December 30, 2023 – To say that legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was complicated is an understatement, all his life and beyond, people tried unsuccessfully to pigeonhole him, but this movie (streaming on Netflix) tries to capture his whole spectrum.
Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”) co-writes, directs and stars as Bernstein in this film, which is centered on the relationship between Leonard and his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan of “She Said”). Felicia, an actress, finds herself in the middle of a tornado of conflicting emotions as her husband soars to international music fame and success, right along with his extramarital affairs with both men and women.
Bernstein's homosexuality, or perhaps bisexuality (his daughter, Jamie, called him “omnisexual”) is a constant source of tension between Leonard and his wife in the movie, and is the main complication in their complicated marriage. This black and white movie, which covers Bernstein's life from age 25 to age 60 includes his artistic triumphs as well as his personal problems.
The movie starts with a phone call informing Bernstein, then aged 25, that he will guest conduct the New York Philharmonic orchestra because guest conductor Bruno Walter became ill. His debut, carried live on CBS radio in 1948 is a triumph and makes him an instant star. He resists advice to stick to one musical genre, he says, “the world wants us to be only one thing and I find that deplorable.” He composes not only symphonic and orchestral music, but stage musical scores, including “West Side Story” and film scores, including the movie classic, “On the Waterfront.”
Bernstein meets Felicia at a party in New York, and he is immediately attracted to her. Their stormy on-and-off romance finally led to marriage in 1951, and their turbulent relationship continued, on and off, for over 20 years. At one point in the film, Felicia tells her husband that their daughter, Jamie (played by Maya Hawke) is upset by sexual rumors about him. Felicia asks him to talk to her, adding, “Don't you dare tell her the truth.” He makes up a story to tell Jamie.
As a famous Jewish man (he was advised early on to change his name to Burns to avoid that prejudice) there are plenty of those against him to start with, without adding the stigma of homosexuality on top of that. That double jeopardy probably would have badly damaged his career, regardless of his massive musical talent. Bernstein was born into times when most gay men lived in a closet, as he does.
One might suspect that Bernstein's marriage was one of convenience, to hide his true nature, but this movie argues that he and Felicia did love each other, despite everything. At any rate, the performances by Cooper and Mulligan as Leonard and Felicia and very powerful, and they keep this film afloat.
I never really understood what a conductor does, with all that business of waving the arms about. In this movie, Cooper does an amazing job in these conducting scenes. It is a wonderful display of physical acting. I still don't know what a conductor does, but Cooper does a great job of acting like he's doing it. According to some experts, at least, Cooper does a great job at this. Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin served as Cooper's conducting coach, and he conducted some of the music heard in the film.
One of the more impressive orchestral scenes (where Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony is played by the London Symphony Orchestra) was filmed at Ely Cathedral, the actual location of the original event in 1973 (one of several such reenactments in the movie) in England. It is a magnificent setting. I've been there. This movie could have been a who's who of the top musicians of the time (the close relationship between Bernstein and Aaron Copland is minimized, for instance) but the screenplay, by Cooper and Josh Singer, wisely concentrates on the relationship between Leonard and Felicia.
The makeup artists, and there are dozens of them, do a great job with both prosthetics (by Kazu Hiro) to make Cooper look like Bernstein, including a nose remake, but also artificially aging Cooper, Mulligan and others (including Sarah Silverman, who plays Bernstein's sister, Shirley) for a number of scenes spanning the years.
The music in the film is wonderful, some of it performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and some choral performances by the London Symphony Chorus, along with some original recordings. There is also some pop music on the soundtrack as well. Cinematography, by Matthew Libatique (“Black Swan”) is effective. There are also a lot of visual effects in the film, and some fantasy sequences.
This movie will probably be nominated for multiple Academy Awards, and it adds to the luster of Cooper's reputation, following his huge success directing and starring in the “A Star is Born” 2018 remake. This movie is certainly watchable and entertaining, if not compelling. The slow pace of the movie was such that I was looking at my watch to see when it was going to be over. It is never boring, though, and I did learn a lot about Bernstein and his family. This movie rates a B.
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