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With Maestro, Leonard Bernstein’s Legacy and Loves Finally Hit the Big Screen

His daughter Jamie Bernstein speaks for the first time about Bradley Cooper’s transformation to play her father, and the “portrait of a marriage” at the heart of the film.
With ‘Maestro Leonard Bernsteins Legacy and Loves Finally Hit the Big Screen
Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

Jamie Bernstein, the eldest child of famed composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, admits she’s lost track of how long she’s been talking to producers about making a movie about her father’s life. She thinks it began around 15 years ago when producer Fred Berner first came to her with the idea. For a while, Martin Scorsese was attached to direct, but eventually that wasn’t going to happen anymore. Then, Steven Spielberg considered helming it, and reached out to Bradley Cooper about starring as Bernstein.

But everything changed when Spielberg’s schedule got too busy (coincidentally with another Bernstein-related project, his adaptation of West Side Story) and Cooper stepped in to direct and cowrite the film. “Bradley arrived at this concept that was really not a biopic anymore at all,” Jamie Bernstein tells Vanity Fair. “It was something else entirely of its own devising—its own creature, really.”

What Cooper wanted to do was chronicle Bernstein’s incredible career and artistic accomplishments, but actually focus the story on his relationship with his wife and the mother of his three children, Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. “It became a portrait of a marriage, it was a love story about our parents, and of course, what could be more personal for us?” says Jamie, speaking in depth about the film for the first time. “He had found a way into the story of our dad that wasn’t just about his career and his fame and all of that. It was instead something very personal, very intimate, really about who he was as a human being.”

Maestro, which will have its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on September 2, will finally bring to the big screen the story of Leonard and Felicia, a riveting tale about artists and love that features towering performances from Cooper and Carey Mulligan. Cooper’s follow-up to his 2018 directorial debut, A Star Is Born, Maestro is a love story on many levels, from the love Bernstein—one of the greatest artists of a generation—had for music to the love that held their marriage together. “Our whole family just had this fantastic quality of love and connectedness, and it really began with our parents, even when they had their troubles,” says Jamie. “We all came out the other side of it, all of us still feeling like a cohesive unit, and still loving each other.”

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

Leonard Bernstein first met Felicia Montealegre Cohn at a party in 1946. By then, he was already a promising rising star in the classical music world, who’d had his debut conducting the New York Philharmonic, premiered his original symphonies, and was serving as the music director of the New York City Symphony. Montealegre was a Costa Rican American actor who would make her Broadway debut in Swan Song that year. They married in 1951, even though Montealegre was aware of the gay relationships Bernstein would continue to have throughout their life together.

The recently released first trailer for Maestro promises a sweeping love story that’s told in both black and white and color, and dabbles in fantasy and reality. It captures the early moments of their relationship, but also explores the ups and downs that come over their 27-year partnership. It’s steeped in Bernstein’s music, both of his original compositions and works he conducted, which Jamie and her two siblings—Alexander and Nina—agreed to provide for the film.

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

They also opened up their personal family history to Cooper. “He asked everything,” says Jamie. “It could have gone some other way. Once he had the rights to make this film, it was his movie to make, and he didn’t have to consult with us particularly unless he felt like it.” Jamie says Cooper had “a million questions” in his quest for authenticity. “He really wanted to kind of get under the skin of who Leonard Bernstein was, who Felicia Montealegre was, and who we were as a family.”

It’s a vulnerable step to take, especially for a family that has been protective over their parents’ legacy. But it wasn’t Jamie’s first time grappling with how she’d tell her family’s story—she went through a similar process while writing her 2018 memoir, Famous Father Girl. The intimate portrait of her family is honest about the best parts of her family life and some of the bigger challenges, including the strain her father’s extramarital affairs put on her parents’ marriage.

“I went about it with this sense of honesty and this sense that if you tell a story that has difficult elements in the context of the love that connected all the people in the story that you’re telling, then it’s going to be okay,” she says. “I really think that Bradley had the same feeling when he undertook this project of the film about our parents.”

Her book would serve as a foundation for Maestro’s script, which was cowritten by Cooper and Josh Singer in a similar spirit of openness. “What I came to feel and continued to feel when the whole business of this film came up, is that anytime you try to hide something or obfuscate something or pretend something isn’t there when it is, it’s just going to come around and bite you in the butt,” says Jamie.

