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  • Writer's pictureChristopher McHale

An Artist's Life Can Be Too Much To Bear

Review: "Maestro" (2023) Directed by Bradley Cooper

A couple argues in their living in the Dakota NYC
Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in 'Maestro'

The sacrifice of art goes beyond the artist. Their family feels the whip of the muse as well. And sometimes it's not the classic torture of an artist locked away from the world in a garret, struggling to express truth. Sometimes it's the neglect of the muse that can drive an artist into depression, that can crush children and keep a marriage bed icy. Neglect is the deepest cut of any relationship.

In his film "Maestro", Bradley Cooper made many choices, but the themes he uncovered were unexpected, even by him, as he developed the script with collaborator Josh Singer. There were of course the beats of any biopic about a successful musician. The Breakthrough, the Adoration, the Drugs, the Crew, but Cooper found himself drawn deeper into the Spouse. Ultimately, "Maestro" was a film about Leonard Bernstein's wife, actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein.

The compromises we make in life when we are young can leave you stranded on a rocky shore. Admiration becomes jealousy, surrender becomes a prison. In the case of the marriage between Bernstein and Montealegre, sex becomes a coil of barbed wire up the middle of the marriage bed.

"I want many things, " Cooper says in the movie. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, "many things" becomes everything. "I love people," he says, and he sees it as redeeming quality of his character, but it also serves as the thing that keeps him away from what he sees as his true purpose, composing music. "If you make a list of what I created there's not many things on it," he says to a biographer late in the movies.

I felt the bite of that line, because the music that was on Bernstein's short list was sublime. The music, the thing he loved with a passion we adored watching, became the torture that painted his life in deep strokes of depression, and a source of pain for his wife. She saw and felt the regret in equal measure.

This is the story that drew Bradley Cooper in. It consumed him in many ways, and made the movie objectionable to many. Bernstein was beloved. Many grew up and fell in love with classical music as a result of his teaching and the passion he shared on his television programs. These beats of Bernstein's story are not what Cooper's story is about.

Ultimately, the depth of the story of the marriage of the Bernstein's became the canvas on which two astounding acting performances were created. Mulligan's portrayal of Felicia is incisive. Helped by the stunning work of makeup artists, Mulligan ages through her journey from calculating to broken, from vivacious Broadway actress to cancer patient. She is the foil to Cooper's boyish neglect. "Her child" she calls him. "Mass is finished!" Bernstein announces to the family with a flourish of manuscript tumbling to the floor. Mulligan gets up from her seat, steps out a window, walks across the garden and jumps into the pool. There she sits on the bottom, a drowned goddess finally destroyed by the Bernstein's relentless passion and soul-crushing narcissism.

Bradley Cooper's performance is engrossing. Brave, I might call it. Fully accepting the role, nuance be damned, led by his heart, much like Bernstein himself, a voice crafted by years of training, prosthetic makeup, a great musical challenge, conducting a mind-boggling one-shot six minute performance of Mahler's 'Resurrection Symphony' in front of the London Symphony Orchestra that serves as the film's climax.

It is art that drives Felicia and Leonard apart, and art that brings them back together, as the camera pans across the back of the orchestra and finally reveals Felicia from the back as she stands in the wings.

Michelle Tesoro edits these transitions between acts in the film thematically, beginning each one from the back and cutting to the front of Mulligan. A woman witnessing the great moments of a great artist's career, and a woman with the fully-paid price of these moments etched into her face.

Felecia is not a wilting flower in this story. She understands the compromise she is making. "I know who you are," she tells Leonard. "Do you know how much you need me?" she asks. "I might," Leonard answers.

All art is sacrifice. It must be. And as Bernstein says to an audience in a scene set at Lincoln Center, an artist's duty is to sacrifice everything as time grows short, lose all distraction. Copper's choice is to tell a story of a man who loves with unchecked passion. Every moment is an opportunity to love for Bernstein, whether he is standing in a cocktail party or sitting at a piano. Love fully realized and the price we pay by standing too close when an artist's passion ignites.


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