Filling in the Jewish Gaps Left by “Maestro”
Leonard Bernstein conducts the Israel Philharmonic

Filling in the Jewish Gaps Left by “Maestro”

Maestro” makes no mention of Leonard Bernstein’s passionate life-long support of the Israel Philharmonic and makes only passing mention of its subject’s Jewish identity. Bradley Cooper’s eagerly anticipated biopic, now playing in theaters and streaming on Netflix and reviewed below, leaves many gaps in Bernstein’s fascinating life story, gaps that will be explored in an upcoming program at the Boulder JCC.

On Sunday, January 28, audiences are invited to watch “Leonard Bernstein and the Israel Philharmonic,” a new 45-minute documentary that includes interviews, archival images, and special video footage, and is hosted by playwright, actor, and pianist Hershey Felder.

The screening, preceded by an Israeli dinner at 6 pm, will be followed by a discussion of “Maestro” with Kathryn Bernheimer and special guests, including CU Professor of Piano Andrew Cooperstock, who organized a Bernstein festival in Boulder in 2018. CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Leonard Bernstein at Beersheva

The most celebrated Jewish musician of all time, Leonard Bernstein was a brilliant composer, a flamboyant conductor, an esteemed educator, a consummate performer, a talented pianist, a dedicated humanitarian, an influential cultural icon, the co-creator of one of the most beloved musicals of all time, and an unparalleled popularizer of classical music.

An on-screen kiss between Bernstein and his long time paramour, clarinetist David Oppenheim, who married Judy Holliday with whom he had a child.

What interests Bradley Cooper – the director, co-writer, co-producer and star of “Maestro” – the most, however, is that Bernstein was bisexual. More precisely, Cooper is fascinated by the idea of a gay genius who had a long and passionate marriage to a woman who was also madly in love with him. And that they had three children, a happy home life, and a fabulous time together.

Not everyone will this share fascination with Bernstein’s complicated love life and may find the film tedious as well as trivializing. To his credit, Cooper does not subject us to graphic sex scenes of any kind as he depicts the pain that a life of secrecy and discretion caused in a man desperate not to hurt the ones he loved.

A rare kiss in a film that thankfully avoids graphic sex scenes

Much has been made of the prosthetic nose that helped transform the actor into the icon. The nose is the film’s least prominent problem. Cooper is more successful in his physical transformation than in inhabiting the role emotionally, and his breathless performance often seems strained and forced.

Much has also been made of the fact that Bradley Cooper is not Jewish. I would never argue that only Jewish actors should play Jewish characters, although it doesn’t hurt. However, the fact that an overwhelming number of Jewish characters are being played by non-Jews is a disturbing trend. The idea that being Jewish is just a matter of a nose, an accent, or a set of mannerisms carries a whiff of cultural condescension. What so many non-Jewish filmmakers don’t seem to understand about many Jewish characters, real or fictional, is their ineffable Jewish sensibility, attitude or affect. These qualities are immediately recognizable – at least to other Jews – but can’t be described or easily mimicked. Sara Silverman, who ironically revived the term “Jewface” to describe the alarmingly frequent practice of casting non-Jews in overtly Jewish roles, brings exactly that Jewish je ne sais quoi to the role of Bernstein’s sister, while Cooper must settle for a decent imitation.

In “The Fabelmans,” for example, I did not believe for a moment that Michelle Williams was Jewish, despite her emotionally honest performance. But who am I to argue with Steven Spielberg, who considered her perfectly cast as his mother, even without the dubious benefit of a fake nose?

Cooper as Bernstein late in life

When I first learned that Cooper was playing Bernstein, I could not help but think that someone like Adrian Brody, with a Jewish parent and the requisite profile, would be a better casting choice.

But I also understand that because of Cooper’s well-deserved fame, his film would be widely seen, allowing an audience that knows next to nothing about Bernstein to discover the importance of this legendary Jewish figure. I have the same mixed feelings about Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” which, despite its flaws and lack of Jewish nuance, introduced the world to a seminal Jewish genius. If it wins the Oscar for best picture, I will be content that it presented a positive story about a brilliant Jewish scientist who played a pivotal role in American history.

It is easy to wish “Maestro” were a much more inspirational and complete portrait of the legendary artist, but is an inadequate depiction of Bernstein better than no picture at all? Has Cooper done Bernstein a grave disservice by focusing so much on his imperfections and private life at the expense of acknowledging his public accomplishments? Audiences will have to decide what to make of this amazing, complex man. I worry.

