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Maestro’s biggest problem? Bradley Cooper’s open hunger for an Oscar

His Leonard Bernstein biopic has Cooper mugging for a Best Actor award — and shoving everything else aside

Bradley Cooper in closeup as a sweaty, tangle-haired Leonard Bernstein in Netflix’s Maestro Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix

On a recent episode of The Howard Stern Show, Stern asked nine-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper which he’d prefer — to win Best Director and Best Actor at the 2024 Academy Awards, or for the Eagles to win the Super Bowl. Without missing a beat, Cooper answered, “Eagles Super Bowl victory.”

Stern responded with what we were all thinking: “You’re lying.” Eagles fan though he may be, Cooper has had a long tango with the Academy Awards. Those nine nominations have been across multiple disciplines: four for acting, four for producing, and one for writing. In 2015, he pulled off the rare feat of having been nominated three consecutive years for his performances, and yet still not getting the gold. Withdrawal begets desperation. And desperation, it seems, led to his 2023 Netflix biopic Maestro, less a movie about famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and more one about Bradley Cooper trying to finally win his Best Actor Oscar.

That bid goes far beyond the familiar awards-bait “playing a real-life figure while caked in prosthetics” situation. With Maestro, his sophomore directorial effort, Cooper confirms that he’s incapable of directing a film that isn’t ultimately a showcase for his acting ability.

Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre and Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein stand in a small, book-lined room framed by a doorway that dominates the screen in Netflix’s Maestro Image: Netflix

There was evidence of this in his directorial debut, A Star Is Born, which begins as an electric meet-cute between Cooper’s dad-rock icon Jackson Maine and up-and-coming performer Ally (Lady Gaga), then sadly shifts into a glorified For Your Consideration reel for its leading man. There’s a clear gravitational pull to Gaga’s performance, but Cooper-as-director clearly couldn’t help but linger, entranced, on his own grumbly, slurring, leather-faced turn. Surely, he seemed to be thinking, this would be his awards moment?

The Academy disagreed, however, and once again, he was passed over for Best Actor, this time in favor of Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. It was clearly time to abandon the dad rock and make a biopic.

Maestro sees Cooper doubling down on all the insufferable elements of his first film. Where Jackson Maine gave him the opportunity for minor transformation, this is a full-on metamorphosis. His voice is hyponasal, his face full of prosthetics, and a much-publicized nose doesn’t feel offensive so much as strange: In the early black-and-white scenes, the guy looks like Paul Reubens playing Pinocchio. In case those physical modifications prove too subtle for his Academy voters, he certainly has been loud about the extensive prep time he’s undergone for the film.

“I had five and a half years that I could work on it,” he told Stephen Colbert. “I worked with this incredible dialect coach and we spent five years [...] we worked five days a week, eight hours a day.” For the makeup, “four and a half years.” For the conducting, “six years.” You’d think that such immersion would create a genuinely lived-in, transformative performance, but that’s not what Cooper is going for here. The showing off of the work is the entire point. The film is constructed and written (by Cooper and First Man scribe Josh Singer) to allow Cooper to play any scene he could possibly want.

He wants to show how he can have chemistry with his female co-star, so there’s the perfunctory meet-cute. He wants to show he’s not afraid of gay material, so there’s a brief interaction with Gideon Glick as Tommy Cothran. (For a film about a gay icon, the film is stiflingly heterosexual.) And of course, he wants to show that he can hold his own on screen in a big Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-style fight, so we get an even draggier version of the “You’re just fuckin’ ugly” bathtub scene from A Star Is Born, this time under the watchful eye of a Snoopy Macy’s parade balloon.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein conducts flamboyantly in a cathedral as two operatically dressed soloists (Isabel Leonard and Rosa Feola) sing in front of him, an orchestra flanks him, and a choir of men in tuxes sings in the background in Netflix’s Maestro Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix

