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Maestro (2023), A Post-Mortem: Incompetent Screenwriting and Staging “Jewface”

Leonard Bernstein with Ben-Gurion in Israel, 1953 | Library of Congress. Leonard Bernstein collection, circa 1900-1995.

Bradley Cooper’s magnificently shot Maestro (2023) was supposed to be a biopic about American composer Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990).  Instead, Maestro is a salacious melodrama about Bernstein’s marriage; a gay man married to a straight woman.  The only real acknowledgment of Bernstein’s professional accomplishments is nearly an hour into the film when an interviewer adoringly lists them to Bernstein, who is needlessly dismissive:

Fifteen years on television, teaching us all the magic of classical music, the Young People’s Concerts and Omnibus reaching hundreds of millions all over the world, ten years at the New York Philharmonic and then there are the compositions.  West Side Story redefined the American musical.  Then there’s Candide and On the Town.

No one walks away from great biopics such as Oscar-winners Amadeus (1984), The Pianist (2002) or The King’s Speech (2010) unaware of the souls, demons and, most of all, turning points in their subjects’ lives.  Yet, all of that is missing in Maestro.  Perhaps its celebrated creators – producers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, co-writer/director/producer/star Cooper and co-writer Josh Singer – believed that Bernstein’s story transcended his essence, that he, uniquely among all historical figures, needed neither the depiction of an origin story nor his professional milestones.

For example, Maestro never explores how Bernstein even became a virtuoso.  Instead, we walk in on Bernstein’s life as he is the 25-year-old understudy blasting into orbit when conducting the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall in 1943, which is, in fact, a great opening.  But where and how did the very young Bernstein become that artiste?  How did a gay Jew matriculate at Harvard in 1935?  How did Bernstein become the assistant conductor at Tanglewood just a few years later?  Maestro shows none of his formative artistic toil.  Instead, the filmmakers seemingly assumed that, by blanketing the film with music – half of which were not even Bernstein’s compositions – his talent would be self-evident and, thus, render superfluous his biography in a biopic.

Filmgoers, such as myself, without a previous knowledge of Bernstein’s orchestral and theatrical compositions – aside from West Side Story (1961) – walk away from Maestro feeling cheated.  That was certainly not the feeling after watching Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury, Bette Midler’s Janis Joplin or Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for which they were all rightfully Oscar-nominated.  The structure, substance and performances in those musical biopics created both a foundation and an appreciation for their subjects as artists, even if quirky and frail.  As a reality check, the uninitiated leave those films humming tunes and understanding their protagonists’ struggles; not so with Maestro, which hides Bernstein’s accomplishments as a musician, composer, and pianist behind the flashy glare of a drama queen which, although true, was just the man’s veneer.

Maestro also withholds Bernstein’s sexual awakening, which we are to take as a given, without exploring his burgeoning self-awareness in the 1930s.  Indeed, because the filmmakers opened the gay door with Bernstein’s homosexuality at 25 in 1943, they owed to filmgoers its backstory.  Yet the film is conspicuously mum about Bernstein’s early journey, as if how Leonard Bernstein gained sexual awareness was not even worth a flashback or explanation.  I know nothing of Leonard Bernstein’s travails with homosexuality – and certainly learned nothing about it from the film – but, even so, I can surmise with great certainty that Leonard Bernstein did not become a fully formed gay man as an afterthought.  Perhaps reckoning with homosexuality seems trite today, but surely that was not the case four generations ago, and certainly not for Leonard Bernstein.

Moreover, Leonard Bernstein was not the only closeted celebrity to have married women and fathered their children, a list that famously also includes Rock Hudson, Joel Gray and Robert Reed.  The primary question, however, should not have been about their wives, but about the men’s turmoil when concealing their homosexuality in mid-20th century Hollywood, a culture that relentlessly venerated fertile heterosexual males.  We get none of this from Maestro, which simply presents Leonard Bernstein as a completed gay man precisely as he is marrying his alibi.

