Oscars 2024: How Carey Mulligan Steals the Spotlight from Bradley Cooper in Maestro

Mulligan received a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for her role in Cooper’s film about Leonard Bernstein.
Oscars 2024: How Carey Mulligan Steals the Spotlight from Bradley Cooper in Maestro

Maestro (2023) — written by, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper — is a collection of moments from the rich life of composer Leonard Bernstein. In the film, Carey Mulligan outdoes herself as Bernstein’s wife Felicia Montealegre — an actress who moved to New York from Chile, and whose life is altered after she meets “Lenny” at a party. As she becomes his staunchest supporter and closest confidante, Mulligan’s performance underscores that Montealeagre was very much Bernstein’s equal, even though she devoted herself to him in a way that pushed her own self out of the limelight. 

During an interview the couple give in the film, we learn that Felicia knows Lenny’s busy schedule better than him. When asked about her own career — they’re old by this time — she confesses that it’s hard to do much more than take care of the household, her husband and three children: “Acting takes the rest of the time that's left over.” It’s implied that she quits her job at one point, but she has no regrets. “It's not going to kill me,” she tells her friend. “One has to do it completely without sacrifice.” As Leonard soars to greater heights, Felicia watches from the wings, literally, but with no rancour. With just one smile, Mulligan captures Felicia’s wistful sense of pride at seeing her husband conducting an orchestra with wild abandon, completely in his element. 

Yet this is far from an ideal marriage, mostly because of Lenny’s repeated affairs with other men. Before shooting for Maestro, Mulligan did a great deal of research into Montealegre’s life, drawing inputs from the Bernstein children, who were actively involved in the project. She discovered that “Felicia never committed to her art like Leonard did”, placing value instead on being his best friend and mentor. And when that aspect of their relationship begins to slip away from Felicia, then “what’s the point of her existence?” mused Mulligan.

Felicia is aware of her husband’s cheating. When she discovers Leonard kissing a young man, she stiffly warns him that he’s getting sloppy. Her pain runs deeper than only feeling slighted by his sexual infidelity. As Mulligan said in The Hollywood Reporter’s Actress Roundtable, the part that truly hurt Felicia was Leonard turning to someone other than Felicia for emotional support — there is a scene in which Leonard reaches for his boyfriend’s hand when he’s nervous at the preview of his new show. Felicia, sitting next to them, looks shattered. The film also suggests that Felicia suffered from depression, unable to derive real joy out of her life and weighed down by a sense of futility. She takes to the stage again as an older woman to keep herself busy, which reminds her “just how much [she loves] being at work.” 

Mulligan’s portrayal of the final months of Felicia’s life as she battles cancer is achingly affecting. Even after she passes away, we see Felicia’s presence continue to be felt by the people whose lives she touched. In the film’s final frame, Mulligan’s eyes shine as Felicia looks into the camera, at Leonard, with a poignant smile on her face; as though she’d do it all over again if she could. 

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