Even the centerpiece scene of Bernstein conducting in a cathedral plays more as an “I gotta do that!” bit of indulgence than the sort of “That’s when we see the shark” moment Cooper described it as to Colbert. Unlike in 2022’s Tár, there’s no satisfaction in the delay before seeing Bernstein conduct: It’s more mystifying and frustrating that so little of the film concerns its subject’s actual artistic contributions. For all we know, this guy could have been an accountant, or a plumber. Instead, Maestro reduces the man down to what Cooper is familiar with playing. Outside of the one conducting scene, Bernstein flirts, cries, and yells: He basically does everything Jackson Maine did in A Star Is Born, but this time with a prosthetic nose.

The result is a film with frustratingly little dramatic or thematic throughline; events seem to happen merely because Cooper wants to perform them. This isn’t a film about a man; it’s a film about a man acting.

It also isn’t a film about a marriage. In perhaps one of the more insidious bits of awards campaigning of the season so far, Maestro’s first batch of marketing foregrounded Carey Mulligan, with a character poster focused solely on her and excluding Cooper. This and the film’s first teaser revealed that Mulligan had also received billing above her co-star, a development that seemed to promise she would have a role equal to, if not superior to, Cooper’s. That was false advertising, even as it simultaneously helped soft-pedal accusations that Cooper had created his own vanity project.

Make no mistake, Mulligan unequivocally gives the movie’s best performance. It’s just that we’ve seen this role of Supportive Troubled Wife before. Maestro never treats Mulligan’s character, Felicia, as a human being separate from Bernstein. She’s there to alternately get frustrated with him and support him, both confidante and “woman on a pedestal.” While it’s great that both of Cooper’s directorial efforts have been two-handers with women, both of them also ultimately fail their female co-stars, with Director Cooper sidelining them so he can let Actor Cooper cook.

These views of the film as an egocentric exercise for Cooper may seem like bad-faith arguments. But the Academy has had similar trouble rewarding actors engineering baity vehicles for themselves in the past; to date, only two men have ever directed themselves to Best Actor wins. The first was Laurence Olivier for Hamlet in 1949. The second, curiously enough, was Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful, in 1999.

I suspect the Academy’s long-standing habit of reticence about rewarding anything perceived as a vanity project will continue at the awards ceremony in 2024, and that Cooper will have to “try again next time” once more. But the Academy does love historicals and biopics, almost as much as it loves rewarding the Most Acting, the showiest and most obvious performance of the year. If this is the route it goes again this year, Cooper could finally hear his name called out for Best Actor.

Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein and Carey Mulligan as Felicia Montealegre sit together, smoking and smiling at someone offscreen, in a black-and-white image from Netflix’s Maestro Photo: Jason McDonald/Netflix

Is that the worst thing in the world? After all, Cooper has turned in many great performances; he’s the rare leading man who enjoys character acting. Just two years ago, he gave one of the great “I’m a movie star, look at me go” turns of the past decade in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. He’s also demonstrated objective skill directorially. But Maestro might be a better film if he only acted in it, or directed someone else in the lead performance. It would be fascinating to see his impulses behind the camera applied to a project that wasn’t so utterly focused on making him seem like God’s gift to the craft of acting.

In both his films, Bradley Cooper has assembled immense teams of craftspeople working at the top of their game. He has made two of the rarest things: adult studio dramas that look good. He has striven for a kind of vérité authenticity that is undeniable in both A Star Is Born and Maestro. It’s what makes his self-indulgent performances stick out even more. It’s like if a Muppet showed up in a Cassavetes film; it just doesn’t jibe.

Such antics could very easily be assuaged by a victory on Oscar night. As with Leonardo DiCaprio before him, it’s possible that being gifted with a little gold man will take the pressure off, and that the best work of his career is still stretched out before him. Anyway, at least he’ll have his Oscar. And Maestro, that movie about that guy who wanted that trophy, will have its ending as well.

Maestro debuts on Netflix on Dec. 20.