columnJewish & Israeli Culture

There was more to Leonard Bernstein than his sex life or his nose

A much-anticipated biopic is a reflection of contemporary obsessions, adding little of value about a great musician and one of the most interesting Jews of the 20th century.

Leonard Bernstein, an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author and humanitarian, in London in 1986. Credit: Go My Media/Shutterstock.
Leonard Bernstein, an American conductor, composer, pianist, music educator, author and humanitarian, in London in 1986. Credit: Go My Media/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

It turns out the least of the sins of Bradley Cooper’s new film “Maestro” is the size of the prosthetic nose the actor wore to portray Leonard Bernstein. The movie, which was recently given a brief theatrical release in order to be eligible for the Oscars, is now available for streaming to subscribers of Netflix. So, more than a year after the controversy erupted over whether the nose affixed to Cooper’s movie star face is too big or somehow evidence of antisemitism—or whether there was something wrong with a non-Jew playing a famous Jew—audiences can judge for themselves the merit of the project Cooper championed, directed and played the title role.

Whatever conclusions they may come to about a fake proboscis that appears to be bigger than Bernstein’s but smaller than that of the fictional Cyrano de Bergerac should be considered a minor issue for even those who professed to be outraged by it. That’s not just because by the time the movie came out, Jews had bigger worries than Bradley Cooper’s nose. In the wake of the Hamas Oct. 7 atrocities and the surge in open and vicious antisemitism in the United States by Israel-haters who are giving support, whether intentional or tacit, to the group responsible for the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, the furious kerfuffles that ensued when production photos and then the film trailer was released seem even more absurd than they did at the time.

The problem with “Maestro” is that it is a profound disappointment for those who were hoping that it would do justice to Bernstein’s complicated yet important legacy as an artist and as a quintessential 20th-century American Jew. Some in the Jewish community seemed to think the pre-release controversies were meaningful expressions of Jewish insecurity. But the film reflects a sensibility that shines a light on the obsessions of the cultural moment in which it was released that has nothing to do with our justified worries about Jew-hatred. Instead, it treats the most important thing about Bernstein to be his sex life.

Bradley Cooper in "Maestro"
Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein in “Maestro,” which he directed. Credit: YouTube screenshot of the film trailer.

It’s all about sex

The film, which might better be titled “Living With the Maestro” or “The Maestro’s Wife,” is primarily interested in Bernstein’s marriage to actress Felicia Cohen Montealegre Bernstein, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan. Theirs was a love affair that was expressed in an open marriage necessitated by the numerous affairs with both men and women that Bernstein engaged in throughout his life. By all accounts, they had a rich and loving home life with three children who still revere their legacy and carefully guard it with the Leonard Bernstein Foundation they control. Cooper had their enthusiastic and supportive cooperation in making the film, and its priorities seem to reflect their sensibilities—or at least those of Jamie, his eldest daughter, whose memoir provided the inspiration for some of the film’s most painful scenes.

The Bernsteins’ relationship was complicated, and their ups and downs provided plenty of theatrical fodder. So, perhaps one can’t blame Cooper for centering his film on that aspect of the great musician’s life. Yet in doing so, he succumbed to the temptation to pander to contemporary audiences’ appetite for soap opera. What could be more 2023 than to reduce Bernstein’s life to his bisexuality and the impact this had on his family, as well as the implicit injunction that we shouldn’t judge him for his choices? Serious questions are raised by this portrayal of the couple’s problems in maintaining a life built on moral compromise that was undermined by his wife’s desire to shield the truth about his affairs from the public and their children. But those are questions the film doesn’t really want to explore, let alone come to any conclusions about.

Even there, Cooper, whose own performance seems flabby and more of a poorly executed impersonation than an interpretation of a legendary figure, can’t quite make up his mind about what’s important.

A classical music enthusiast, Cooper wants us to celebrate Bernstein’s music in passages in which he portrays the great conductor on the podium. He went to great lengths to study conducting and had the assistance of Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera, though opinion is divided about the authenticity of that aspect of the performance. Some music critics have praised it, though to me, it appeared as if his impersonation of Bernstein’s famously passionate, over-the-top style seems as fake as the nose.

Despite all the talk about his attempt to achieve authenticity, music and art — and its protagonist’s profound love for it — serve only as a backdrop for his portrait of Bernstein, rather than something at its core. At one point, Cooper shows Felicia dragging him away from a lunch with his mentor, Serge Koussevitzky, and close friend and fellow composer Aaron Copland to enter a surreal scene in which they witness a performance of his “Fancy Free” ballet. But that stylistic change in direction, along with the focus on art, is quickly abandoned in order to return to the tensions in their relationship that would founder before he returned to her side as she died of cancer 12 years before his own passing.

