Oscars 2024: The Sweaty Charm of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

Cooper has been nominated in the Best Actor category for Maestro, which he also directed.
Oscars 2024: The Sweaty Charm of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein
Oscars 2024: The Sweaty Charm of Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

The editor Robert Gottlieb, when reviewing Leonard Bernstein’s letters for the New York Review of Books, wondered, “Is his heart only on his sleeve, or is there another one inside him?” 

For someone who doesn’t know or know of Bernstein — celebrated and prolific composer for musicals like On the Town and West Side Story — or for someone who hasn’t watched Maestro, based on his torturous life and prolific loves, this question might strike as slanted. But the more you see of him, either as himself performing in live videos, or as himself being represented on-screen by Bradley Cooper in Maestro, this question becomes all the more potent. 

Bernstein was known for his vigorous, fully bodied conducting, which Cooper slips into, patches of sweat that you can feel forming in your temples, your armpits moistening. Gottlieb writes, “It’s not just his notorious bouncing up and down. He grins, he grimaces, he thrusts and spasms; the emotional climaxes of the music are reflected on his face — he’s thrilled with excitement one moment, anguished the next. He nods and sways. He sweats.” Sweats, yes, a lot, as does Bradley Cooper who takes on the garb of this strange man, who leaves his sweat as stains on dresses of those whom he hugs and kisses after his performance. There is something so egregiously public-facing about this performance, it is impossible to not wonder at what point does a facade sublimate into personality.

Cooper’s wearing of this character is both innocent and reckless. The scene where he is caught kissing a man by his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) evokes both, “I am sorry”, and “You were not supposed to see this”. There is something both arrogant and yielding in his love, a kind of contradiction he embodies, which people around him keep trying to flatten, understandably, since you would want to flatten his antics because of all the hurt and frustration he is causing. But there is the joy he is dispensing, too. What of that? This is a performance that both leaves this asked question hanging, while also allowing and sympathizing with his flattening in the eyes of those around him. 

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