Aaron Copland with Leonard Bernstein, ca. 1940, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Likewise, another major hole in the script was Bernstein’s Jewish heritage and faith.  The only moment of real courage exhibited by Leonard Bernstein in the entire film is at a brunch when he brushes off the whispered suggestion that he change his name to “Leonard S. Burns.”  But even then, while his mealy response in the film is simply, “I’ll have to sleep on that,” the real Leonard Bernstein responded, “I’ll do it as Bernstein or not at all.”  Moreover, the other male portrayed at the table was, in fact, Bernstein’s mentor, Aaron Copland, another afterthought in the film, a man who never hid his Jewish roots, yet who wrote America’s most iconic music, including “Rodeo” and “Fanfare for the Common Man.”  Talk about a missed opportunity; I would have paid ten times the ticket price to have heard Aaron Copland – whose real hooknose was a full centimeter longer than Bernstein’s – defend his dear friend’s name.

Of that incident, Dr. Joseph Toltz wrote, “Bernstein refused.  Having conquered antisemitism at Harvard and elsewhere by being resolutely himself, Bernstein revealed not only a deep abiding commitment to Judaism, but a desire to forge a path of freedom for Jewish musical artists in the 20th century.”  Really?  Nothing about Bernstein’s Judaism was in Maestro, apart from that incident at brunch and an older Bernstein wearing a sweatshirt with the name “Harvard” written in Hebrew.  Had any of those Jewish attitudes been portrayed in Maestro – had we seen Bernstein proudly Jewish at Harvard, had they depicted more than a speck of commitment to Judaism (“deep” or “abiding”), had Bernstein been shown clearing the path for any Jew including his wife, then this otherwise soulless film could have had a neshama, a Jewish soul.  But, again, who wants to see Leonard Bernstein at seminal crossroads when we can, instead, see him tormented by his abundant talent, by his First World problems, not by the Third World antisemitism that helped form his personality.

Since watching Maestro, I have learned that the real Leonard Bernstein was a staunch supporter of Israel.  He not only conducted the pre-state Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1947, but according to his website, “… for almost every year of his life, Bernstein donated his services to the orchestra, both in Israel and on tour….”  The real Leonard Bernstein also conducted an orchestra of Holocaust survivors in 1948 at Displaced Persons’ camps in occupied Germany.  Indeed, Leonard Bernstein was a publicly proud Jew, at least in real life, including having written Jewish compositions such as “Kaddish: Symphony No. 3.”  He also risked his life for American civil rights, including with Martin Luther King at the Stars for Freedom Rally before the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.  He protested the Vietnam War, promoted nuclear disarmament and raised funds for HIV research long before that was fashionable.  And Leonard Bernstein was a warm, loving father to his young children, none of which is portrayed in the film.  Indeed, Maestro wasted the best of that beautiful human being on tawdry storylines and fatuous interactions.

Overall, instead of portraying Bernstein’s depth, we learn how difficult it must have been for Bernstein’s wife to have sublimated her career for his.  While that is hardly a fresh story, Mrs. Bernstein still could have worked as a subplot, just not as the only plot.  Indeed, I almost knew less about Leonard Bernstein after watching Maestro than I knew before, which is not the goal of biopics and certainly not the reason anybody started this film.

However, neither ignorance nor incompetence can excuse the scene in Maestro during a family get-together late in life when Leonard Bernstein plays Richard Wagner’s 1850 “Bridal Chorus” (a.k.a. “Here Comes the Bride”), instead of Felix Mendelssohn’s much more regal 1842 “Wedding March.”  The reason Richard Wagner’s music has been banned in the State of Israel is not because Wagner was Hitler’s favorite musician; Wagner is despised by Jews because of his 8,000-word essay entitled “Jewishness in Music” (translated).  Referring to Jewish composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and the same Felix Mendelssohn, Wagner wrote, “Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern civilization.”  Much of Wagner’s essay is a direct attack on Mendelssohn, asserting:

[There] is nothing but that prickling unrest which we observe in Jewish music-works from one end to the other, saving where it makes place for that soulless, feelingless inertia.  What issues from the Jews’ attempts at making art, must necessarily therefore bear the attributes of coldness and indifference, even to triviality and absurdity.