Critics, meanwhile, are sharply divided albeit largely enthusiastic. Some are predicting an acting Oscar for Cooper, calling it “a captivating drama that is big, bold and intimate all at once” (Newsday) and “superb and deeply felt” (Time). Others aptly note it “fails to illuminate his artistry” (Washington Post). The New Yorker headline rightly complains that “Bradley Cooper Leaves Out All the Good Stuff.”

Certainly “Maestro” hits some high notes and Cooper does get some things right as an actor and co-writer. He captures Bernstein’s exuberance and unbridled enthusiasm. He understands that these exceptional personality traits manifested in his work as a conductor, composer, and educator, and that he lived life passionately and sometimes to excess. He understands the torture of composing, a solitary sport, for a man who craved company and attention but who understood that conducting and teaching are ephemeral while composing creates a permanent legacy. Cooper also understands the depression and anxiety that can lurk beneath extroversion, confidence, and manic energy. Think Robin Williams.

He also grasps how much the polyamorous Bernstein loved people beyond all reason and was too easily infatuated to confine his physical affections to one person. And, crucially, he knows that Bernstein’s vivacious wife was his true soulmate and ebullient playmate, providing the support he needed in his work and life for 25 years. To his credit, he generously shares screen time with the woman behind and beside the great man.

Carrie Mulligan as Felicia early in their courtship

There has also been some controversy around the casting of English actress Carey Mulligan as the Costa-Rican born, Chilean-educated, feisty Latin American sophisticate. Felicia Montealgre Cohen Bernstein was a talented and accomplished actress in her own right who also frequently collaborated with her husband, as well as being an incredible hostess, fashion icon, visual artist, and devoted mother. Raised Catholic despite her Jewish-American father, she converted before marrying the Maestro and they frequently traveled to Israel together.

Cooper and Mulligan later in their 25-year marriage

Bernstein’s own children approved of the casting choice and applaud Mulligan’s performance, which indeed provides the right strength of spirit needed to clearly demonstrate that this was a marriage of equals.

Ultimately, however, does “Maestro” work as a love story? Is it compelling enough to keep us from wishing more screen time were spent on other aspects of Bernstein’s life and work?

Admittedly, no single feature film could cover all aspects of Bernstein’s eventful life and prodigious creative output. I recall reading a biography a few years ago in which a chapter covered a series of personal and professional engagements, tours, recordings, honors, collaborations, performances, and writings. “What a busy year or two this must have been,” I thought to myself. When the next chapter began, I was shocked to discover that all this activity had taken place in two months.

The real Bernsteins, left, and the reel Bernsteins, right

While Cooper certainly had to narrow the film’s focus while still capturing the whirlwind nature of Bernstein’s life, the result is exhausting but not exhaustive, a film that is surprisingly flat and generic. I am not sure his broad strokes paint either a flattering or sufficiently detailed picture of this idiosyncratic force of nature.

I also couldn’t help but think that Cooper’s choice to ignore, some would say erase, the Jewishness from the character might have seemed merely cautious at the time the film was created. By emphasizing Bernstein’s Jewish identity Cooper could run the risk of emphasizing his own inability to get it right.

But after October 7, the omission feels more ominous. Ironically, in one of the film’s few references to Bernstein’s Jewish identity, the Maestro is seen sporting a sweatshirt with Hebrew letters that spell out Bernstein’s alma mater, Harvard, now synonymous with antisemitism.

Perhaps Cooper simply fails to grasp the importance of being proudly Jewish, or how much Bernstein was shaped by Jewish values. The film makes note of the fact that Bernstein was advised to change his name to Burns, but fails to explain why he ignored this advice, or why he composed Kaddish and Dybbuk, or why he gave so much of himself to the Israel Philharmonic year after year for decades.

The world ignores this insistence on Jewish self-expression at its peril, and ours.

About Kathryn Bernheimer

Kathryn has spent her professional life writing about, teaching, and presenting the arts. Founding Director of the Boulder Jewish Film Festival, Kathryn was Director of Menorah and ACE at the Boulder JCC from 2003 through August, 2019. The former film and theater critic for the Boulder Daily Camera, Kathryn is the author of "The Fifty Greatest Jewish Movies" and "The Fifty Funniest Films of All Time."

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One comment

  1. I did love the Harvard sweatshirt in Hebrew