Excellent Bernstein biopic takes a deep look at the bisexuality issue

'Maestro': Kelly Mulligan and Bradley Cooper shine in this movie about Leonard Bernstein

If you're not careful, you'll be a lonely old queen, Kylie Mulligan angrily told Bradley Cooper before a giant inflatable Snoopy passed by the window. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade waits for no one!

It's just one of those quirky, laugh-out-loud moments about iconic American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein that subverts boring biopic clichés. As it turns out, a parade provides a fitting backdrop for a heated argument between a man and his long-suffering wife, in which she not only lashes out, but stops her husband's lifelong parade of glass-case heterosexuals.

The word "parade" can also be used to describe Cooper's Highland Camp comics. The idea that the Libras hustle fulfills the toxic needs of .... Lydia Towers? It's a show, a performance, and therefore justifiably over-the-top, and all the funnier for it. While most actors are careful to play only different versions of themselves, Kubelnik perseveres and dares to be different.

Having said that, the character's appearance is definitely oddly in need of a cut. In fact, any movie with a dramatically aging cast is on thin ice, and this is no exception. In the end, Bernstein becomes an over-haired Barry Manilow. The onus, of course, falls on director Cooper.

The fake nose that sparked accusations of "Jewish face" in August distracted Bernstein and gave him a quirky look, accentuated by Cooper's sharp eyes and perfect teeth, reminiscent of a real housewife. Later, as the film switches from black-and-white to the vibrant colors of the Wizard of Oz, Bernstein's permanent tan is revealed. I jumped out of my seat. To be fair, it was probably a moment meant to surprise and entertain.

"Kylie Morrigan has real dignity as an older Felicia-she always had ancient soul energy, even in education"

Fortunately, the ever-sober Mulligan balances out Cooper's excesses. She plays Leonard's wife, actress Felicia Montealegre. Her attire alone makes the two-hour, nine-minute run worthwhile. Though Mulligan doesn't contrast sharply with Cooper's enormity, and does let go in places. The giggling chatterboxes enjoy fizzy chemistry together.

She also has the genuine gravitas of the older Montealegre - she always had an ancient soul energy, even when educated - and delivers a first-rate performance in the film's final 15 minutes. Here, the maestro awkwardly changes his tone as he quickly recounts Felicia's cancer journey. A better ending might have been the last majestic musical moment, when all the symbols collapse, with a violinist banging his head and a vibrant, almost suspended Cooper on Mulligan's chiffon.

"Despite all the attention given to his marriage, his cool character is developed through the richness of his conversations with Felecia."

Meanwhile, Bernstein's attitude toward the open secret of sexual orientation is mixed. It certainly doesn't shy away from it. In fact, despite the legal challenges of the day, in some places it handles it with a delightful lightness of touch. Once, for example, Bernstein cooed at a newborn - his face was so horrible, you were ready to make the baby cry - and then said, "Can I tell you a secret? I slept with both your parents!"

Elsewhere, to celebrate the phone call that launched his career, he plays the tambourine on his lover's ass. (This scene incredibly carries over into one of the many over-the-top orchestral sequences.) But when Matt Bomer plays said lover, you're forgiven for comparing the Maestro to the sexy travelers who make headlines. This is not that. Here, Matt's role is insignificant. Frustratingly, Bernstein's relationship with men is rarely sketched out. In short, it should be even stranger.

It's a shame because there's so much more to explore, including the core question of how Bernstein sees himself. Some sites call him bisexual. Others cited his West Side Story coauthor Arthur Laurents as calling him a "married homosexual man". He is not at all ambivalent about this.

Despite the excessive attention paid to his marriage, his cool kid character is unfolded through rich dialogic scenes with Felicia, who is portrayed as more than a friend, not a lover. Does his extramarital sex, her acceptance of it, and her continuing love suggest a relationship of sexual fluidity and openness far removed from modern concepts? Millions of Netflix viewers will soon be considering these questions, and it's worthwhile.


The Maestro hits Netflix on December 20th.

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