'Maestro' pays tribute to Leonard Bernstein 2
In his film 'Maestro' Bradley Cooper portrays Leonard Bernstein in different phases of his life. Image: Jason McDonald/Netflix via AP

Bradley Cooper's film 'Maestro' pays tribute to Leonard Bernstein

Bradley Cooper's prosthetic nose sparked controversy ahead of the film's release. But the biopic is an authentic portrayal of the charismatic conductor, composer and musician.
Gaby Reucher, Deutsche Welle | Dec 08 2023

Leonard Bernstein was always good for a surprise. 

When he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989, he had the choir sing the word "Freiheit" (freedom) instead of "Freude" (joy) in the final chorus. He once spontaneously took his student, the Japanese conductor Kent Nagano, to an art exhibition instead of holding a conducting lesson.

For the charismatic and outgoing Bernstein, life was a dance — quite literally so, especially when he was conducting.

Now, Leonard Bernstein's exceptional personality shines through in Bradley Cooper's new film, "Maestro." 

Along with Bernstein's musical successes, Cooper primarily focuses on the maestro's personal life, addressing how his relationship with his wife, Costa Rica-born Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (played by Carey Mulligan) was strained by his homosexuality.

Just like in his critically-acclaimed directorial debut "A Star is Born," Cooper stars in the lead role, embodying the protagonist in different phases of his life. 

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre sharing a happy moment
Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre sharing a happy moment. Image: Jason McDonald/Netflix via AP

Cooper's prosthetic nose sparked controversy

In September, "Maestro" had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The film is now released in cinemas and will also be coming out on Netflix on December 20. 

While the biopic has already garnered positive reviews, it also caused a stir ahead of its release.

The trailer, showing that Bradley Cooper wore a prosthetic nose to depict the Jewish conductor, stoked accusations of antisemitism.

Historically, antisemitic caricatures have depicted Jewish people as having exaggerated hooked noses, a stereotype that has been used to justify the marginalization of Jews.

Some critics also questioned why a non-Jewish actor should be cast in the role of a Jew, comparing it to Blackfacing, the formerly widespread and racist practice of non-Black performers using make-up to caricature Black people. 

However, Bernstein's children didn't feel the nose was a problem. His 71-year-old daughter, Jamie Bernstein, described the controversy as ridiculous and said that her father actually did have a "nice big nose."

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Leonard Bernstein: Musician, humanist and educator

Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States. 

In addition to music, he also studied philosophy, aesthetics and linguistics at Harvard University. 

Bernstein made his first public performance as a pianist in 1934. Three years later, he met his mentor and close friend, the composer Aaron Copland. 

His conducting career began in 1940 when, at the age of 22, he attended the inaugural festival at the Tanglewood Music Center, the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer home. 

The film also portrays how Bernstein had his breakthrough as a conductor in 1943 when he stepped in at the last minute to conduct the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, in replacement of Bruno Walter, who had fallen ill. The critics were full of praise. Bernstein later became the orchestra's music director. 

The career of the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra quickly took off
The career of the 25-year-old assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra quickly took off. Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

The composer behind 'West Side Story'

As a composer, Leonard Bernstein was influenced by jazz and African-American rhythms of the 1940s. He was also interested in Jewish music and sounds from his ancestors' Ukrainian homeland. He was a great musical composer.

His name will forever be associated with his best-known stage work, "West Side Story," from 1957. A first film adaptation, by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, came out in 1961; Steven Spielberg also directed his film version of the story in 2021. 

Bernstein was not only a conductor and composer, but also a humanist and teacher. In the 1970s, he explained basic concepts of classical music on television in the "Young People's Concerts" series and introduced composers in a humorous way.

Many of the world's great conductors, such as Herbert Blomstedt, Kent Nagano and Seiji Ozawa started out as Bernstein's assistants. 

Leonard Bernstein in 1978
Leonard Bernstein in 1978. Image: Röhnert/Keystone/picture alliance.

A conflicted marriage

The film "Maestro" is primarily set during the 25 years of Leonard Bernstein's marriage with his wife Felicia, who had found out that Bernstein was homosexual shortly after their wedding in 1951.

To the outside world, the couple initially had an exemplary marriage with three children, but both had extramarital affairs. 

In 1976, Bernstein left his wife. But when he learned a year later that she had lung cancer, he stayed by her side until her death in 1978.

"Maestro" shows how Bernstein was conflicted by the different aspects of his life; he is portrayed as a man who remained a constant seeker, and who charmed audiences with his wit and musical expression.

Bernstein's children – Jamie, Nina and Alexander – were "overwhelmed" by Cooper's approach to their parents' story: "He chose to involve us all through the process. We were part of his bringing this work of art to life," Jamie Bernstein told the press at the Venice Film Festival. "It was touching to us, his desire to tell this story as authentically as he could."

Nina Bernstein (l) and Jamie Bernstein, the conductor's daughters, at the screening of the film at the BFI London Film Festival
Nina Bernstein (l) and Jamie Bernstein, the conductor's daughters, at the screening of the film at the BFI London Film Festival. Image: Ian West/PA/dpa/picture alliance

Bradley Cooper once wanted to be a conductor

The music scenes in particular were particularly important to Bradley Cooper. After all, his passion has always been music, he told the press during the shoot. 

When Leonard Bernstein died in 1990, he was buried with a baton and a score of Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony, a work he conducted masterfully.

Conducting Mahler's Second Symphony, Bradley Cooper reproduces Bernstein's style in an ecstatic sequence lasting around six minutes. To achieve the scene, the actor-director took conducting lessons for six years. He conducted the orchestra in real time for the film.

This article was originally written in German.