After premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Netflix’s awards season pony “Maestro,” the Leonard Bernstein biopic from sophomore director Bradley Cooper, in which he also stars, is gearing up for its next major stop at the New York Film Festival on Monday.
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Ahead of its New York bow, the streamer invited a small group of journalists and friends of the Bernstein family to the Academy Museum on Tuesday night in Los Angeles. The famed composer’s daughters, Jamie Bernstein and Nina Maria Felicia Bernstein, introduced the screening, followed by an intimate discussion with some of the filmmaking team, including Oscar-nominated producer Kristie Macosko Krieger (“The Fabelmans”) and three-time nominated sound mixer Steven Morrow (“La La Land,” “A Star is Born” and “Ford v. Ferrari”).
“Maestro” follows Bernstein through decades of creating music and teaching while he’s married to Felicia Montealegre, played fiercely by Carey Mulligan.
The two-time nominated star of “An Education” (2009) and “Promising Young Woman” (2020) finds the optimistic and loving nature of a woman confined to a life of secrecy in the shadow of her husband. Admittedly, halfway through the film, I wondered what the Venice crowd was so excited about with Mulligan’s work since she seemed to be taking such a backseat. Immediately following, Mulligan told me why in a scene involving Snoopy at the Thanksgiving parade. The British starlet unloads fire and brimstone in an emotional delivery that will be cited as one of her most commanding scenes.
The awards team has yet to confirm Mulligan’s category submission. Still, the assumption has been that she would seek leading consideration, especially as she is featured prominently on the poster, being first billed and first on the call sheet during shooting. But so was Meryl Streep, nominated for supporting actress for “Into the Woods” (2014).
With Lily Gladstone’s surprise leading run for “Killers of the Flower Moon” announced, a supporting campaign would be wise and (in my humble opinion) warranted. With the lead actress category stacked, Mulligan would have a more attainable chance in supporting. Still, standing next to performers dominating the totality of their films, such as Emma Stone (“Poor Things”) and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (“Origin”), she could face challenges (i.e., Emmanuelle Riva for “Amour”).
I’ve been fiercely against the long-discussed “category fraud” problem in awards, with leading roles choosing to submit for supporting categories. Some egregious examples in Oscars history include Rooney Mara for “Carol” (2015) and even Mulligan last year for her work as a journalist who broke the Harvey Weinstein allegations in “She Said.” However, I also believe lead and supporting roles aren’t always black and white and don’t directly correlate to an actor’s screen time, how they’re billed, or the title.
Those gray areas exist in specific roles such as Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), where the character is prominent in the story but is as essential as anyone who inhabits a scene. The “Maestro” script by Cooper and Oscar-winning scribe Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) presents an unconventional biopic focused on Bernstein as the north star of the story, where everyone’s feelings and engagements all revolve around him, even Felicia.
It is also noteworthy that two leading wins from the same movie haven’t occurred since Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt for “As Good as It Gets” (1997). Nonetheless, Mulligan is the heart of the emotional drama, anchored by Cooper’s soulful turn.
There are moments while watching Cooper’s transformation as Bernstein when I was reminded of two vastly different Oscar-winning roles in the past: Daniel Day-Lewis from “Lincoln” (2012) and Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” (2019). With Day-Lewis, which netted him his record-breaking third lead actor statuette, his voice and mannerisms stood at the forefront of a subdued interpretation of the 16th president of the United States. With “Joker,” a film Cooper was nominated for as a producer, his vibrant eyes and facial expressions offered a window into the pain lurking within. Cooper finds a magnetic blend of the two, which could finally put him in contention for his first acting award.
Only two people in Oscar history have directed themselves to acting wins – Laurence Olivier for “Hamlet” (1941) and Roberto Benigni for “Life is Beautiful” (1998). Cooper has picked up nine noms over the last decade, including four as an actor: “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), “American Hustle” (2013), “American Sniper” (2014) and “A Star is Born” (2018), showing he’s more than due for a trip to the podium. A six-minute conducting sequence towards the film’s end may be the “Oscar clip” that gets his name checked off. Moreover, Cooper nails the embodiment of the famed musician, from his signature articulation down to his cigarette holding.
Of course, the best actor race is also crowded with his Netflix counterpart Colman Domingo (“Rustin”), along with others such as Jeffrey Wright (“American Fiction”), Paul Giamatti (“The Holdovers”) and Cillian Murphy (“Oppenheimer”). Cooper’s chances will rely on how voters ultimately receive the film as it begins to screen more.
Additionally, the movie presents a giant leap forward for Cooper as a director. With his debut, “A Star is Born,” he showed effective techniques that made him someone to be excited about in the future of cinema. With “Maestro,” he helms the tale with a partly fantastical musical experience, paired with a documentary-style approach as we spend time with an enigmatic man who was more than his sexuality and his most vital compositions, such as “West Side Story.” That style is sure to put the film in the running for production design (Kevin Thompson, Rena DeAngelo), costumes (Mark Bridges), cinematography (Matthew Libatique), editing (Michelle Tesoro) and sound (eligible artisans to be announced).
The Directors Branch of the Academy can be brutal for actors-turned-filmmakers, as shown by Cooper’s snub for his inaugural outing and others like Ben Affleck (“Argo”). That will be the film’s most significant challenge with industry voters. Perhaps the fact that the film is produced by two directing legends — Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese — will assist in that department.
The highly publicized nose chatter was much ado about nothing. While I think the monochrome sequences, only about 20% of the film, are when the prosthetics aren’t at their best, the color sequences are otherworldly. I gasped in the opening scene where Cooper is in full older makeup as Bernstein, another undeniable achievement by two-time Oscar-winning makeup designer Kazo Hiro (“Bombshell” and “Darkest Hour”).
Netflix has a best picture player in its arsenal, which will resonate with various branches. Whether this brings them the highly coveted best picture statue remains a mystery.
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