Arts / Performing Arts

Examining Bradley Cooper’s Maestro Through the Eyes of Leonard Bernstein’s Daughter — Seeing an Oscar Contender In a New Light?

A Famous Marriage Goes Under a Filmmaker's Microscope

BY // 12.27.23
photography Jeff Grass Photography

Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s new movie about music icon Leonard Bernstein, has been creating a buzz ever since it premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Now streaming on Netflix after a limited wide release in movie theaters, it is considered a prime Oscar contender with four Golden Globe nominations already.

Houston Chamber Choir arranged an exclusive, limited-seating Maestro preview screening at the IPIC Theater in River Oaks District earlier this winter. In addition to the excitement of being the first in Houston to see the movie, and the delight of dining and lounging in the movie theater’s pod-like seats while viewing, the fundraiser offered something else very special. Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter Jamie Bernstein was on hand to make opening remarks, do a generously long Q & A and linger to chat with attendees as the evening drew to a close.

Houston Chamber Choir founder and director Robert Simpson points out Jamie Bernstein was an integral part of another Chamber Choir event in 2018 — the performance of Tonight, Tonight Won’t Be Just Any Night in honor of her late father’s 100th birthday.

Jamie Bernstein speaking_Jeff Grass Photography (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)
Jamie Bernstein speaking at Houston Chamber Choir “Maestro” preview (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)

Maestro in Focus

Leonard Bernstein (1918 to 1990) was one of the most important musical figures in 20th century America. He was the music director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969 and conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras, accruing an extensive discography. He composed for concert halls and musical theaters. As a teacher, his televised Young People’s Concerts influenced more than a generation.

Against this backdrop comes Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, a movie Cooper produced, co-wrote, directed and stars in as Leonard Bernstein. Audiences will have to decide how they view Cooper’s decision to portray Bernstein stripped away from his music, the camera boring in instead on his marriage and life as a closeted gay man.

Jamie Bernstein’s own memoir Famous Father Girl (2018) was published to coincide with Leonard’s 100th birthday. It reveals her ambivalence toward her famous father and her experience of her parents’ marriage. Some of the book’s more indelicate content has made its way onto the screen. One example? Bernstein conducting a long conversation with colleagues while seated in the bathroom, the door open, something he regularly did.

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In my view, the movie does not do much to generate sympathy for the predicament Bernstein was in. That would be his abiding affection for his wife Felicia conflicted by the near impossibility of being openly homosexual in the era he lived.

It seems harsh to declare his marriage a failure. It produced three children and ended only with Felicia Bernstein’s death in 1978 at age 56 from lung cancer. But it can’t be described as a success either.

While Bernstein’s intimate friendships with some of the most prominent musicians of the day are well established and clarified in The Leonard Bernstein Letters, published in 2013, extensive details of what went on in the Bernstein marriage were not widely known. Certainly, cinematic enactments of what was said in the bedroom or in the thick of a domestic dispute have never been seen.

A particularly bitter — even shocking — scene takes place in the Bernsteins’ stunning New York apartment, just as a giant Snoopy balloon floats by the window in from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Distraught by Bernstein’s increasingly flagrant sexual liaisons, Felicia charges, standing over him: “If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen.”

Viewers’ response to revelations such as this might hinge on whether they see Cooper’s intention as benign or malicious.

Carl Cunningham, former music critic; Jamie Bernstein and her cousin Karen Bernstein_Jeff Grass Photography (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)
Carl Cunningham, Jamie Bernstein, Karen Bernstein at Houston Chamber Choir “Maestro” preview (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)

Cooper details that his own research — using correspondence, private papers and home movies — led him to focus on the Bernstein marriage. However, after meeting with the three Bernstein children to obtain the music rights, a close friendship developed into a collaboration of sorts.

“Bradley brought the family in on the process,” Jamie Bernstein told the Houston audience, noting they communicated almost every day. “He wanted to make a film about an issue everyone can relate to. A portrait of a marriage, not a biopic.

“He made an incredibly authentic film.”

