Maestro, the new Leonard Bernstein biopic directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, is dazzling audiences with its stunning visuals, impeccable sound design, and award-worthy performances. Some were surprised, however, that this portrait of such a major cultural icon actually spends a lot of time focusing on someone else: Leonard’s wife, Felicia. Let’s take a deeper look at the real-life stories of Leonard and Felicia as individuals and their relationship to unpack why Cooper and co-writer John Singer chose this framing, and analyze how this choice to bring her to the forefront changes the tone of the story.
CH 1: Becoming Leonard Bernstein
Before we dig into their life together, let’s break down who Leonard and Felicia were as individuals. Leonard Bernstein, often called Lenny by friends and family, was one of – if not the – most important and influential music conductors and composers of the 20th century. A larger-than-life extrovert with a creative drive to bring beauty into the world through music, and to share that love for music with as many people as possible around the world, Leonard started making his name from a young age. Even as a child he was determined to create music – even scrounging together the funds for piano lessons on his own when his father, who wanted him to have more practical (aka financially viable) interests said no. (He did eventually win his father over a few short years later once his immense talent became undeniable!) Leonard kept his self-assured spirit into adulthood and never doubted that he was meant for greatness. But after graduating college, his future did seem to be up in the air. He couldn’t seem to find a permanent job where he could really utilize his skills – until he got his lucky break. This is the point at which we first meet Leonard in the film – at only 25 years old, he got the call of a lifetime: conductor Bruno Walter had fallen ill and wouldn’t be able to make that night’s performance at the New York Philharmonic and they needed Leonard to fill in. With zero rehearsals he jumped in and conducted a program that was broadcast across the country – and in return, became front-page news. He hit the ground running and never looked back.
Leonard immediately began composing his own symphonies and collaborating with other talented artists. His love for music and passion for life was immediately apparent in his work; his friend and mentor, composer Aaron Copland once telling him, “As far as I can judge by your music so far, you are hopelessly romantic as a composer.” Leonard was always up for trying new things, expanding his mind and capabilities into new areas. He co-created a ballet with Jerome Robbins, which they then turned into hit musical On The Town, though not everyone thought his move away from strictly classical music was a great idea. In another letter, Copland recounted a run-in he had with another Harvard alum while on vacation in Mexico: “Somehow your name came up – it generally does – and I asked him if he had ever heard of you… Reply: “Oh isn’t he the boy who can never say no? I hear he’s gone into musical comedy…” That floored me…” But Leonard was never one to be swayed by the opinions of others - his interest was in the art (and he believed himself enough to feel assured that whatever he did, other people would eventually jump on board.)
His career continued to reach new heights year after year, and he importantly used his own success to champion the work of others who were often left out of the spotlight. He was appointed the sole music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1958, and advocated for the works of American composers and for lesser known works that the public didn’t get the opportunity to hear as often as the well-known greats. He also spearheaded the implementation of blind auditions to help combat racism, wanting to make sure everyone had an opportunity to play based on their actual talent. Leonard was responsible for many memorable scores, like that of Broadway’s West Side Story or Elia Kazan’s film On The Waterfront, and conducted across the world. In his quest to share the joy of music with everyone, he even created a series of Young People’s Concerts which were televised across the country, bringing classical music right into people’s homes and giving them in many cases their first opportunities to really engage with the genre and grow to love it.
CH 2: Hiding in Plain Sight
While he found a lot of freedom within his career, his personal life was a different story. Leonard was constantly pressured to hide both the fact that he wasn’t straight and the fact that he was Jewish. He was pushed to change his last name, and to hide his relationships with men. While he might have had to hide parts of himself from the larger public, he was totally open about who he was with those close to him. According to Aurthur Laurents, who he worked with on West Side Story, Leonard was “a gay man who got married. He wasn’t conflicted about it at all. He was just gay.” To ‘keep up appearances’, he realized that he would need to get married to a woman, and was lucky enough to meet Felicia Motealegre at a friend’s party. Felicia was an up and coming actress who had just moved to New York from Costa Rica. They immediately hit it off, and they even got engaged – but eventually broke things off. She continued on with her career, appearing on Broadway and television and dating actor Richard Hart. Sadly, Hart died suddenly at only 35 years old, but this brought Leonard and Felicia back together and they finally tied the knot in September of 1951. While Leonard being queer was an “open secret” to friends and family, once it became more widely known later in his life, many fans wondered if Felicia had really been aware of it the entire time. And indeed she was. As we see in the film, Felicia went into the marriage with open eyes. In a letter to Leonard during a turbulent time early on in their marriage, Felicia wrote: “You are a homosexual and may never change - you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, and your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?” She accepted him for who he was, and was willing to continue on with the relationship, thinking of it as more of a partnership than a traditional marriage. She wrote, “Our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?” She loved Leonard, and his wonderful spark and passion for life, and didn’t want to try to snuff it out but to encourage him to live as fully as possible. “Let’s see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!” Lavender marriages, in which an opposite-sex couple marries in a bid to disguise the sexuality of one or both of them, were quite common among famous people during the early 20th century. Being openly queer in any capacity was not only not accepted, it could totally end your career. And so LGBTQ people would enter into straight-presenting marriages in order to protect themselves. And while this type of social protection was very important for Leonard’s career, it wasn’t the only reason the pair were together. They were, by all accounts, genuinely great friends and brought out the best in one another. Paul R. Laird, who wrote a biography of Bernstein, told Time, “Bernstein absolutely loved her—there was no question about that. It was as sincere a marriage as you’re going to get between a male homosexual and a woman at a time when a lot of male homosexuals married women.” Through the lens of this deep connection, we can begin to understand more concretely why the filmmakers chose to make Felicia’s story such a prominent feature of the film.
