Wednesday 24 January 2024

The Current Cinema and Streaming on Netflix - Tom Ryan takes issue with David Hare about MAESTRO (Bradley Cooper, USA, 2023)


Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

The problem when one looks at a film only through the lens of a particular political viewpoint is that wider understandings will get lost in the process. I’m referring here in particular to David Hare’s commentary on Maestro (2023) in which director Bradley Cooper stars as Leonard Bernstein opposite Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. It ran last month in Film Alert (see here)


For Hare, the film, directed by Cooper and written by him and Josh Singer (The Fifth EstateSpotlightThe Post and First Man), fails because “the screenplay has simply de-gayed Bernstein as both man and history” and because of “a profoundly underwritten part for Carey Mulligan playing Felicia, whose own very substantial life as an activist is barely hinted at in the picture”. He suggests that the former might have occurred out of sensitivity to the Bernsteins’ three (now-middle-aged) children, and can find no other possible explanation for what he sees as the real-life Bernstein’s “bowdlerisation” in the film.  


Ignoring the fact that the entire soundtrack of the film is made up of meticulously selected Bernstein compositions, he also goes on to decry the film’s overlooking of “arguably the most important American stage musical of the twentieth century, West Side Story”, which, as he puts it, was created “in toto by four gay men, two of them (then) closeted - Lenny and [Jerome] Robbins – and two “out” – [Stephen] Sondheim and [Arthur] Laurents”. 


Carey Mulligan as Felicia, Bradley Cooper as Lenny

Along similar lines, he can find no rationale for what he regards as the film’s limited depiction of Felicia either, in particular its omission of “the famous Black Panther party hosted at [the Bernsteins’] Dakota apartment during the Panthers' FBI seek-and-destroy phase”. She and it are written about at length in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, published in 1970.


Hare might also have gone on to discuss her broader work on behalf of civil liberties in the US, her anti-war activity during the 1960s, and her efforts in Chile on behalf of Amnesty during the 1970s (which all occurred during time-span that Maestro covers). Not to forget her extensive career as an actor on Broadway and television, her time living with fellow actor Richard Hart, who died in 1951, as well as her life as a mother to three children.


However, that the film doesn’t deal in any substantial detail with her social activism is enough to lead Hare to deduce that the Felicia is “an obviously underwritten part”. For him, she’s little more than a supporting player, only there to help us better understand her male counterpart. He never says it directly, but the general implication of his reading is clear. Not only is there an insidious strand of homophobia running through Maestro, but it also exhibits a misogynist streak.

There is a certain logic to this kind of reading of the film’s details. None of Hare’s observations about what’s missing from the film are incorrect. What’s absent from his commentary, though, is any appreciation of how Maestro goes about depicting what’s actually there and how that might impinge upon the conclusions he’s drawn about what’s not. Or any grasp of how the film is working allusively, hinting at aspects of the characters and their lives via nuance and subtle implication rather than direct depiction. 


Like Cooper’s earlier A Star Is Born (2018), Maestro is a story about a relationship: the excitement of a courtship; a marriage that begins with hopes for the couple’s future together and then goes into decline (in both cases, largely because of the male’s failure to fully see his partner’s needs on any but his own terms); and a death that draws the partnership to a close but leaves a host of issues unresolved. And like A Star Is BornMaestro is about performers who live a large part of their lives in the public eye.


That’s where Bernstein – or Lenny as he’s known throughout the film – is in the opening sequence. As the camera slowly tracks forward in medium wide-shot, he’s seated at a piano playing a piano transcription of the Postlude to the first act of his 1983 opera, A Quiet Place. At first glance, it looks like an intimate scene, Lenny alone with his music. But a closer look reveals, to the far left of the frame, a man wielding a camera and an interviewer holding a microphone. 


So what we’re watching is Lenny’s performance, which continues with his responses to the questions put to him after he’s finished playing. There’s no particular reason not to believe what he says, but his words are for the benefit of the interview and, by implication, for his public. Puffing away on one of the cigarettes that accompany him everywhere he goes, an embodiment of his nervous energy, he confesses that he misses his wife terribly, but that she’s still with him: as he looks out the window and sees her in the garden going about her business there, and as the maid tells him that she sees Felicia watching as she sorts out the washing. The rest of the film is concerned to explain why she haunts him like this, why she’s so central to his sense of who he is. 


