Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

“I know exactly who you are. Let’s give it a whirl,” are the confident words said by Felicia Montealegre Cohn to Leonard Bernstein toward the beginning of Bradley Cooper’s Netflix biopic Maestro. Cooper directs himself as Bernstein; Felicia is embodied by Carrie Mulligan, whose naturally expressive (often sad) eyes tend to say more than her words. They happen to sparkle in that scene, as Leonard and Felicia walk through a garden and into a life that they would share for more than 30 years.

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What exactly Felicia knew is a question that hangs in the air for much of the film’s runtime. Where some biopics exact a laser focus on a brief period of their subject’s lives (The Queen, Jackie) and others attempt to cram so much in that they take on the fool’s errand of summing up an entire human experience in a few hours (Respect, Blonde), Cooper (who wrote the Maestro script with Josh Singer) splits the difference by spanning decades with a particular eye toward Bernstein’s love and family life. Few and far between are incredible shots of Cooper’s Bernstein composing and conducting, some of which underscore Cooper’s virtuosity as a performer, as he sweatily commands an orchestra for minutes of unedited film. Maestro is less the recounting of an illustrious career than an affair of the heart.

When Felicia agrees to take the plunge with Leonard, she’s already met David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer, one of the many openly queer actors cast here to play a queer character, alongside Michael Urie as Jerome Robbins and Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran). Leonard calls him “sweetie” and touches him affectionately within eyeshot of Felicia. The audience has already been introduced to David, who’s in bed with Leonard when he gets the call to stand in for conductor Bruno Walter for the performance at Carnegie Hall that’s framed as Leonard’s big break. Later, he encounters David and his wife in Central Park and Leonard tells their infant child, “I slept with both of your parents. I love too much, what can I say?”

Read more: Leonard Bernstein Comes to Life, Gloriously, in Maestro

As the film progresses, Leonard openly flirts and carries out affairs with men, sometimes to Felicia’s consternation. At a party, she complains to friends about the “cookie-cutter boys” that often surround her husband; moments later she catches him kissing a hot young thing named Tommy whom he eventually takes on as a lover, at times inviting him along to hang out with his family. Leonard sits between Felicia and Tommy during the opening night of his musical Mass. He and Tommy clasp hands and earn a side eye from Felicia, the wedge in their relationship telegraphed in an instant. Mulligan’s wonderful performance is at its most astonishing when she’s completely silent and the emotion gushes forth.

Cooper finds great narrative power in what’s left unsaid. Comments on Bernstein’s vocational multivalence—as a composer and conductor, who had feet in the worlds of classical music and Broadway musicals—play like double entendres that speak to his busy love life. When a TV interviewer notes that it’s “difficult to classify” Leonard, he responds in the affirmative, contrasting his public and private lives. “And if you carry around both personalities, I suppose that means you become a schizophrenic and that’s the end of it,” he says.

Leonard and Felicia’s marriage lasted from 1951 to her death from cancer in 1978, and yet the film’s lack of labels feels extremely contemporary. Bernstein had sex with women and men, but his sexuality is never specifically given a name in the film. Nor are the terms of his arrangement with Felicia—she clearly knows he’s carrying on affairs with men, but how not OK she is with all of this is something that’s suggested rather than explicitly stated. In one third-act scene, she announces, “I’ve always known who he is,” but the audience is only allowed glimpses. And that’s the way, it seems, Felicia wanted it. 

When their oldest daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) catches wind of “gossip” about her father, Felicia warns him: “Don’t you dare tell her the truth.” In an ensuing scene, neither Leonard nor Jamie explicate said rumors—he just chalks the chatter up to jealousy. The vagueness with which Cooper presents Bernstein’s sex life dovetails with Felicia’s perspective (there’s no indication she was ever in the room during any of Leonard’s extracurricular sex, nor that they discussed the finer details of it) and narratively illustrates the mysterious quality of sexuality, how even its possessors and those around them might not know what it all means, just that it is. In this case, vague gets at something specific.

In real life, Felicia did label Leonard—at least once. In a note to him, printed in the 2013 collection The Bernstein Letters, that is estimated to have been written mere months after they married, she stated bluntly: “You are a homosexual and may never change.” That was not a referendum on their relationship—in fact, the premise of the letter was to illustrate how “this whole bloody mess which is our ‘connubial’ life” was, in fact, “not such a mess after all.” At least in that early part of their marriage, Felicia adopted a laissez faire approach to loving a man who loved men. She wrote: “You don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?” And then later: “I am willing to accept you as you are.”

Today, one of the agreed-upon essential aspects of a healthy open relationship is a clear setting of terms (and if one member of the relationship requires a changing of said terms, that should be made clear as well). Maestro is missing that, which is hardly a surprise given how little nonmonogamy was discussed in the ‘50s. Perhaps Leonard and Felicia’s relationship was not open, per se, but merely ajar. Perhaps he took a sentiment like, “I know exactly who you are,” as license to be whatever he wanted and ran with it, carelessly overlooking its consequences for the wife he loved and failing to circle back to figure out a more tenable arrangement when things clearly got to be too much for her. Felicia’s feelings on the matter seem to have been treated as collateral damage if they were treated like anything at all.

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It becomes clear as the film progresses that what she didn’t know was exactly who she would be as a result of this open lifestyle. That she didn’t fully account for her own needs in giving him permission to fulfill his. One never knows how such an arrangement will affect a shared life until one’s in the thick of it; this is not untrue of any marriage or lifelong commitment, regardless of its specific terms. We see his dalliances wearing on her and his absences causing tension. During an incredible scene, all captured in one static medium shot in a giant apartment whose windows overlook the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, she warns him: “It’s so draining to love and accept someone who doesn’t love and accept themselves. And that’s the only truth I know about you. If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely, old queen.” The real Bernstein reportedly underwent years of therapy in search of a cure for his sexuality.

If we are to use modern language to evaluate the Bernsteins’ arrangement, we’re left to question just how ethical their ethical nonmonogamy was. Leonard clearly dipped in and out of their relationship as the ‘70s dragged on, but recommitted upon Felicia’s cancer diagnosis. The film is framed with scenes of a late-in-life Bernstein waxing nostalgic about his devotion to Felicia. Devoted is perhaps how he saw himself ultimately. Crucially, the editor of the aforementioned book The Bernstein Letters, Nigel Simeone, writes in the introduction that Felicia “was unquestionably the greatest love of his life.”

After Felicia’s death, we see Leonard instructing a student, with whom he later dances at a party, sweatily and drunkenly. It’s, in a way, business as usual for Leonard, who is now freer than ever to pursue the kind of connections he craved. This doesn’t negate the scenes of him lovingly serving his dying wife. It does, however, recall an earlier scene at one of his Thursday rehearsals (which allowed spectators), in which he describes to the crowd the importance of an artist letting go of “anything that’s restraining him.” He continues: “I have to live the rest of my life, however long or short that may be, exactly the way that I want.”

Bernstein’s own words bestow the film with an epigraph that only grows in poignancy upon viewing: “A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers.” As we know, many things can be true at once. And with that wisdom, Cooper suggests, Bernstein conducted his life.

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