Nina and Jamie Bernstein can remember the first time they realised their dad was a significant figure in American life. “We were watching The Flintstones, and Betty and Wilma were going to the Hollyrock Bowl to hear Leonard Bernstone conduct Rockymaninoff. And we thought, ‘Oh wow, we hit the big time: they mentioned him on The Flintstones’.”
Leonard Bernstein, who died in 1990, aged 72, was a giant of American music — its monarch, according to the New York Times’s obituary of the composer and conductor, who is most often remembered as the writer, with Stephen Sondheim, of the musical West Side Story but had a long and illustrious career that also included a trio of symphonies; music for ballets, plays and films — On the Waterfront among them — and renowned work as a conductor, including with the New York Philharmonic.
Now the film Maestro is about to tell Bernstein’s story — specifically, that of his marriage to the actor Felicia Montealegre — on screen. Not all of it is comfortable viewing for the composer’s daughters. There comes a moment in the biopic, which Bradley Cooper directs, cowrote and stars in, when Jamie (played by Maya Hawke) asks her father if rumours she has heard to do with his bisexuality — an aspect of his life that was well known to their mother — are true.
“And he denies everything. That was in my book,” the real Jamie says, referring to her memoir, Famous Father Girl. “Of course, I remember the exact, longer dialogue that we had. But that dialogue in the film seemed very plausible. And what struck me the most were those long, awkward silences. You could tell that they’re both trying so hard to figure out what to say and neither of them can think of it. And so that silence just yawns on. Those were such powerful silences.”
Maestro has been a long time coming. Martin Scorsese was planning to direct a biopic about Bernstein, but he stood down when The Irishman came along. Steven Spielberg, who adapted West Side Story for a second big-screen outing in 2020, and planned to take over from Scorsese (who stayed on as a producer), offered Cooper the lead role.
The actor, riding high on the success of his remake of A Star Is Born, insisted on directing. Spielberg only had to watch until the scene in that film when Cooper’s country rock star calls Lady Gaga’s ingenue up on stage before giving Cooper the job. “We never got to the stage where we were conversing with anyone before Bradley Cooper came along,” Nina says.
Cooper’s biopic eschews a cradle-to-grave format in favour of a complicated overview of Bernstein’s lavender marriage to Montealegre, who died in 1978. The sweep of their initial romance — shot in crisp monochrome and choreographed like a lost sequence from the original film of West Side Story, from 1961 — gives way to lengthy bickering and painful contrivance.
Montealegre (who is played by Carey Mulligan) watches his great performances from the wings; he comes home at weekends, keeping his many affairs hidden from his children. “Fix your hair. You’re getting sloppy,” she tells him after she finds him kissing another man in the corridor of their apartment building.
“We were expecting a more conventional biopic,” Jamie says. “But it was Bradley’s idea, really from the beginning, that it would be a portrait of the marriage. And we were so pleased by that idea. It felt so real and emotional for us.”
“And he consulted us,” Nina says. “He asked us every step of the way: does this feel authentic to you? Am I going in the right direction? We were very lucky that Bradley invited us along on his journey. He didn’t just go and make the movie and then show it to us when it was finished. We saw a lot of elements as it developed. We were able to guide him — when we didn’t expect to be asked. There is a realness to the evocation of these people in the film.”
Watching Cooper’s distillation of their parents’ marriage was a surreal experience for Jamie, Nina and their brother, Alexander, not least because they allowed Cooper to shoot at their family home. In some scenes, he’s even wearing their father’s bathrobe.
“We invited Bradley to have lunch at our house in Connecticut,” Jamie says. “And we gave him the tour. And when we got to certain closets we opened them up and said, ‘There’s our dad’s bathrobe, and there’s our mother’s sundress.’ Because our house is sedimentary layers of family debris from decades back. We don’t like throwing stuff away when it’s meaningful. And everything is meaningful in our house. So when Bradley said, ‘maybe we could use this stuff’, we were all in...
“A favourite scene I have is when four-year-old Jamie — played by Bradley Cooper’s own daughter, Lea — sails a paper plane down the stairwell,” Jamie says. “And then her father catches it at the bottom and opens it up, and it’s a little “I love you” message, with hearts. I just think that’s adorable. And it really is the stairwell of the building that we lived in when I was that age.”
“I think the scene when Bradley conducts Mahler is phenomenal,” Nina says.” It’s a brilliant piece of cinematography. It was recorded live. It’s a tour to force. And, of course, it’s hard to watch your mother get sick and die. That was very hard to take.”
Maestro has been the subject of much Oscar speculation since its premiere in Venice, last September. Yet much of the coverage concerns the make-up designed for Cooper by the Academy Award-winning artist Kazu Hiro. “Hollywood cast Bradley Cooper — a non-Jew — to play Jewish legend Leonard Bernstein and stuck a disgusting exaggerated ‘Jew nose’ on him,” StopAntisemitism, an American organisation, claimed on social media.
“It’s so silly — a tempest in a neti pot, as one of our friends put it!” Jamie says. “It’s so not what we want to be talking about. It’s a distraction. There was so much that went into Bradley’s ability to inhabit our dad. And his work with Kazu Hiro was so detailed, down to the earlobes. It wasn’t just about those physical aspects, either.”
“There was also his voice, which changes in pitch and timbre from young Lenny to old Lenny,” Nina says. “He’s worked very hard on that, on the way that he conducts, to the way he lumbers across the lawn when he gets out of the car. That was spot-on. I don’t know how he did that. Even his knuckles somehow seem to be our dad’s knuckles. It’s all very incredible.”
The Bernstein family is hopeful that Maestro will bring their father’s work to a new generation.
“One of the best things about this film is that it has so much of our dad’s music,” Jamie says. “Except for the Mahler and the Beethoven, it’s Leonard Bernstein music. Our hope is that viewers, especially young people who have no clue who he was, will fall in love with that music. Our father’s whole attitude toward music was that it’s for everybody. He embraced every kind of music himself — Broadway songs, ballets, symphonies — and he composed in so many different flavours. Leonard Bernstein is something for everybody.”
Maestro opens in cinemas on Friday, December 1st, and streams on Netflix from Wednesday, December 20th