Five years after announcing himself as a major new directorial voice with his first film behind the camera, Bradley Cooper is back with his second feature: Maestro. We delve into the true story behind Maestro, the movie.
The film is based on the life of legendary conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein – played by Cooper himself – with specific attention paid to his relationship with Felicia Montealegre, a Costa Rican TV actress to whom he was married for 27 years.
Maestro: True story behind the movie
Speaking exclusively to RadioTimes.com ahead of Maestro, producer Kristie Macosko Krieger explained why the marriage was chosen as the main focus of the movie rather than a more traditional cradle-to-grave biography of Bernstein’s work.
“I think that you can make a movie just about Leonard Bernstein and that should be a documentary – because there’s so much footage of him and there are so many photographs of him,” she explained.
“[But] the best way to actually make a film for audiences [so] that they will learn something new and different that they couldn’t learn in a documentary is to actually dive into the relationship – their love story, their marriage, their family, and how all of that plays against artistry.”
Read on for more information about the Maestro true story – including exclusive input from Leonard Bernstein’s children.
Maestro true story: how accurate is it?
Much of what we see in the movie is based very closely on events as they really happened, and indeed Krieger explained how the role of Bernstein’s surviving children Nina, Alexander, and Jamie was key to ensuring accuracy.
“Every movie I’ve made, you definitely want the people that the story is about to feel like they’re being taken care of,” she said. “And so we got the permission from them – and they could have just said to us, ‘Great you’ve got our permission, we’ll see you at the premiere.’
“But Bradley in his passionate attempt to get it right and to do it as authentically as possible sought their counsel, and he wanted to make sure that they thought that he was doing their father justice and that Carey [Mulligan] was doing their mother justice, like he wanted to make sure that they were going to be proud of the film in the end.
“And so they were around and available for endless questions and they had research for us and they just really every step of the way became sounding boards for Bradley and Carey and the entire production crew.”
Speaking to RadioTimes.com, Nina Bernstein Simmons explained how focusing on the marriage allowed the film to “really capture his essence, his very innermost self”.
Jamie Bernstein added: “Which was a self that was always reaching out to embrace everything. He was a famous hugger – if he could have hugged every person in the world he would have done.”
“Except maybe Richard Nixon,” interjected Nina with a laugh. “But you know he was also a very private person. And so you get to see that as well. Like what was his inner life about?
“And so having the lens of the marriage really allows you into his inner self, which was often tormented, as you see, and very depressed. And self-doubt, actually like ‘Why haven’t I written more?’ So you get to see all that.”
Meanwhile, Jamie added that both she and Nina were delighted that the film showed the more light-hearted, humorous side of their father.
“When you see Leonard Bernstein dressed in tails conducting on a podium, he looks like a very stern serious person,” she explained. “And he was so different from that. He was hilarious and kind of informal and very affectionate.
“So we were really happy to see that whole side of them presented in the film.”
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Who was Felicia Montealegre?
As is shown in the film, Felicia Montealegre was a Costa Rican-Chilean TV actress who married Leonard Bernstein in 1951.
She appeared frequently on television dramas throughout her career and also had a successful stage career – often collaborating with her husband.
Born in Costa Rica in 1922 and educated in Chile, she eventually established herself in New York and made her first acting appearance in the city in a production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s If Five Years Pass at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1945.
She met Leonard Bernstein the following year at a party thrown by Claudio Arrau and the two instantly hit it off, eventually marrying in 1951 after their initial proposal had briefly been called off.
Although they were often happy together, their marriage was not without its difficulties partly due to Bernstein’s several much-publicised extramarital affairs with men.
As was revealed in a letter she sent to him early in their marriage, Montealegre was aware of Bernstein’s sexuality and urged him not to change – explaining that she would give him permission to sleep with men and hoped this would allow them to keep their relationship going.
“You are a homosexual and may never change,” she wrote. “You don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do?”
She added: “I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr… let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession.”
Another reason the marriage sometimes came under strain was that she sacrificed many career opportunities to look after their three young children and allow Bernstein’s career to continue thriving.
“I thought it was interesting that she gave up a lot of her career to raise her family and to support his career,” Krieger explained. “And, you know, as a woman, I think that’s really resonant and I think that’s really interesting.
“She really was his muse, and she was his reason for being and I think that I didn’t know that until we were making a movie about a marriage. Bradley and Josh [Singer], when they were writing the script, really uncovered that.”
Despite these difficulties, it was clear to all who knew them that there was genuine affection between Bernstein and Montealegre, and the two stayed married until her death from lung cancer in 1978 – which is depicted in some devastating scenes during the film.
Speaking about Carey Mulligan’s performance, Nina Bernstein Simmons said she “broke my heart” and added that she didn’t “know how she found the essence of Felicia”.
Jamie added: “There was loads of research material for Bradley to have used to study our dad and adapt his mannerisms, his voice, and all of that. But there’s not that much for our mother.
“She was an actress, so there are some early television dramas that you can watch on YouTube, but she’s playing another character so you’re not really seeing Felicia herself. We showed her our home movies, so that gave her a little something but overall, she had not that much to go on.
“And yet somehow, she pulled off this magic trick where she was able to convey the nuances of our mother, who was such a subtle person. So I don’t know how she did it, but it’s an incredible performance.”
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(All images: Courtesy Jason McDonald/Netflix via IMDb)
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