The 2023 biographical drama film Maestro marks the second directorial assignment for Bradley Cooper, who also plays out the role of the protagonist, Leonard Bernstein. The film’s plot follows the legendary American music composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s personal life as he struggles to deal with the internal and emotional effects of his success. Along with being about the man himself, the film also equally focuses on Felicia Montealegre, an actress by profession and also Bernstein’s wife. While Maestro does not bring anything new or experimental to the screen, it provides for an overall convincing watch with flashes of brilliant visual craft.
How did Leonard and Felicia meet and fall in love?
Maestro begins in the living room of an aged Leonard Bernstein, as a number of journalists and camera crew crowd one side of the room, with the legendary musician casually playing on the piano. They are well aware that no opportunity to record Bernstein play should be missed, even though the subject of their interview is slightly different. The interview, or maybe the part of it that we are shown, is focused on the man’s relationship with his late wife, Felicia. Leonard jokingly admits that he still sometimes sees his wife working in the garden, suggesting that the memory of her still lives on in his mind. It is through his retelling of his life’s story for this interview that the events in Maestro unfold before our eyes.
This particular story begins during Leonard Bernstein’s younger days, in 1943, when the man was twenty-five and working as the assistant conductor at the New York Philharmonic. One morning, the young man receives a call informing him of a troubling situation at his workplace: the regular conductor, his positional senior, Bruno Walter, had fallen terribly sick. With the next performance of the symphony orchestra being on that very day, Leonard is called up to be the conductor and make his debut with the Philharmonic. This had indeed been the moment that the protagonist had been waiting for, and after faking tension and disappointment at hearing Walter’s illness, Leonard celebrated the occasion joyously. When the man finally steps up as the substitute conductor, his passion and brilliance shine immediately, and the audience already loves his work.
After some time, when Leonard Bernstein started to make a name for himself in the world of music and symphony orchestra, he visited his sister Shirley’s house for a party. It is at this party that the man first meets Felicia Montealegre, a young actress of Costa Rican descent, and he is smitten by her from the very first moment. Leonard keeps harping on how the two of them are quite like each other because of their having to gather different experiences to build up their present personalities. The words that the young man comes up with are not very logical, since every, or most, humans are indeed collections of their varying experiences in life, but Felicia immediately gets the intent behind all his statements—that he is very attracted to her.
As the two become friends very quickly, they go away from the party and to a theater where Felicia has been practicing her acting for the time being. She and Leonard act out a scene from her script, and this moment brings the two even closer. Both are passionately artistic in their own fields, music, and acting, and it is this very similarity that gets them more drawn to each other. Soon, a whirlwind romance follows between Leonard and Felicia, as they make every effort to meet whenever they can. While Felicia had been an understudy at the time, she too gets her big break soon, as the actress is selected for a lead role in a Broadway production. Just like Leonard earlier, Felicia also shines at her first opportunity, winning over the audience with her performance. During the early days of his career, many send out advice to Leonard, one being to change his stage name and hide his Jewish identity, which he does not really want to do, and he finds his girlfriend supporting his choice too. Eventually, Leonard Berstein and Felicia Montealegre get married and start a happy family together, having a daughter, Jamie, soon after.
How did Leonard’s career affect his marriage?
While the effect of Leonard’s professional career as a composer was more indirect, his uncontrolled physical urges did play a very major and direct role. Leonard Bernstein was bisexual, with some of his closest friends and family knowing about it, and there were not any strong efforts to hide it from his side either. Even before he had met Felicia, Leonard had been having an affair with his clarinetist colleague, David Oppenheim, with the man even being present in Leonard’s room on that fateful morning when he received the call to be the conductor. The two men were extremely close, even though it was almost impossible for gay men to have a relationship, per se, during those times. But their bond ultimately ended in heartbreak with the introduction of Felicia.
After their romantic relationship began, Leonard took Felicia to meet with David, and he introduced the clarinetist as his dear friend and colleague at this time. As the film moves past the couple’s marriage, the man is seen meeting David once more on the streets. This meeting is extremely different from the ex-couple’s earlier meetings, for they are both married to women and have children as well. When Leonard and David finally get a private moment, the protagonist cannot help but break down, extremely sad that he had to lose his lover in such a manner. Perhaps this was indeed the fate of numerous queer romances at the time, when society demanded that men and women of age be married and start a family by having children. The revelation to Leonard that David too was now married and had a child marked the true end of all possibilities in their relationship, and the two never met again.
But even though his one constant lover was no longer by him, Leonard’s attraction towards men did not wane at all. This phase of his life was also marked greatly by meteoric success, for the man gained immense popularity and became a rather public figure. Naturally, Felicia, too, came into the limelight at this point, but only as the beloved musician’s wife. The marriage did have an effect on the woman’s acting career, as she eventually had to give up on it, but not because her husband wished for it though. Being a wife, and especially a mother, almost immediately meant taking time away from one’s passion for women at the time, and so Felicia eventually turned into just a wife and a mother.