Ironically, Wagner’s above conclusion is a fitting epitaph of Maestro.  Only sheer incompetence and unfathomable ignorance could have led to using Richard Wagner’s music in a film about a Jewish composer who proclaimed, “I hate Wagner, but I hate him on my knees.”  Even if factual – even if Bernstein played the “Bridal Chorus” in private which was depicted to make some twisted statement about Bernstein’s appreciation for all music – this

Title page of the second edition of Das Judenthum in der Musik, published in 1869
© Foto H.-P.Haack (H.-P.Haack) Das Foto darf für wissenschaftliche oder populärwissenschaftliche Publikationen gebührenfrei verwendet werden, sofern der Urheber mit Foto H.-P.Haack vermerkt wird. – Antiquariat Dr. Haack Leipzig
Das Judenthum in der Musik. Original brochure of the first edition 1869

inept filmmaking squandered a fabulous opportunity for the make-believe Bernstein to have addressed the topic of Wagner.  Indeed, the real Leonard Bernstein did ultimately express his angst in a New York Times’ op-ed near the end of his life after finally conducting Wagner in Vienna, writing “I don’t know what the title of this program will ultimately be, but I have an interesting subtitle: ‘What’s a Nice Jewish Boy Like You Doing in a Place Like This, Playing That Racist Music?’”  Without context, the inexplicable choice of Bernstein playing Wagner in Maestro was utterly tasteless and equally tone-deaf.

But other choices, too, in Maestro are galling.  For example, Bernstein’s smokes incessantly in the film.  As if a few cigs could not have made the point, Bernstein even smokes during sex.  It is almost as if Phillip Morris bankrolled Maestro after having seen Mattel’s Barbie bonanza.  Yet, after all those stogies, Maestro never acknowledges that Leonard Bernstein, in fact, died of emphysema, an essential plot point omitted in this biopic.  Maestro’s aspect ratio is also bizarre.  Except for the first two and last six minutes of the film, both of which are late in Bernstein’s life, the non-HD aspect ratio framed in black implies a flashback throughout.  Stylistics aside, which are not enhanced by the technique here, the filmmakers did not trust their audience to comprehend the obvious: scenes depicting the younger looking Leonard Bernstein are assuredly earlier than those depicting the older looking Leonard Bernstein.

Much of Maestro’s exposition, too, is the kind of clunky amateurish screenwriting that would be shredded in the first week of film school.  For example, when meeting his future wife, Felicia María Cohn Montealegre, Bernstein says, “You come from an aristocratic European family on your mother’s side, and your father is American and he’s Jewish.  You moved to Chile because of your father’s business.  And now you’re firmly planted in New York City studying.  A career which demands the versatility to play a panoply of characters.”  Repeatedly, including with the above-quoted career highlights recited during a late-life interview, these filmmakers violate the cardinal rule of filmmaking: whenever possible, show, don’t tell.

But hyped-up controversy about Maestro smoldered long before its Oscar-targeted release.  In a storm of early articles, its filmmakers were accused of “Jewface” because of non-Jewish Bradley Cooper’s makeup and prosthetic nose.  Leonard Bernstein’s children were then trotted out to defend the film in interviews, as if the entire episode, including the accusation, was an entirely staged publicity stunt.  Suffice it to say, no one ever had to defend Laurence Olivier’s or Al Pacino’s “Shylock,” regardless of their respective affectations, accents, costuming, make-up or faith.

Nonetheless, whipping up pre-release buzz, Jewish and industry publications printed crass articles about Maestro perpetuating the inane myth that Jews are somehow an endangered species in front of Hollywood’s cameras and, worse yet, that this make-believe jihad on Jewish actors is purposeful and systematic, by default perpetrated by Jewish filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg.  The controversy is so mind-numbingly absurd, so embarrassingly counterfactual, so vulgar, trashy and grubby, and so transparently ethnocentric, that the “Jewface” accusation itself actually engenders antisemitism, inside and outside of Hollywood.

Yet, the most cringeworthy aspect of the “Jewface” allegation is that Leonard Bernstein’s sister in Maestro is played fleetingly by Sarah Silverman, the controversy’s mouthpiece who instigated the entire “Jewface” storm five years earlier on her podcast.  The full-time comedian and part-time actress bashed several accomplished non-Jewish full-time actresses for having been cast as Jewish protagonists, including Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers, and Rachel Brosnahan as The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel.  Silverman also incorrectly stated that Woody Allen never had Jewish leading ladies, ignoring Louise Lasser, Barbara Hershey, Scarlett Johansson, Evan Rachel Wood, Juli Kavner and Natalie Portman, perhaps the only time that Jerusalem-born Portman has ever been ignored as a Jew.

