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Bradley Cooper’s Brilliant as Bernstein

At the center of “Maestro” is Bernstein’s complex relationship with his wife, Felicia.
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December 7, 2023
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro”

Early on in “Maestro” we see Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein get the call: Bruno Walter was ill and he would be filling in as conductor for the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, without as much as a rehearsal. It was 1943; we already know he nailed it and would have an illustrious career as a conductor and composer of “West Side Story,” among others works.

The film is masterful; there is nothing antisemitic about it at all and Cooper is guaranteed to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance. His version of Bernstein is a chain smoker who wasn’t only one thing. He lives his wife and wants to be a good father but knows he is often absent, misses holidays and, at first, doesn’t want to tell his daughter he is bisexual.

There was some controversy about Copper’s wearing a prosthetic nose, but Kazu Hiro, who did the make-up, deserves praise for his work as Cooper is more than believable playing Bernstein at different ages. 

There was some controversy about Copper’s wearing a prosthetic nose, but Kazu Hiro, who did the make-up, deserves praise for his work as Cooper is more than believable playing Bernstein at different ages. 

At the center of “Maestro” is Bernstein’s complex relationship with his wife, Felicia. Carey Mulligan, will surely get an Oscar nomination for her performance, depicts her as a woman who comes to terms with the fact that her husband is not all she wanted and will eventually chastise herself for thinking it was laudable to be unneedy. His bisexuality had not been a secret to her, but she may have miscalculated the impact of the time away spent on his work.

Cooper and Mulligan have a sort of purposeful half-chemistry and when he kisses her passionately and in a somewhat forced way near the end of the film, it’s all by design. 

As he did on Broadway in “The Elephant Man,” what Cooper accomplishes nonverbally is perhaps more impressive than what he does verbally. He worked to get Bernstein’s physicality down, studying the way Bernstein held his cigarette, his gestures while conducting, and his sonorous voice. It’s a character study and Cooper delivers an historic performance that is the best of his career. His version of Bernstein is larger than life but also human in desire, and when his wife gets a horrific diagnosis, in pain. 

Jewish comic and actress Sarah Silverman is excellent in a small role as Bernstein’s sister Shirley who loves her brother and recognizes his strengths and faults, and Maya Hawke is impressive as his daughter, Jamie, who loves her father but isn’t sure she wants to know all of the details of his life.

The scenes where Cooper and Mulligan sit back-to-back are simple yet meaningful. Cooper has shown he isn’t afraid to take risks, taking vocal lessons to sing alongside Lady Gaga in his directorial debut “A Star Is Born.” This risk paid off and is a wonderful tribute to one of the most famed Jewish musicians of all time. Near the end of the film, there is a tension-filled moment where Bernstein repeatedly corrects a student in his conducting. It’s a moment that shows Bernstein as a person of power, influence and awe. And the tension between Bernstein and the student is broken in a later scene. 

One of the reason’s Cooper is so successful as an actor is that there is a childlike joy that comes across in many of his roles. In “Maestro,” it comes across when we see Bernstein smile when he tells Felicia: “if summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. If nothing sings in you, you can’t make music.” 

There’s a scene where his children dance and the family comes together for a big hug as Felicia goes through her harrowing ordeal with cancer. In less assured hands, this scene would certainly become clichéd. But guided by Cooper, the scene feels authentic, letting the audience know that there is love, even if they haven’t spent the time together that other families did.

There is a famous “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine is annoyed that a low-level conductor insists on being called “Maestro.” After “Maestro,” new generations will associate the phrase with one man. 


“Maestro” is currently in theaters, and will start streaming on Netflix Dec. 20th, but it is worth seeing it in a theater.

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