A particular scene in Maestro stands out for brilliantly capturing her struggle after her marriage. As Felicia stands by the stage on which Leonard is enthusiastically performing, throwing his arms and body to properly conduct the orchestra, his shadow falls on his wife’s lonely figure. Since the source of light is understandably further away from the screen, Leonard’s shadow is large and gigantic upon Felicia, immediately suggesting how her husband’s profession would eclipse her own interest and career in acting. She is to remain in the shadows of her husband’s name, and this does soon become a reality, for Felicia is only recognized as Leonard Bernstein’s wife. The couple eventually have two more children too, and this further pushes her away from any serious career in acting.
Perhaps Felicia would have still lived on with this professional overshadowing, as there was hardly any other option for her considering the times. But she could not live on with her husband’s repeated affairs with younger men, especially since he made no effort to hide them either. Leonard is seen being introduced to a young man named Tommy Cothran, to whom he is instantly attracted and even gets intimate with in the hallways of his own house. Felicia catches them in the act, and even though her husband tries to pass it on as a completely natural thing, the woman is terribly upset. It is very obvious that Felicia had hoped to have her husband only for herself following the marriage, even though she knew and was fine with his homosexual affairs in the past. It was not the gender of his lovers that disturbed her, but his very choice to get intimate with people outside of his marriage angered Felicia.
Gradually, over time, Felicia started to lash out at every instance of Leonard having flings with younger men, terribly telling him off whenever she found out about them. But the husband did not feel too perplexed by these developments, and it was in this context that his career and the resulting ego that found a place inside his mind took control. Following his popularity and fame, Leonard’s infidelity increased greatly, and there was almost a sense in him that his actions were justified because of his musical talent and genius. Therefore, when Felicia objected to his acts of cheating, Leonard genuinely believed that his wife was acting out of jealousy, feeling herself inferior to his professional accomplishments, and therefore lashed out against him.
This disagreement between the couple took the worst form when, during the performance of Leonard’s latest composition, the man sits with his hand locked in Tommy’s, all while Felicia is sitting right beside them. She leaves the celebrations following the performance earlier than everyone else, and then leaves out her husband’s belongings outside their hotel room, making it clear that he is no longer welcome there. The next day, when they return home, Leonard and Felicia have a huge fight, with the latter calling out her husband’s insensitive actions. She hits Leonard where it would hurt most by claiming that his musical creation could not negate the pathetic hatred and darkness that was inside his heart, and the couple separate for some time following this fight.
What Led To Leonard’s And Felicia’s Reconciliation?
As Leonard and Felicia stayed away from each other during this time, both started seeing other people, even though their hearts were really set on each other. A reunion takes place after Leonard’s intense performance at Ely Cathedral, which Felicia had gone to see without informing him about it. The two are really ecstatic to see each other at the end of the performance, and it is now that the genius having drawn inspiration from his wife, starts being felt. The reunion leads to a reconciliation between the couple, with Felicia taking back her harsh words from earlier and helping her husband with his internal frustration of not having done enough for music.
Within some time, though, Felicia has to get herself checked after falling ill, and the woman is diagnosed with lung cancer. The surgery suggested by her doctor would get a breast removed, and the whole situation takes a terrible mental toll on her. Leonard remains by his wife’s side very dedicatedly during this time, helping to ease her pains in any way that he can. Some close friends keep visiting the couple, wishing well for Felicia, but the woman eventually becomes too sick and mentally bitter to see anyone. The thought of her losing her life while everyone else around lived their usual lives with only some sympathy thrown her way seemed to drive Felicia towards a depressed state. A scene in Maestro shows Felicia run out to the yard in front of their house, possibly to jump over the wall and into the sea, in an attempt to end her life. But as Leonard runs after her, she abandons her desperate plan and instead embraces her husband lovingly. This is the last time that the two are seen in the film, as Felicia passes away soon after from cancer.
Maestro also presents a few minutes of Leonard’s life after the demise of his wife, following which he and his children left their usual home, perhaps unable to bear with the memories of Felicia at the place. A few years later, the man was back to his usual ways, as he passionately taught music and was also seen having affairs with younger men, some of whom were his students. Perhaps these casual flings really had very little emotional significance to him, just like he had tried to explain to Felicia. But the woman’s perspective made sense, too, and she would not have been any happier seeing her husband indulge in such affairs either. Except there was nobody to stop Leonard now, and yet nobody to love him like his wife did.
During Maestro‘s ending, the film returns to the interview with which it had begun, and Leonard Bernstein now admits that his wife had had a tremendous effect on his professional career, inspiring him to achieve all that he had. The film ends with a close-up of young Felicia turning away from the camera, as a fitting tribute to the woman who had helped in making the revered musician who is remembered to this day.