CH 3: Defining Relationships
When the first teaser trailer for Maestro dropped, there were some questions about why it appeared that this biopic about a famous queer person was going to so closely focus on his relationship with a woman – with many fearing that it was a signal that his queerness would be completely sanded away to appease Oscar voters. And while his queerness is thankfully not left out or hidden, it is unfortunately sidelined. As Jamie Tabberer wrote in Attitude, “[F]rustratingly, Bernstein’s relationships with men are thinly sketched. Put simply, it should have been queerer.” While the film unfortunately doesn’t dive too deeply into any of his gay relationships, it does still make clear the importance of these connections for Leonard.The film doesn’t necessarily seek to hide the truth of Leonard’s life, but just to also shine a spotlight on Felicia’s.
Felicia essentially gave up her own life to cultivate his – leaving behind her career to take care of their kids and follow wherever his ambition took them. And so this makes her a perfect conduit through which to express the true immensity of his fame – his rocketing success underlined by her shrinking away (sometimes literally, as in one scene where she’s literally standing in his shadow while he plays on stage.) Leonard was the kind of famous that engulfed everyone around him – no matter how hard you might try, there’s no way to outshine the brightest star in the sky. Felicia thought she would be able to deal with all of this at first – both his second life outside of their marriage and his ego – but over time she started to realize her entire sense of self had been lost in her bid to help encourage his. The film taking place over such a long span of time allows us to see the full reality of her choices and their consequences play out – not just the giddy young adult falling in love or just the middle aged woman regretting putting everyone but herself first, but the entire flow of the timeline of her life from that first spark of their meeting. Bringing Felicia to the forefront of the story in this way is not only a flip of the script of her real life, where her story was in many ways lost in the ocean that was Leonard Bernstein’s icon status, but also the stories of many women who put their own lives aside to help their husbands toward greatness. And so in this way it’s fitting that the film ends at Felicia’s end. Leonard had left her, wanting to live more openly as a gay man, and moved in with Tom Cothran. Felicia was diagnosed with lung cancer, and as her health began to fail Leonard came back home to care for her until she passed. And the film ends not on a shot of Leonard, but on Felicia – in the same way Leonard poured so much of himself and his energy into creating and showcasing beautiful music, the film spends its final moment with the person who poured so much into him.
Maestro is a beautiful, sweeping look at the career of an icon and the shadow it cast on those around him. It doesn’t doesn’t include every major moment of his life, and it never cares to attempt to – this film is all about the emotions of its main characters; what they give each other and what they take away. It would absolutely be great to have a Leonard biopic that focuses more concretely on him – and there may well be, as this film attempts to span so much of his life it skips plenty of major moments big and small, so there’s certainly still plenty of his story left to tell. But while it might not be the perfect summation of the life of the virtuoso, it does give us a peek behind the curtain at the price of that kind of success – both for those who are pressured to mold themselves into someone else to achieve their dreams and the people who exist in their orbit, lost amongst the star dust.
Have you watched Maestro? If so, let us know what you thought about the film in the comments!
Alberge, Dalya. “Passionate, Tender, Heartbreaking ... Letters Reveal Leonard Bernstein’s 10-Year Secret Affair.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Aug. 2019, www.theguardian.com/music/2019/aug/17/leonard-bernstein-japanese-love-letters-hashimoto.
Felicia Bernstein to Leonard Bernstein, N.D. | Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/resource/musbernstein.100060233.0?st=gallery. Accessed 21 Dec. 2023.
Letter from Leonard Bernstein to Helen Coates, N.D. - Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/resource/music.muslbcorr-00433/. Accessed 21 Dec. 2023.
Morgan, Thaddeus. “When Hollywood Studios Married off Gay Stars to Keep Their Sexuality a Secret.” History.Com, A&E Television Networks, 26 July 2023, www.history.com/news/hollywood-lmarriages-gay-stars-lgbt.
Tabberer, Jamie. “Maestro Review: ‘Masterful Bernstein Biopic Drops Ball on Bisexuality.’” Attitude, 14 Dec. 2023, www.attitude.co.uk/culture/maestro-review-masterful-bernstein-biopic-drops-the-ball-on-bisexuality-455172/.
Waxman, Olivia B. “The True Story behind Maestro and Leonard Bernstein’s Life.” Time, Time, 22 Nov. 2023, time.com/6338908/maestro-true-story-leonard-bernstein-felicia-montealegre/.