“Maestro,” written by, starring, and directed by Bradley Cooper, is a worthy second attempt at directing (2018’s “A Star Is Born” was his debut). It will earn many Oscar nominations, but it does not seem to be capturing the imagination of the general public.  The music and the performances are spot on, but it’s not the “feel good” movie of 2023.

For me, that movie was “Dream Sequential.” “Maestro” won’t be acing that Nicolas Cage effort out on my “best of 2023” list. “Maestro” is a typical bio-pic structurally. This attempt to cram a remarkable life into a movie that runs less than 3 hours is impressive and one of the best efforts of 2023. It just isn’t “must see” viewing for most, and it isn’t doing that well so far on Netflix, according to Netflix’s own data.

Thematically, “Maestro” reminds of the 2004 film “De-Lovely” with Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd.  That 2004 film, directed by Irwin Winkler and written by Jay Cocks, had Kevin Kline playing Cole Porter and Ashley Judd playing Linda, his wife. Linda also had to learn to cope with Cole Porter’s bi-sexuality and infidelity within their marriage. Kevin Kline sat behind the piano playing a bit more in that one. But the message about open-minded women trying valiantly to accept the bisexuality of their husbands was similar. This one is far more accomplished because of the 6 years of effort trying to get everything “right” (and, of course, the $80 million-dollar Netflix budget.)

As far as “getting it right,” “Maestro accomplishes that, but falls short of enchanting us. It doesn’t draw us into what we hope will be an absorbing drama. It “works” musically. The performances and make-up and cinematography (Matthew Libatique) and editing (Michelle Tesoro)  are all top-notch, but it just didn’t fly, Orville.


Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan as Mr, and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein.


For me, the stand-out—and front-runner for Best Actress award come Oscar time—is Carey Mulligan. She lost out when nominated for Emerald Fennell’s 2020 film “Promising Young Woman” but she has amassed a body of work that merits nomination and a win, going all the way back to “An Education” (2009) and “Never Let Me Go” (2010). She anchors this movie, which is really the story of Leonard Bernstein’s bisexuality and genius as a composer and musician, and their romance and marriage. (I met Carey Mulligan at the Chicago International Film Festival when she appeared with Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” in 2018).

In the scene where Mulligan and Cooper quarrel while the Thanksgiving Parade drifts by their window (not authentic, by the way), Felicia warns Bernstein that he may wind up a “lonely old Queen.” Mulligan portrays Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montelegre, a Chilean actress, who said, before they married after four years of romance,  “I know exactly who you are. Let’s give it a whirl.”

It is clear that Felicia is aware of Bernstein’s sexual proclivities. In a private letter written after their marriage, Felicia acknowledged her husband’s sexual orientation. She wrote to him: “You are a homosexual and may never change – you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?”  In the script (written by Cooper in collaboration with Josh Singer) Felicia rationalizes, “If it is going to give him pleasure and stop him from suffering and it’s in my power to do it, then what-the-hell.”

But the price of sharing her husband’s affections with other male lovers has a high cost. During their big argument Felicia cites a Chilean parable that says one should not stand under a bird that is about to shit. Adds Felicia, “And I’ve just been living under that bird for so long.” She adds, “Your truth is a fucking lie.” In another scene, a friend of Bernstein’s comments to Bernstein on Felicia’s depressed state, saying, “Something in her seems crushed.” He remarks on her “keen sense of futility.”

For me, this film was more a tribute to the open-minded woman who allowed Leonard Bernstein to create and provided him with three children and a stable home life and a sense of sartorial style that was one of his enduring trademarks. Their true affection for one another is undeniable. But in the 1950s when Bernstein produced some of his most impressive work, a “beard” was necessary so that the world saw a happily married man, not a gay musician who was cheating on his long-suffering wife.

When Felicia is diagnosed with breast cancer that has metastasized, Bernstein returns from a period in 1976 when he lived in northern California with music scholar Thomas Cothran. This rupture in their marriage is somewhat soft-pedaled in the bio-pic. We see “Tommy” and realize that Felicia does not appreciate his presence in their lives (she gives a great side-eye during one concert where Leonard and Tommy are holding hands, while she sits next to her husband on his right.) When she is diagnosed with cancer, however, Bernstein nurses Felicia through her final illness. She died on June 16, 1978.

Leonard Bernstein lived until October 14, 1990, dying at age 72.  Leonard Bernstein is quoted this way in the script about life’s challenges, “As death approaches, an artist must be allowed to create with absolute freedom…I must live the rest of my life, no matter how long or short it may be, exactly the way that I want.” That sounds fairly selfish in the context of a marriage. The opening quote, appearing in black-and-white at the beginning of the film, ties in with these statements: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.”

The “contradictory answers” for Bernstein in life are clearly delineated for us in Bradley Cooper’s script and performance. At one point Bernstein says, “I really believe that man is this trapped animal. A victim of his own greeds and follies. Either one believes in the divine element in this, or one doesn’t. …I have to believe in the remote corner of my soul that there is a way out.”


The film opens in black-and-white. The various periods in Bernstein’s life are, in a sense, limned by the different methods of shooting. The film goes full color about 49 minutes into the 2 hour and 9 minute film. Daughter Jamie Bernstein (well-played by Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya) was struck by how much Cooper resembled her father. Jamie noted how the actor-director utilized her memoir, 2018’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, praising Cooper for seeking the same perfection in his work that her famous father constantly sought. The family members also defended Cooper when the prosthetic nose he wore to appear more Jewish was criticized.


Cooper’s resemblance to the real Leonard Bernstein is pronounced, thanks to the expert make-up work of Kazu Hiro. We can predict that he will be Oscar nominated this spring. He previously won Academy Awards for turning Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill for “The Darkest Hour” and Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly for “Bombshell.”


The music, of course, is “all Bernstein  (nearly) all the time.” One scene that is not Bernstein’s music is a tour de force for Cooper as an actor. That is a six-plus minute recreation of Bernstein leading the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 at Ely Cathedral in 1973.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin was Cooper’s conducting consultant; his work obviously paid off.

One other thing that I noticed was how nasal Bernstein’s voice sounded when Cooper uttered certain lines in the script.


Leonard Bernstein was one of the most talented and influential musicians in American history, and one of the most prodigious. He won 7 Emmy Awards, 2 Tony Awards, 16 Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award) and was  one of the Kennedy Center Honorees in 1981.

This bio-pic, produced by Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and was the Spotlight Gala at the 61st New York Film Festival. It is an ambitious chronicling of the man who directed the New York Philharmonic from 1961 to 1969 and the dedicated  musician who spent over 50 years teaching and mentoring young musical talent at Tanglewood. Best Picture of the Year? Not this year. But “Maestro” is a tremendous achievement in its own right.