Moreover, this obsession with Bernstein’s sexual proclivities also raises questions as to whether his status as a cultural icon would have survived the #MeToo era if he lived to see it. Towards the end of the film, Cooper portrays him teaching a conducting master class. In the next scene, we see him draped over the young man he was instructing in a nightclub as the two engage in an intoxicated embrace. In 2023, that’s the sort of thing that gets a conductor canceled for sexual harassment after the affair goes sour or the student realizes that he is being exploited more than helped. Bernstein is lucky that he lived in an era when superstar performers who preyed on their acolytes in this manner were winked at rather than held to account.

The subjects he left out

All of this ignores far more interesting questions about Bernstein’s life and career than why it was that he thought such promiscuity was an expression of his “love” for people rather than an indication of serious problems.

Classical-music lovers might have liked something in the film that noted that not everyone liked Bernstein’s conducting, which was highly eccentric not just in his emotional approach but also his choice of tempi (evidence for which is found in his recordings of “Carmen” and “Tristan und Isolde,” which seem at times to be played in slow motion) that often confounded listeners familiar with famous works. But even though that might be too much inside baseball, there was a lot more to Bernstein’s life than his sexual shenanigans.

Glossed over almost completely is his lifelong agonizing over his dilemma about the course of his career. He was genuinely conflicted over whether it should be primarily focused on the composition of “serious” music rather than more popular musicals like “On The Town,” “Candide” and the beloved “West Side Story” (which rates only a passing mention), as well as his even more lucrative work as a conductor. Most of his serious compositions, especially his symphonies and even his “Mass,” which is seen as being enthusiastically received at its debut while a love triangle plays out in the composer’s box, were and remain unpopular, and will likely be forgotten while the less “serious” works are still played and loved.

Bradley Cooper Leonard Bernstein
Bradley Cooper playing Leonard Bernstein in the film “Maestro,” which he directed. Source: YouTube screenshot of the film trailer.

Also left out is his role as the nation’s music educator in chief as he used prime-time television programs to teach a broad public, especially children, about the joys of the classical genre. That’s a point worth remembering at a time when music education has largely been dropped from schools with a consequent decline in the level of our cultural life that Bernstein would have deplored.

And for all of the worries about putting a big nose on a famous Jew, his Jewish ties and support for Israel are also completely left out of the film. His decisions to visit Israel and perform at times of wars and crisis are among the most courageous moments of his life. But Cooper had no interest in them or the fact that he cared enough about his heritage that Felicia (who had a Jewish father but was raised as a Catholic in Chile) converted to Judaism before their marriage.

Also conspicuously absent is his disastrous engagement in politics, which reached a peak when he and Felicia hosted a fundraiser at their posh New York apartment for the Black Panthers, a Marxist domestic terrorist group. That gathering, which was immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s devastating essay published in New York Magazine, coined the phrase “radical chic,” which stuck with Bernstein for the rest of his life. That this dabbling in leftist extremism reflected Felicia’s interests more than Lenny’s is an ironic omission in a film that is focused so closely on her.

Bernstein’s life was full of diverse achievements as well as less attractive aspects. We should view him as a whole, not just focus on the idea that sex was more important than the substance of his life or even the attachments that meant the most to him. At its best, such as Cooper’s portrayal of the last moments of a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony—Bernstein did as much as anyone to popularize the work of a superstar conductor and composer who struggled with his Jewish identity at the start of the 20th century—viewers get a taste of the joy in music that was the essence of this man’s life. Still, that remains a sidelight in a film stuck in the obsessions of the moment about sexual identity, not art. And it barely touches on what it means to be an upwardly mobile Jew in a society coming to terms with the acceptance of someone so obviously determined to be publicly Jewish that he refused to change his name.

There are examples of films that focus on famous artists that give us a good sense of who they were but also tell us about their work. Mike Leigh’s delightful 1999 “Topsy Turvy” about Gilbert and Sullivan, and the creation of their classic “Mikado,” is one such movie. It gives us a great deal about the personal issues and lives of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan though tells that story by focusing on their creative process.

That was a lesson that—for all of his much-publicized efforts to learn how to conduct an orchestra that was a theatrical pretense anyway—Bradley Cooper should have learned. The most interesting thing about even the most interesting artistic lives is the work they produce. Not who they slept with.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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