Maestro: Bradley Cooper shines in Leonard Bernstein biopic

Considering he began his career in knockaround comedy, Bradley Cooper has had quite the glow-up, developing into an actor-director who’s a regular fixture of Oscar season. His new film, Maestro, is out to prove that the success of his directorial debut (2018’s A Star Is Born) was no fluke. 

Cooper directs and stars in this biopic about Leonard Bernstein, the celebrated composer best known for his work on the musical West Side Story. Bernstein is shown as a figure at war with himself professionally and personally. In the music world, the drama of his conducting is in contrast with his reclusive work as a composer. In his personal life, he is deeply in love with his wife, actor Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), but that bond is tested by his affairs with younger men. 

It’s a complex and ambitious film, and at times overwhelming, but never less than captivating as multiple sides of the man are explored with visual tenacity. Intriguingly, Montealegre is also a fully formed character, a co-lead who is as important to the story as her celebrated spouse. 

Mulligan is arguably the main talking point, delivering a performance many see as a career-best. One of Cooper’s strengths as a director is the knowledge that co-stars don’t have to fight for screen time, and bringing in an actor of Mulligan’s calibre makes the film even richer.

Cooper himself plays the maestro with gusto; his chemistry with Mulligan is crucial to the film’s success, and isn’t undermined by his connection with Matt Bomer, who plays Bernstein’s lover David Oppenheim. Many biopics have either ignored their subject’s bisexuality or made a demon of it, so it’s a relief that all concerned treat this aspect of his life with maturity. 

There were headlines about Cooper’s prosthetic nose, which drew accusations of racial stereotyping (the musician was Jewish). Bernstein’s estate and The Anti-Defamation League defended the choice, which isn’t about parody but Cooper looking physically like a man he clearly reveres.