One could wonder to what extent Bradley Cooper’s close relationship with the Bernstein children influenced the eventual content of Maestro, and to what extent we are seeing the Bernstein marriage through the lens of the kids.

Marianna Parnas-Simpson, Houston Chamber Choir Founder and Artistic Director Robert Simpson, Jamie Bernstein_Jeff Grass Photography (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)
Marianna Parnas-Simpson, Houston Chamber Choir founder and artistic director Robert Simpson, Jamie Bernstein at Houston Chamber Choir “Maestro” preview (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)

Bradley Cooper & Carey Mulligan Standout

The movie holds audiences’ attention in much the same way the lauded HBO series Succession did, letting them in on the suffering of the rich and famous. Except Felicia and Lenny Bernstein are real people, with real reputations and real legacies.

Maestro is two hours and nine minutes of two good people who suffered enormously, caught in a tangle of social circumstances and their own drives they’d been perhaps too naïve to understand.

Even with five hours’ worth of makeup and a plug in his nose to make his voice sound closer to Bernstein’s, Cooper’s own affable personality comes through. Was it that, or was it Lenny’s fundamental goodness that made my heart swell with compassion at the depiction of Bernstein’s downward spiral in the 14 years after Felicia died?

Most of the final scenes portray a Bernstein dissipated from drugs and drink, lurching between sadness and what passes for mania. Saddest of all is the scene of him sweating and pawing over one of his young students in a lurid party scene bathed in red light.

Similar information has not been unknown. In a 2017 interview with the Library of Congress, Charlie Harmon, Bernstein’s personal assistant from 1982 to 1986, describes the first time he met Leonard Bernstein: “I thought, ‘Who was this derelict, this decrepit geriatric, who was drunk and hadn’t slept?’ I thought he was completely nuts.”

But there are also good stories of those years told by Harmon and many others, which Cooper’s Maestro leaves unacknowledged.

One of the first things Harmon learned was that Bernstein set aside time every Friday evening, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, to call his mother. “It didn’t matter where we were or what was going on,” Harmon noted.

In 1985, Leonard Bernstein conducted his Symphony No. 3 “Kaddish,” which refers to the Jewish prayer for the dead, at the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony in Japan. His eyes wet with tears as he lowered his baton.

Nothing less than extraordinary was his founding of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival Orchestra in Germany in 1987. Still in existence, the orchestra is made up of young musicians under the age of 27 who audition in 35 cities around the world.

One of the most moving things I’ve ever seen is a video of Bernstein’s master class with the Festival Orchestra working on Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” Although he didn’t look well, Leonard Bernstein is still the lion in winter. He roars. He cajoles. He teaches. “You’re a dinosaur.” “You’re too well mannered.” “It’s spring and you want to kiss the ground.” And he loves. “I knew you could do it. I knew it all the time.”

The maestro conducted until two months before his death in 1990. His last concert was at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, where his career as a conductor began.

Jamie Bernstein giving presentation_Jeff Grass Photography (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)
Jamie Bernstein giving presentation at Houston Chamber Choir “Maestro” preview (Photo by Jeff Grass Photography)

Carey Mulligan dazzles as Felicia Bernstein in Cooper’s movie. We admire her discretion, beauty, elegance and devotion to her husband. She is captivating and the screen is hers.

Our hearts go out to the virtually abandoned wife who gave up her career to love a famous man. “It was my own arrogance,” Mulligan as Felicia says. “To think I could survive on what he has to give.”

The more the camera closes in on her anguish (director Cooper shines here too), the more we fall in love with her. She is brilliant as the camera lingers on her face when Leonard Bernstein reaches for the man next to him at a concert, or when she is close to death from cancer and Lenny has returned home to care for her. He enfolds her in his arms on the bed, and her face shows a whole kaleidoscope of emotions — among them regret and love.

Jamie Bernstein told the crowd at the Houston premiere of Maestro that her mother was “subtle” and “nuanced.” Having watched the movie, I’d add enigmatic to the list of adjectives. Nothing is simple in this story.

Maestro” is streaming on Netflix. You can learn more about the Houston Chamber Choir here.

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