“Shit, I’ve been around, dude,” cracked Bradley Cooper on Thursday night after he watched a montage of his 25 years of screen work with a capacity crowd inside Santa Barbara’s historic 2000-seat Arlington Theatre en route to collecting the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award.
The 49-year-old — who is currently Oscar-nominated for producing, co-writing and acting in Maestro, a film that he also directed for Netflix about the complicated marriage of Leonard Bernstein, played by Cooper, and Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, played by Carey Mulligan — was feted by Mulligan and, in a surprise appearance, by his friend Brad Pitt. Pitt declared, “For me, Maestro is a masterwork,” adding, “Yes, it takes great actors, but it also takes great construction. And I’m telling you, not since [Robert] Redford have I seen anyone do it so well.”
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Cooper has accumulated 12 Oscar noms over the course of his career for work in various capacities on 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, 2013’s American Hustle, 2014’s American Sniper, 2018’s A Star Is Born, 2019’s Joker, 2021’s Nightmare Alley and now Maestro, but he has yet to win. His one previous directing job was A Star Is Born, for which he received a best actor nom. The subsequent best actor nom for Maestro made him only the fourth person to have directed himself or herself to an acting Oscar nom more than once, the others being Laurence Olivier, Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood — pretty heady company.
But during the Santa Barbara career-retrospective conversation with Deadline’s Pete Hammond, Cooper also gamely discussed his past work in less auspicious fare. He spoke about his first credited screen role, as a guy on a 1999 episode of Sex and the City. He addressed early flops, including 2006’s Failure to Launch and 2009’s All About Steve, laughing about sharing a Razzie for “worst screen couple” with Sandra Bullock for the latter. And he looked back fondly at the 2009 comedy The Hangover, which became an unexpected hit, made him a star and launched a trilogy, admitting, “Never in a million years did I think I’d be playing that part for over a decade” (and saying he would do a fourth installment “in a heartbeat”).
It all started for Cooper in Philadelphia, where, he said, he fell in love with movies at the age of 11. He decided to pursue a career in acting, and got his MFA at the New School in New York, where, he recalled, his father, who has since passed away, seemed to become a believer in his ambitions after watching his grad school thesis interpretation of The Elephant Man. (During those years, he also popped up on episodes of Inside the Actors Studio as a questioner of people like Robert De Niro, with whom he later worked.)
But an interest in working behind the camera dates back almost as far. “Ever since I was on Alias,” he said of the J.J. Abrams-helmed TV series that offered him one of his first sizable parts, “I would ask to be on set even when I wasn’t working.” Other directing mentors included David O. Russell, for whom he starred in the trilogy of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy (“It was like I went to film school with him,” Cooper remarked); Paul Thomas Anderson, who Cooper called “my hero,” and who cast him as Jon Peters in 2021’s Licorice Pizza; and Eastwood, who directed him in the R-rated blockbuster American Sniper and later handed him the reins to direct A Star Is Born, which Eastwood and Cooper both considered making with Beyonce before Cooper moved on to Adele and, ultimately, Lady Gaga.
All of it was valuable preparation for Maestro, a project that both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg bowed out of directing before Cooper was offered the job. Cooper said he has been interested in conducting since he was a kid (“I asked Santa Clause for a baton”), but was primarily drawn to the film because of the story of the complex couple at its center. He also related to Bernstein, in the sense that some associated Bernstein with West Side Story so closely that, for a time, they couldn’t associate him with anything else: “There was a while there where people were like, ‘You know you’re just gonna be the dude from The Hangover, you know that, right?’ And I was like, ‘I think I have more to give…'” Maestro, he indicated, was the fullest realization of that, calling it “life-changing” and “one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”
The event closed with the tributes from Mulligan and Pitt. Mulligan, who Cooper described as “the essential element” of Maestro, described him as possessing “God-given talent” and said that he taught her “not to give a flying fuck what anyone thinks of me when I’m trying to make good work.” Pitt, with whom Cooper has not worked on screen, presented Cooper with the award.
Pitt closed by saying of Cooper’s Oscar nominations, “I do hope that this is his year, because it’s well-deserved,” before hitting Cooper in the gut with a joke: “But if it’s not, it’s okay, everyone knows it’s just a matter of time. And Bradley’s okay, he’s fine, he’s used to it — he’s a Philadelphia Eagles fan.”
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