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Bradley Cooper Goes (Almost) Unnoticed at Maestro’s U.S. Premiere

The striking actor-auteur keeps a low profile, letting his larger-than-life performance as Leonard Bernstein sell itself.

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein 2023.

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre, Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein, 2023.Jason McDonald/Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

As the New York Film Festival crowd began arriving at David Geffen Hall for the US premiere of Maestro on Monday night, a buzz spread throughout the room: Bradley Cooper had arrived.

Normally, this wouldn’t be unusual, since Maestro is a Cooper production three times over: He cowrote it, directed it, and stars in it—from behind layers of prosthetics—as the legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. But with the Screen Actors’ Guild strike still ongoing, Cooper’s presence was a rare dose of star power in a nascent awards season that has so far been lacking it.

Of course, he got permission. While Cooper didn’t attend Maestro‘s Venice Film Festival debut, he was allowed by SAG to attend the NYFF screening—but only to watch from the audience. He didn’t pose for photos and didn’t take the stage at any point. There were other celebrities in attendance—Jeremy Strong and Laura Dern among them—but Cooper kept his profile low, remaining relatively inconspicuous in an aisle seat on the left side of the house, at least until the composer’s daughter Jamie Bernstein blew his cover just before showtime. This was not a “Taylor Swift at the Chiefs” game scenario, despite the fact that the festival had pulled out all the stops for his movie. The event occurred in the home of the New York Philharmonic, a location that was central to Bernstein’s life, and the newly renovated David Geffen Hall was outfitted with Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos specifically for the night.

Not that Cooper’s name didn’t come up. During the screening’s introduction, Adam Crane of the New York Phil spoke about the actor-auteur’s dedication to studying conducting, saying Cooper frequently texted him, looking to show up at concerts and observe. Cooper, Crane said, “has become one of our best cultural ambassadors, in the great Bernstein tradition.”

Bernstein’s daughter Jamie added to the chorus of affection. “Bradley found so many ways to evoke our father’s lifelong need to reach out, to communicate, above all to use music as a way of creating and sharing love,” she said. “Bradley has mirrored Bernstein by doing the same thing himself.”

Bucking biopic conventions, Maestro resists overexplaining the highlights of Bernstein’s accomplishments, instead showing examples of his musicianship, including a re-creation of his interpretation of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in Ely Cathedral that received spontaneous applause from the NYFF audience.

The plot is less about Bernstein’s life in art than it is about his loving-yet-complicated relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre, played here by Carey Mulligan. The film focuses on Bernstein’s compulsory people-pleasing and his not-so-discreet philandering with men, and how Felicia’s tenuous acceptance of all of his indiscretions weighs on her; Mulligan conveys both humor and desperation in a perfectly calibrated mid-Atlantic accent.

As we know from A Star Is Born, Cooper is a filmmaker who loves to channel grand emotions, and he does so here in a couple of bravura sequences with theatrical flair, including a jaw-dropping opening shot of Bernstein sprinting through Carnegie Hall. The luscious cinematography from Matthew Libatique shifts from high-contrast black-and-white to color midway through the action, demarcating the periods before and after Lenny and Felicia’s marriage.

Maestro is a big movie full of big performances, especially from Cooper, who infuses every beat with a specific Bernstein mannerism. And while all the makeup is sometimes distracting, it’s hard not to be swept up by his take on a man so consumed by his various passions that he (almost unintentionally) betrays those close to him.

Cooper did what he could to stay relatively incognito during last night’s premiere, but he’s a huge presence in this film—as an actor, of course, but also as a director whose yen for old-fashioned, sweeping romantic cinema never shuts down his sense of humor. He’s done his research, and he’s serious about Bernstein—but not too serious to drop in a clip of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe shouting “Leonard Bernstein!” near the end of ‘It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

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