Another week brings another biopic into theaters. This time, it’s Netflix’s “Maestro,” director, co-writer, and star Bradley Cooper’s take on the life of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein and his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Cooper plays Bernstein, wearing a fake nose that some have found offensive and unnecessary.
Indeed, at the end of the film, when we get the obligatory shot of the real Bernstein, the conductor’s nose looks nothing like Cooper’s prosthetic proboscis. Which leads me to repeat my theory about what I think is the real reason actors drastically change their appearance for a role — they want that Oscar! And it usually works. Toss in some fake teeth, wear a fat suit, or yes, don a fake nose (see Nicole Kidman in 2002′s “The Hours”) and you’ll get to take home that little gold statue.
If my theory holds true, I can’t say I blame Cooper; he’s been nominated nine times (four of those times for acting). “Maestro” gives him the opportunity to age onscreen, and he’s certainly done his research for the scenes where he conducts in Bernstein’s inimitable style. CNN reported that Cooper practiced for six years before re-creating the famous Ely Cathedral performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection,” which the actor conducted live with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Mimicry is another way to win awards. But it isn’t enough. There has to be substance to a performance, especially one in a tired subgenre whose primary focus is how close an actor can get to mirroring the genuine article.
Nose notwithstanding, Cooper resembles Bernstein, and his enthusiasm for the music he’s conducting or creating matches Bernstein’s own. There’s a really good scene involving the creation of the 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town,” for example. But imitation and musical enthusiasm are all there is to this performance; in the dramatic scenes that make up the majority of “Maestro,” Cooper is the weak link that drags everything down.
The same fate befell 2018′s “A Star Is Born,” the movie that proved Cooper is an excellent director of actors who aren’t named Bradley Cooper. Lady Gaga was as stunning and compelling as Mulligan is here. The supporting cast of “Maestro” features comedian Sarah Silverman as Bernstein’s sister, Shirley; it’s a performance as memorable as the one comedian Andrew Dice Clay gave as Gaga’s character’s father in “A Star Is Born.” Why doesn’t Cooper’s directorial skill translate to his own performance?
Fortunately, “Maestro” is built around Montealegre, not Bernstein — which allows Mulligan to shine and keeps the film from feeling too dramatically inert.
The script by Cooper and Josh Singer takes us through Bernstein’s career, from the moment a stroke of luck puts the baton in his hand to a late-in-life interview that’s filled with tension between Bernstein and the interviewer. We’re reminded that, in addition to conducting, Bernstein also wrote scores for films like “On the Waterfront” and musicals such as “Candide” and “West Side Story.”
Theater fans will enjoy the bevy of famous faces who get a few moments of screen time. Nick Blaemire and Mallory Portnoy are fun as “On the Town” lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden; Michael Urie also shows up briefly as “West Side Story” director and choreographer Jerome Robbins.
At the heart of “Maestro” is the love story between Montealegre, who was a celebrity in her own right, and Bernstein. In many ways, we see her husband through her eyes. They truly loved each other, but there was also an understanding that one of them had needs that couldn’t be met by their union.
“I know exactly who you are,” Montealegre says early on about Bernstein’s attraction to men. Later, she tells him “if you aren’t careful, you will die a lonely old queen.” In both instances, Mulligan delivers the lines with equal amounts of love and venom, so that we know this is a bargain her character has willingly entered into and, for the most part, accepts.
However, the film plays a little too coy with Bernstein’s sexuality. It doesn’t hide it — the movie opens with Bernstein next to another man in bed — but it doesn’t explore it very deeply. Instead, “Maestro” teases the viewer as if being gay were the height of some salacious melodrama, making the scene where Montealegre is angered by her husband’s sloppiness in managing his affairs, and another scene where Bernstein lies to his daughter about the gay “rumors” she has heard, fall flat.
Mulligan is the heart and soul of “Maestro,” which is at its best during the last 20 or so minutes of her performance. She manages to hold our attention with gestures as minor as a glance and a smile directed toward her costar.
The other element of “Maestro” that works is the music, and there is a lot of it to savor. I saw the film in the perfect spot, David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, in the very same (but recently renovated) building where Bernstein conducted in the 1960s. I found myself imagining Bernstein in the room with us. It says a lot that I was more focused on my location than on Cooper’s onscreen presence.
Directed by Bradley Cooper. Written by Cooper and Josh Singer. Starring Cooper, Carey Mulligan, Sarah Silverman, Nick Blaemire, Mallory Portnoy, Michael Urie. At Landmark Kendall Square. 129 min. Rated R (a symphony of profanity, an overture of drug use)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.