There is a very unfair yet sometimes appropriate term in film commentary circles called “Oscar bait.” For those who aren’t enmeshed in the details of the Oscar race every year, “Oscar bait” is the term not-so-lovingly bestowed on a film that seems to exist only to garner awards attention, especially the Academy Awards. While it can reference films themselves for containing elements that Oscar voters traditionally love, it usually more specifically is reserved for a particular performance in a film, one that so blatantly checks all the Oscar boxes that it feels like pandering to the utmost degree.
Characteristics of classic “Oscar bait” performances are those where the actor does any or all of the following things (list not comprehensive): lose weight, gain weight, use prosthetics to change their appearance, play a real person, play a famous person, play someone with a disability, play someone who is victimized or brutalized, makes themselves ugly (quotient rises based on how beautiful they are to begin with), learn a foreign language, learn an instrument, or direct themselves. Some classic examples of recent Oscar bait (again, not comprehensive): Will Smith in Ali, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith in Concussion, Will Smith in Emancipation, and Will Smith in King Richard. I’m kidding…but not really.
This year, two such Oscar bait performances worked and landed Oscar nominations: Annette Bening in Nyad, and Bradley Cooper in Maestro. In Bening’s case, I don’t begrudge her blatant attempt to grab the golden prize that she has come so close to so many times before—losing twice to Hilary Swank had to hurt—because I think she does deserve an Oscar.
As for Bradley Cooper, however, he is so thirsty for an Oscar, it’s almost sad. I’ve never been a fan of Cooper’s style of acting, which is, let’s just say, the opposite of subtle. He loves to go big or go home, and he’s been trying to land the elusive Oscar since Silver Linings Playbook. When his over-the-top Oscar bait roles in American Hustle and American Sniper failed to get him the top prize, he finally decided to take matters into his own hands and directed himself in classic Oscar bait (following in the footsteps of previous Oscar bait) A Star is Born, but when that still didn’t work, he decided to go for broke with Maestro, a film that checks more Oscar boxes than Wolfgang Puck.
Maestro is the real-life story of legendary conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, with Cooper playing Bernstein (of course). The film, directed and co-written by Cooper (along with Josh Singer) chooses not to focus on Bernstein’s iconic professional accomplishments, which included composing of symphonies, conducting of orchestras, writing of Broadway musicals and generally being known as one of the greatest American composers and conductors in history, but instead focuses on his marriage and his struggle with staying in the closet.
It goes without saying that dramatizing Bernstein’s life is a large task to undertake, but the approach that Cooper and Singer make, choosing to focus on the extremely melodramatic personal life of an icon instead of his professional work, comes off as self-serving, not to mention disappointing. It would have been amazing to have a look at the artist behind the art, find out what motivated, inspired and kept the genius going. What fun it would have been to have watched West Side Story or Candide grow from an idea into legend. And what I would have given to have had some genuine insight as to how a master conducts an orchestra.
But there was more conducting and more behind-the-scenes of a conductor’s life in last year’s fictional TÁR than there is in Maestro.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear how much effort Cooper put into learning to play Bernstein, and even how to play him conducting, but it is reserved for one scene towards the end of the film, which overwhelmingly feels so much more about Cooper than about the music, the process, the art or even Bernstein himself.
Maestro is beautiful, all credit to cinematographer Matthew Libatique for a luscious canvas of black-and-white and color, and magnificent costumes by Mark Bridges. Carey Mulligan is luminous as Bernstein’s put-upon wife Felicia Montealegre, and every bit deserves her Oscar nomination, but it is frustrating how her whole character is presented in response and reaction to Cooper’s, a frustrating reminder of how character-centric Maestro is.
Bradley Cooper may just have been the perfect actor to play Leonard Bernstein, who knows. But, in a film also directed and written by Bradley Cooper, there was no way Maestro could be anything but the Bradley Cooper show, and that’s not what I had signed up for.