers are reduced (in Montealegre’s eyes) to a series of obstacles to respectability, and (in the audience’s eyes) to a series of outfits, mannerisms and even clichés, like a coke-fueled party during which Bernstein talks on the phone to his daughter Jamie. Did some gay men in the ’70s skate on the surface of drugs and anonymous sex? Yes, and if the film tells me Bernstein was there to witness and experience it, I believe it. What I don’t believe is that he never experienced relationships with men built on conversation, intellectual intimacies and sustained physical contact. It wouldn’t have taken much — one or two scenes — to suggest that the gay relationships that Bernstein cultivated were in fact love affairs. That may have been worth noting, including in the service of telling the story of the marriage.

“Heterosexuals have never known what to do with queer people, if they think of their existence at all,” Carmen Maria Machado writes, in a memoir tracing the invisibility of certain narratives. I don’t want to believe that the director and his co-writer are incapable of writing well-rounded gay characters, but paradoxically, the failure to render Bernstein’s male lovers as three-dimensional people distracts from the central couple’s romance. I longed for more insight into the nuances of Bernstein and Montealegre’s conundrum, and details of his queer life could have provided it. Flattening Bernstein’s gay relationships to a series of knowing glances and brief encounters seemed to underline the main couple’s essential heterosexuality, rather than emphasizing their relationship’s complexity.

Because, in life, Bernstein kept seeing men — and not only at the events the film allows us to briefly glimpse. Ultimately, he left Montealegre for a younger man, Tom Cothran (Gideon Glick), who worked in classical radio. If included, this risky decision could have been a great turning point in the film. Scenes of Bernstein attending the dying Montealegre are moving; they could have been more meaningful if we had understood the drama and sacrifice behind his loving presence at her bedside. He didn’t just drop out of one or two coke-fueled soirees; he left a relationship.

The film ends with Montealegre’s death and suggests Bernstein never recovered from the loss. In life, after his wife’s death, Bernstein reconnected with Cothran, as a friend. Soon after, Cothran himself died, of AIDS, the plague that claimed the lives of so many men of his and Bernstein’s generations. It must have been a cavalcade of griefs for Bernstein; it must have been so complex for this artist to have struggled — with his desire to honor his desires, with his realization that the world was becoming increasingly open to “out” queer artists as viable public figures — and with the divisions between his queer worlds and his family. I wonder if Bernstein longed for Montealegre more acutely in the 1980s. Perhaps, together, they could have absorbed the horror of the AIDS pandemic.

The decision to leave out AIDS feels as if the filmmakers simply don’t know, or mark as significant, what happened in the world during the years between Montealegre’s death in 1978 and Bernstein’s own death in 1990. What viewers get instead is a near-final sequence of Bernstein grinding with his young conducting student to Tears for Fears’s “Shout,” then wildly dancing on his own. That these flashes of ecstasy occur in a room full of other young men, many of whom will die soon, is an odd understatement from a film obsessed with the passage of time.

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