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'Maestro': A Heart in East Hampton

Mon, 11/13/2023 - 16:43
Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan in a scene from "Maestro," which will be released in theaters on Wednesday.
Jason McDonald/Netflix

After eight straight days of film screenings, talks, awards, and parties, the Hamptons International Film Festival took a final bow on Oct. 12 with its closing night film, "Maestro," about the life of Leonard Bernstein, the composer and conductor, and his marriage to Felicia Montealegre, an actress. It was directed by and stars Bradley Cooper in the title role.

The movie will open in theaters on Wednesday, and will be released on Netflix on Dec. 20. It has received a lot of attention, from a controversy about Mr. Cooper's prosthetic nose, a part for Jeremy Strong that was cut, the omission of a notorious party the couple threw for the Black Panthers that gave rise to the term "radical chic," and its rapturous critical reception at the Venice Film Festival, where it premiered. 

It was also well received at HIFF, where the Bernstein children -- Jamie, Alexander, and Nina -- were candid about their reactions to seeing the very real lives of their parents and themselves portrayed on screen, warts and all, in a discussion following the showing.

East Hampton even plays a role near the end of the film, as a place of retreat when the family comes together in a time of crisis. 

Mr. Strong was pegged to play John Gruen, a biographer of Bernstein and a photographer who was a key player in the South Fork art scene of the late 20th century. Based in Water Mill, he and his wife, Jane Wilson, the painter, brought the abstract artists of East Hampton and the more realist artists of Southampton together for raucous gatherings at their home or at a beach near it. The role was written out of the script because of scheduling conflicts, but it is a bit of plot and footage likely to be missed by anyone who knew Mr. Gruen and who also respects Mr. Strong's acting process. 

Other East Hampton area connections to the film are a producer, Steven Spielberg, and an actor, Sam Nivola, another son of accomplished parents (Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer), who plays a young Alexander Bernstein. Adolph Green, Bernstein's friend and collaborator who had a house in East Hampton, is played by Nick Blaemire.

The Bernstein children, who allowed the production to film in their family house in Fairfield, Conn., were pleased with the final product. Mr. Cooper dedicated "Maestro" to them. 

Mr. Cooper approached them six years ago with the idea for a movie, according to Alexander Bernstein. With no script in hand, he still impressed them with his "eagerness, commitment, and vision," he said. When they realized the story would be less biopic than a portrait of a marriage, and they saw the commitment of Carrie Mulligan and Mr. Cooper to their roles as their parents, they found that the project "was amazing and got even better."

Jamie Bernstein felt that the movie's sound quality made her father's music such a presence that "the score was like a co-star." She added that they were "just thrilled at the idea that all these new audiences would discover Bernstein music, not just what they might have already known, like 'West Side Story,' but everything else."

Asked about how it felt to see their lives on screen, Ms. Bernstein kept coming back to the word "surreal," adding, "it's very disorienting." Although parts are painful, she said Mr. Cooper "went to such lengths to make sure that he was telling the story in this very real way . . . in this context of family love and connectedness, which is the exact same element that got us through those same difficult moments."

Similar verisimilitude was used in the approach to conducting. Mr. Cooper enlisted Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the music director of the Metropolitan Opera, to help him understand Mr. Bernstein's technique. According to Nina, Mr. Nezet-Seguin gave Mr. Cooper enough of an understanding of her father's way of conducting "that he could be Lenny, and that was huge."

They're all pretty sure their parents would have loved the film. Mr. Bernstein said his father would have because it was about him, to much laughter, and his mother would have loved Ms. Mulligan's performance.

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