Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Bradley Cooper Shows How Leonard Bernstein Conducted Himself in “Maestro” By Staying Low Key at Splashy Premiere


It’s hard to be stealth and splashy at the same time, but that’s what Netflix and the New York Film Festival tried to pull off last night. They had a big Hollywood gala for Bradley Cooper’s “Maestro” at the new David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center. But because of the SAG strike, it was also a little entre nous: the star (who’s also the director) couldn’t walk the red carpet, be on stage for introductions or the Q&A after, and was absolutely not at the parties (more on those in a minute).

Celebrities were hard to find as the “Maestro” audience filed in, some nearly slipping on the still shiny hardwood floors. Blythe Danner was spotted, so was “Succession” star Jeremy Strong. But it was pretty slim pickings if you were looking for glamour beyond them.

Cooper himself sort so sneaked in and took an aisle seat, accompanied by his six year old daughter, Lea. Cooper glad handed and hugged his wildly happy audience at Geffen Hall, having been given permission by SAG to attend his passion project premiere. That his subject Leonard Bernstein, had begun his career in this very place, conducting the New York Philharmonic, gave the evening extra resonance. Fervidly researching, Cooper was said to have attended many a Phil performance in the past five years, seated in the conductor’s box hanging dangerously over the rail, rapt to the sound and feverish body movements of the job. His devotion extended to every aspect of the film, and it shows.

The film begins with an initial craggy faced vision of Bernstein in his last years—Cooper’s makeup is extraordinary, beyond the discussion of his nose. Bernstein is seen in five stages of his stellar career, ending every concert by embracing and hugging his fans. Clearly Cooper meant to morph into his Maestro, taking hours in makeup time, we learned later, insisting on being fully made up by the time cast and crew arrived at 5AM.

Glimpses of Bernstein’s musical genius pervade the film and are especially beautiful in a scene when a balletic dance of sailors in “Wonderful Town” cuts to Cooper in sailor dress, joining in, making his dips and turns. “The Requiem in St. John the Divine” is the longest musical interlude, showing Cooper completely following in Bernstein’s conductor chops. Performers who had worked with Bernstein, we heard at the Q&A, actually imagined him back in action. That’s how authentic Bradley Cooper seemed to them.

At the Q&A, Cooper’s authenticity was lauded over and over. Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, talked about the genesis of the project, how it started fifteen years ago and gained traction once Cooper took the film on. Josh Singer, co-writer with Cooper, said that not a word from his original script remained. Cooper chose to focus on the love affair of his marriage, giving Carey Mulligan as Lenny’s long suffering wife, Felicia, top billing. She is truly divine in this Oscar worthy role, devoted to her husband, and devastated by his dalliances with men — even though, as she says repeatedly, she knew what she was getting into.

The Bernstein children said they were fine with this focus, opening up their Fairfield, Connecticut home as a principal location, even allowing Cooper and Mulligan to wear what clothes still hung in the closets. Cooper cast actor friends’ children in supporting roles, such as a lovely Maya Hawke — daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman– as Jamie, and Sam Nivola — son of Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer — as his son, Alexander.

Fine as it is — and many will love this film — anyone interested in Bernstein’s complicated relationship with his father, a cruel disparaging figure, or Bernstein’s politics — there’s not a Black Panther in sight—may be disappointed. The movie nods to the rebuked suggestion that Bernstein change his name to Burns, and his steadfast objection, but goes nowhere near his renewed interest in Judaism. “Maestro” emphasizes instead Lenny’s love for Felicia, his rampant homosexuality, and a lot of smoking –which actually works well for this Hollywood styled version of a biopic of a great artist.

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