Mahler’s Resurrection symphony at Ely Cathedral 

Time and again, Maestro pivots on what Felicia sees when she watches Lenny. Often sequences end with the camera revealing that she’s been an offscreen witness in the wings, sometimes literally but always metaphorically, and making her response central to it. Her excitement at the exhilarating performance of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire confirms his sense of achievement. For him. 


Lenny needs her to be there, even if he’s not always happy about what she sees. When (two shots below) she stumbles across him openly flirting with handsome, young Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick) at a party at their apartment, his discomfort is a product of how she’s responded. When he later invites Tommy to join the family on a holiday, he tries, unsuccessfully, to make her see it as a perfectly natural thing to do. He needs her approval to feel comfortable with himself.

What the characters see when they look at each other is central to both Maestro and A Star Is Born. From beginning to end, the latter film has either country singer Jackson (Cooper) watching Ally (Lady Gaga) perform, or her watching him. What they see when they’re looking is a key to what they’re feeling and who they are, the effect as illuminating as it is essentially mysterious. 


Part of what the two films invite us to consider is how far it’s possible to distinguish between who characters “really” are and when they’re putting on a show. Whether it’s for an audience of hundreds, for guests at a party, or for a loved one? And in both films, the central relationships occupy a realm of riveting uncertainty.


In the way Maestro is written, shot (exquisitely by cinematographer Mathew Libatique, who also collaborated with Cooper on A Star Is Born) and edited (by Michelle Tesoro), it reminds us time after time that it’s impossible to ever see its characters in any complete way. There are times when we see them clearly, but the film also spends much of its 129-minute running time withholding information, its visual style a reminder that we can only ever hope to gain a glimpse of what it is that makes these characters tick. 


The first meeting between Lenny and Felicia illustrates the point. Their introduction takes place at the Claudio Arrau party near the beginning of the black-and-white flashback which grows out of the aforementioned opening scene. Adolph Green (Nick Blaemire) and Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) have just done a knockout performance of “(I Get) Carried Away” for the gathered guests (a Bernstein composition for which they’ve written the lyrics, the song appears in On the Town, which draws freely on Jerome Robbins’ 1944 ballet, Fancy Free). 


After a brief exchange of playful pleasantries, Lenny hurries Felicia away to a private space by a window. What follows is filmed in semi-darkness in a single-take two-shot. The only light source a streetlamp outside in the street, and the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in a film noir. Both are readily identifiable, but they’re also enveloped by shadow. 


The obstruction of our view of them is a recurring motif in the film. Sometimes, the camera’s direct line of vision is blocked, as in later party scenes when we’re forced to look past figures in the foreground, dancing or gesticulating mid-conversation, to catch sight of them. At other times, we’re only able to catch them in passing, framed by doorways. 



Elsewhere, it’s also often difficult to make them out, their surroundings serving as a kind of camouflage. In a park scene soon after they’ve met, they’re sitting back-to-back on the grass in a wide shot, but such is the spread of the shadows from the surrounding trees that one has to strain to see them. It’s only after the camera slowly moves closer that we can. 


Later on, after their family gathers at their holiday house at Martha’s Vineyard, Lenny and Felicia are taking a private moment to talk about Tommy’s presence there. The scene begins with a wide shot of a garden setting with an outdoor eating area deep into the frame. It looks like a conventional establishing shot, the kind that’s conventionally followed by close-ups of the conversing couple. We can hear Lenny’s prevarications clearly, but the camera doesn’t take us any closer to them, the establishing shot becomes a long-take, and one has to look very hard to even see them – figures barely recognisable from afar – at a table beyond the greenery in the foreground.


Even close-ups of the characters evoke uncertainty. They’re often extended in such a way that it seems as if we’re being told to look long and hard at the faces we’re seeing. That a straightforward glance isn’t enough to make sense of what’s going on behind them. The glide of the camera towards them might bring us spatially closer to them, but it’s as if we’re constantly being reminded that seeing these characters for who they are is going to be a struggle. 


There are hints of this view of characters and their circumstances in A Star Is Born, which, in its cryptic, elliptical way, allows us snippets of information, but keeps its distance from any definitive conclusions about the interactions being scrutinised. But it’s more fully elaborated here, immersed in how the film has been shot and in the assured way in which sequences are allowed to run their course… and then continue for just a beat or two longer than expected.

I make no claim that this kind of approach to making sense of Maestro is in any way comprehensive. Hopefully, however, it rescues the film from the notion that it is somehow flawed or culpable for not dealing extensively with Bernstein’s affairs or with Felicia’s life apart from her husband. As the title suggests, it’s not about either of those things, nor is there any requirement that it should be. 

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