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

“In the very, very beginning, I did not necessarily perceive that Bradley bore a resemblance to my dad,” admits Jamie, who adds that she has had a facial-recognition issue, so maybe she’s not the best judge. But early on, the four-time Oscar acting nominee sent Jamie and her siblings several pictures of himself side by side with images of their father, and she began to see the resemblance.

Then Cooper began working with two-time Academy Award winner Kazu Hiro on the makeup and prosthetics, spending several years perfecting the look. “It just made us gasp at what they were able to achieve,” says Jamie. “He would send us photographs on his phone, and some of them were so spot on that we would think, Oh, come on now, he just sneaked in a picture of our dad.”

There’s already been a bit of hubbub on the internet in reaction to Cooper’s transformation, so much so that the Bernsteins released a statement defending the prosthetics. “It happens to be true that Leonard Bernstein had a nice, big nose,” the statement said. “Bradley chose to use makeup to amplify his resemblance, and we’re perfectly fine with that. We’re also certain that our dad would be fine with it as well.” Jamie Bernstein noticed that the criticism started as soon as the first images of Cooper on set were released back in May 2022. “It’s just such an annoying distraction,” she says. “The people who were waiting to get mad about something were just waiting to pounce.”

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

As the project moved along over the years, Jamie realized Cooper had more in common with her dad than just his looks. She says, “His energy was so similar to our dad’s, and his way of being in the world and relating to people reminded us more and more of our dad, and we began to see how right he was for the role in ways that wouldn’t even have occurred to us at first.”

And the uncanny resemblance didn’t stop at Cooper. Mulligan, whose recent work includes Promising Young Woman and She Said, was able to capture Felicia in a similar way after studying her deeply (Montealegre was born in Costa Rica to an American father and Costa Rican mother who's ancestry is European). “We didn’t know what to expect because our mother was such a complex and subtle person, and she had so many idiosyncrasies,” says Jamie. “She was also a very private person, so we didn’t know whether anyone would be capable of conveying her essence. And it’s just the damnest thing, how Carey really did that.”

As open as they were about their lives before production, Jamie and her siblings didn’t visit the set of Maestro; as Jamie puts it, “that was not Bradley’s way. He had a very closed set…. It was very intimate and intense, I’m guessing.” But one of those sets is very familiar to the family—their Fairfield, Connecticut, home, which Leonard and Felicia bought in 1962.

It’s a central location in the film, and brings yet another personal touch to the story. “The very first time that we invited Bradley to come up and see the house, he got the idea right away,” she says. “He said, ‘Oh, I could shoot here.’ From the very beginning, it was going to be okay with us if he really wanted to do that. And then, gosh, he really did want to do that.”

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

There’s a moment in Maestro where Jamie (played by Maya Hawke) is asking her father about the rumors about his affairs. The scene was pulled from Jamie’s memoir, but even she was surprised by how eerie it felt to watch it unfold onscreen. “It was very intense to watch that scene, especially with the way Bradley directed it. There were so many silences in it,” she says. “It’s a very fraught memory for me.”

In opening up their story and its most personal moments to the world, Jamie and her family allow Maestro to also capture the struggles that came along with being in a family that has a supernova at its center. Leonard Bernstein’s long list of accomplishments included multiple original symphonies, the score for On the Waterfront, 16 Grammy Awards, two Tony Awards, and conducting the top orchestras around the world. He was also an activist who never shied away from using his art for a bigger purpose. But fame didn’t just affect Leonard. “I thought that Bradley really conveyed the degree of the fishbowl aspect of our lives growing up,” she says. “It’s a big juggle. It really conveys how difficult it is to be an artist and be a very private, creative person, and also be connected in the world, and how that manifests itself. It’s tough.”

She’s convinced that bringing her childhood memories and her father’s story to the big screen (Maestro will play at New York Film Festival before it’s released theatrically in November and on Netflix in December) will have an impact, particularly for those who may only know Bernstein for West Side Story. “I’m so thrilled that this music is now going to be in everybody’s ears, and I’m really hoping that people will want to go out and hear more of it,” she says. “I really feel like my dad was a role model for how an artist can use their art to make a difference in the world. My father really did that his whole life.”

Spielberg, who is a producer on Maestro, and Cooper on the set

Courtesy of Jason McDonald/Netflix.

Maestro makes its international debut at the Venice Film Festival on September 2. Netflix will release the film in select theaters on November 22 before streaming it beginning December 20. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage, featuring first looks and in-depth interviews with some of this coming season’s biggest contenders.

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