The self-proclaimed “Jewy” Sarah Silverman, who I have otherwise adored going all the way back to The Larry Sanders Show (TV 1992 – 1998), clearly got way too far over her skis.  She also unwittingly created a permission structure for a triflingly few Jewish activists to cry wolf, allowing those ignoramuses to claim their Warhol 15-minutes by mocking Bradley Cooper’s prosthetic nose.  In a world besieged with crucial fights against antisemitism, I wonder if Sarah Silverman believes that her paltry role was worth all the damage she caused.

So too, as a sign of the times, the haters’ indignation over this supposed cultural appropriation was about the non-Jewish Cooper portraying the Jewish Bernstein, not about the heterosexual Cooper portraying the homosexual Bernstein.  Scream “Gayface” from the hilltops.  Mysteriously, after all of the pre-release prosthetic puffery, nobody seems too bothered by Bradley Cooper’s cloyingly nasal imitation of Bernstein’s voice – like a bar mitzvah boy struggling with allergies – which was far more ethnically charged than was his perfectly faked nose.

As a Jew and Holocaust scholar, I am embarrassed that any supposed Hollywood insider or historian would have had the audacity to suggest that Jews are systematically discriminated against on either side of the camera.  As a film critic, I am offended by Maestro’s cheesy storytelling, even if Cooper was a dead ringer for Bernstein and even if the film was beautifully shot.  And as someone who had hoped to have learned something about Leonard Bernstein and his music, Maestro was a total waste of time and film.  Rightfully, Cooper, Singer, Spielberg and Scorsese failed to win any of their seven Maestro Oscar nominations – not even nosing out the Best Make-Up Oscar – for their inexplicably lobotomized, vanilla Leonard Bernstein, after reducing a meaningful life into the worst of formulaic Hollywood.

Leonard Bernstein conducts and plays Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue (1976)”

Now that the red carpets have been rolled up, as the stench of The Zone of Interest and its director’s obscene speech is passing, take a moment on YouTube to see the real Leonard Bernstein.  See him at the height of his powers conducting Aaron Copland’s “Hoe-Down” with the New York Philharmonic in 1961.  And then watch him again in 1985 conduct Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” with Aaron Copland in the guest box, not long before their deaths a few months apart in 1990.  Then get lost in Bernstein conducting – while soloing on piano within an inch of its life – George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Bernstein’s idol’s masterpiece, in 1976 at London’s Royal Albert Hall during the New York Philharmonic’s American Bicentennial Tour.  And as the encore, watch the gay, Jewish, American, proud, complicated Leonard Bernstein just a few days later representing in Frankfurt, West Germany, first conducting John Philips Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” followed by the very Jewish “Rhapsody,” in the ancestral seat of the Rothschild Family – just a train ride from and a generation after Auschwitz – all of which would have been the fine basis for a film about the real Leonard Bernstein.  Those performances alone will impart more about Leonard Bernstein’s essence than did the whole of Maestro.

Since moving to Israel in 2003, after a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has lectured worldwide about Jewish and Holocaust films, including for six years at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.  He is the author of Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide, 2021, McFarland Press, also available on Kindle.  Included in the book are recommendations of 52 Holocaust films with full reviews.  His website is HolocaustFilms.com.

 

About the Author
After a career in Hollywood, Rich Brownstein has lectured worldwide about Jewish and Holocaust films, including for six years at Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies. He is the author of "Holocaust Cinema Complete: A History and Analysis of 400 Films, with a Teaching Guide," 2021, McFarland Press. Rich was honored as the keynote speaker in June 2022 at the 36th Annual Conference of the Association of Holocaust Organizations in Charlotte, and as a speaker at the Association of Jewish Libraries’ annual conference in Philadelphia, and at the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University on Yom HaShoah. He has also been a guest on many podcasts and webinars, and have presented virtually for numerous organizations, including the American Jewish University, B’nai B’rith International, Classrooms Without Borders, the International March of the Living, the National Library of Israel and UCLA. He also presented a webinar for Echoes & Reflections, the joint project of Yad Vashem, the Anti-Defamation League, and the USC Shoah Foundation. Many of his articles have been published in The Jerusalem Post and he has been quoted, as well, in the New York Times. Rich was honored by Israeli President Isaac Herzog in recognition of his book and dedication to Holocaust education.
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