“If you’re not careful, you’re going to die a lonely old queen,” spits a furious Carey Mulligan at Bradley Cooper, before a giant, inflatable Snoopy passes by the window. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade waits for no man!
It’s just one wacky, laugh-out-loud moment in Maestro, about iconic US conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, that upends boring biopic cliches. And a parade proves a fitting backdrop for a blazing row between man and long-suffering wife in which she not only rains on, but shuts down her husband’s lifelong parade of glass closet heterosexuality.
‘Parade’ is a word you could use to describe the high camp cartoon drawn by Cooper, too. Think the razzmatazz of Liberace meets the toxic neediness of… Lydia Tár? It’s a performance of a performance, and thus justifiably exaggerated and all the more entertaining for it. While most actors play it safe and portray versions of themselves, Cooper Nic-Cages-it-up and dares to be different.
That said, the character’s bizarre appearance absolutely does need paring back. Indeed, any film that drastically ages its actors up and down is on thin ice, and this is no exception. Eventually, Bernstein morphs into an over-coiffed Barry Manilow. The buck for which, of course, falls with Cooper as director.
That prosthetic nose, which prompted ‘Jewface’ accusations in August, distracts from the get-go, lending Bernstein an uncanniness, accentuated by Cooper’s piercing eyes and perfect teeth, reminiscent of a Real Housewife. Later, as the film switches from black and white to vivacious colour as per The Wizard of Oz, Bernstein’s perma-tan is revealed. I jumped out of my seat. To be fair, it’s probably a moment designed to surprise and amuse.
“Carey Mulligan has real gravitas as the older Felicia – she always did have old soul energy, even in An Education“
Luckily, an ever-sober Mulligan balances out Cooper’s excesses. She plays Leonard’s wife, the actress Felicia Montealegre. Her wardrobe alone makes the 2h 9m running time worth it. Although Mulligan doesn’t stand in total muted contrast to Cooper’s bigness, and really lets go in places. Together, this pair of giggling chatterboxes enjoy fizzing chemistry.
She has real gravitas as the older Montealegre, too – she always did have old soul energy, even in An Education – and delivers some capital A acting in the film’s final 15 minutes. Here, Maestro clumsily shifts in tone and races through Felicia’s cancer journey. A better ending might have been that last majestic musical moment, all crashing symbols, head-banging violin players and an exuberant, almost levitating Cooper sweating all over Mulligan’s chiffon.
“For all the over-focus on his marriage, his queerness is unpacked through dialogue-rich scenes with Felecia”
Maestro’s approach to the open secret of Bernstein’s sexuality, meanwhile, is a mixed bag. It certainly isn’t shied away from. In fact, in places, it’s handled with a pleasing lightness of touch, despite the legal challenges of the time. At one point, for example, Bernstein coo-coos a newborn – his face so terrifying, you’re poised for the baby to burst into tears – and says: “Can I tell you a secret? I’ve slept with both your parents!”
Elsewhere, to celebrate the phone call that ignites his career, he plays the bongos on his lover’s backside. (A scene that segues fabulously into one of many bombastic orchestral sequences.) But with Matt Bomer playing said lover, you’d be forgiven for comparing Maestro to the headline-generating sexiness of Fellow Travellers. This isn’t that. Here, Matt’s role is crushingly minor. And frustratingly, Bernstein’s relationships with men are thinly sketched. Put simply, it should have been queerer.
It’s a shame, as there’s much to explore, including the central question of how Bernstein saw himself. Some outlets have called him bisexual. Others quote his West Side Story collaborator Arthur Laurents as calling him “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all.”
For all the over-focus on his marriage, his queerness is unpacked through dialogue-rich scenes with Felicia, who’s presented as more than a friend but less than a lover. Does his sex outside of marriage, her acceptance of it and the love that persists demonstrate that sexual fluidity and open relationships are far from modern concepts? Untold millions of Netflix viewers are about to consider such questions, and that’s valuable.
Maestro is released on Netflix on 20 December.