In 1946, Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) was already living a gay lifestyle in NYC, had made his triumphant debut conducting the New York Philharmonic and premiered ‘On the Town,’ his collaboration with Jerry Robbins (Michael Urie, TV's 'Ugly Betty'), on Broadway.  That is the year he met Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), who would become his best friend and confidante and who he would marry in 1951.  As the years passed, though, Felicia suffered as Lenny’s attentions strayed, but she continued to play the part of supportive wife of the “Maestro.”

Laura's Review: B+

Cowriter (with Josh Singer, "Spotlight")/director Bradley Cooper’s second film as director/star once again delves into the romantic relationship of two artists where one outshines the other then loses them tragically.  But excepting Cooper’s willingness to cede the spotlight to his female costar, this is a very different film from “A Star Is Born,” both a biopic of a real person and riskier in its artistic choices, a marriage portrayed as mosaic.

While Cooper jumps about in time a bit, the first half of the film focuses on the early years and is in black and white.  It is also the more satisfying part of the film, encompassing not only Bernstein’s rise and the early days of his marriage, but the entire flavor of New York’s artistic and social set.  A recreation of the couple’s 1955 Person to Person interview with Edward R. Murrow is a fine introduction to the marriage while their meeting at a party, featuring entertainment by Adolph Greene (Nick Blaemire) and Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) and tart commentary from Bernstein’s sister Shirley (Sarah Silverman), steeps us in the time and place, conversational dialogue quick and clipped like a screwball comedy, cigarettes a constant.  Lenny’s infatuation with Felicia will leave a stunned smile on David Oppenheim’s (Matt Bomer, "Magic Mike's Last Dance") face when he announces she’s the girl for him.  We hear snippets from “West Side Story” and director of photography Matthew Libatique (2018's "A Star Is Born") and editor Michelle Tesoro ("Flag Day") moves Lenny and Felicia from an interior scene onto the stage within the same take, the two suddenly within the ballet that would become “On the Town,” Lenny one of the dancing sailors.  As portrayed by Cooper, the black and white Lenny is a bit of a goofball, an open-faced Gee Willikers kind of guy who speaks in a low, adenoidal voice.  Mulligan’s Felicia comports herself like an aristocrat, her foreign accent and obvious intelligence lending an air of sophistication contrasted by her sweet nature, twinkling eyes and lovely, hopeful smile.

The film resets into the 1970’s in color, now at the family home in Fairfield, CT, the three Bernstein children now approaching adulthood.  Felicia informs Lenny that their daughter, Jamie (Maya Hawke, "Asteroid City") has heard rumors of his behavior at Tanglewood and asks him to allay her anxiety (i.e., lie).  This is the first indication Cooper has given us that Felicia is well aware of his homosexuality, although she has proclaimed earlier to know ‘everything about him’ (and did).  Instead of the supportive relationship we’ve seen earlier, Felicia is now beginning to fray (we hear the music from “West Side’s” gang rumble), no longer content with being his cheering squad and when he announces ‘I have finished Mass,’ she runs and jumps into their swimming pool, sinking to the bottom.  Attending a performance in a NYC theater box with the friend, Georgie (James Cusati-Moyer, "Black Adam"), Lenny’s brought into their family home, Felicia casts a sour, downturned glance at her husband clasping the other man’s hand.  She returns to their hotel suite and deposits his pajamas and monogrammed slippers outside the bedroom door.

The film’s most famous scene will inevitably be the couple’s big Thanksgiving confrontation, the Bernstein family, in the city for the holiday, upset by dad’s late appearance.  Felicia snaps out her grievances, ‘You better be careful or you’ll die a lonely old queen,’ her closing zinger as a giant Snoopy balloon floats by their windows.  While we can still see the admiration in her eyes watching him conduct in a Cathedral, she’s more the dutiful than admiring wife in its aftermath.

The film’s last act is tragic, the couple finding each other once again before Lenny is left alone, partying with wild abandon in a gay club with the younger man he mentors in his Tanglewood program.

Cooper never gets into the Bernsteins’ political activism, their party for the Black Panthers famously satirized by Tom Wolfe as ‘Radical Chic’ in New York Magazine, nor does he highlight each of Bernstein’s achievements, instead suggesting them by doing things like tucking bits of his “West Side Story” score into the overall picture.  The entire film plays like the movements of a musical piece, Libatique’s camera dancing around its subjects, then slowing before picking up the tempo once again.   But while Cooper has conducted the film like a breathless series of fragments coming together to form the idea of a marriage, each partner’s artistic contributions given unequal weight, he’s directed the superior performance from Mulligan, who traverses the full arc from youthful idealism to weary self-realization.  Cooper himself, who worked long and hard to get the conducting scenes right, has both disappeared into the role (with the aid of both prosthetic and aging makeup) and revealed his acting, his performance never quite as natural as his costar’s.  Ironically, we learn more about Lenny through the eyes of Mulligan than from Cooper himself.

Robin's Review: B

Brought to us, seemingly, by the American Tobacco Institute, director, co-writer and star Bradley Cooper does not tell us about the spectacular career of musical director and composer Leonard Bernstein. Instead, the helmer concentrates on the decades-long and turbulent relation between actress Felicia Montealagre and the “Maestro.”

It is probably just me but, as I watched Bradley Cooper in the prosthetic make up to give him the bulbous proboscis of the famous orchestra conductor and composer, I could not stop thinking of one of Cooper’s earliest acting works – “Wet Hot American Summer.” That film was pre-nose job and left as is, he could have done the role, now, without the fake nose makeup. But, I digress.

I can see that all aspects of “Maestro” are there with the goal to get a sweep of Oscar and other award nods this year. The aforementioned makeup, costume, set design and production, score and the rest are aimed at acclaim. But, I have one problem, or several, with the film.

Do not expect and in-depth analysis and display of the nuts and bolts of the career of Leonard Bernstein. The man’s spectacular vocation is shown in highlights, from his debut, an emergency that catapulted the man to world fame, to the other high points of his accomplishments. These career points are just touched upon without any real depth.

Instead, director Cooper focuses on the turbulent relationship between Bernstein and Felicia, an actress also on the fast track to fame. Early on in the film, the upcoming musical director is in a gay relationship – well, maybe more bisexual – and it became obvious, to me, that Felicia was a beard for Bernstein. This realization colored my view of the story and the man.

Carey Mulligan, as usual, gives a fine, layered performance as the woman who sacrificed her career and life for a man not always faithful. As such, the pain, grief and sacrifice she endured makes for a tragic, not romantic, character. Cooper, as the acclaimed composer, comes across as a man, self assured and talented, who is more interested in his increasingly hedonistic life than he is his wife and children.

I agree that “Maestro” is a well-crafted biopic but does not, explore the music the man made. I suppose a well-crafted documentary on Bernstein’s life would best show that life. Here, though, I get a story that shows the man’s ego and selfishness and not the genius. That, to me is a misstep and frustrating.

Netflix releases "Maestro" in select theaters on 11/22/23, expanding in subsequent weeks.  It begins streaming on the platform on 12/20/23.