April 2024


Two Lives Before Stonewall

Rustin, Maestro

Miles David Moore


Two Oscar-nominated films on Netflix share the theme of a gay man—a brilliant, natural leader—who comes to prominence at a time, not so long ago, when homosexuality was  The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. 
(It still is, if you look at what’s happening in state legislatures across the country, but that’s another topic.)  Bayard Rustin, played by Colman Domingo in George C. Wolfe’s Rustin, suffered far more for his gayness than Leonard Bernstein, played by Bradley Cooper in his own film Maestro.  But both men walked personal and professional tightropes.  Rustin faced not only racism and homophobia, but also the hostility of many of his colleagues in the civil rights movement.  The bisexual Bernstein presented himself publicly as a devoted family man, which was true, but his wife Felicia (Carey Mulligan) was angry and humiliated at what was also true.

Rustin, the chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, has lagged behind Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders in public recognition.  Wolfe’s movie—written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black and produced by Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company—explains why this was, and strives to restore Rustin to his proper place in history. 

It wasn’t any lack of zeal, intellect or charisma that kept Rustin back, as Breece and Black’s screenplay and Domingo’s performance make plain.  It was, rather, his enemies in the movement—self-righteous Roy Wilkins (Chris Rock) and backstabbing Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Jeffrey Wright)—who ran a campaign of rumor and innuendo against Rustin that forced even the young Dr. King (Aml Ameen) to back away from him.  Arguably that was still better than the viciousness of the enemies of civil rights, such as J. Edgar Hoover and Strom Thurmond, the latter of whom outed Rustin in an attempt to discredit the March.

Rustin’s personal life, though perhaps not as troubled as his public one, was complicated.  Firebrands within the movement were infuriated that Rustin had a White lover, union organizer Tom Kahn (Gus Halper).  Rustin’s life became further tangled by his series of closeted lovers, represented in the film by a composite character, the young, married Black minister Elias Taylor (Johnny Ramey).


Rustin is essentially the story of how Rustin confounded his enemies and fought his way back to prominence within the movement, resulting in the triumphant scene by the Lincoln Memorial that led directly to passage of the Civil Rights Act.  The film is at its best showing an impassioned Rustin engrossed in the minutiae of organizing the March.  (In one funny scene, he must explain to his staff why you make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, not cheese, for the lunches of people marching in a Washington summer.)  Rustin also deserves credit for portraying the contributions of women activists neglected by history, such as Ella Baker (Audra McDonald) and
Dr. Anna Hedgeman (CCH Pounder).

The cast of Rustin is strong, especially an underused Jeffrey Wright.  It is Domingo’s performance, however, that makes the film a must-see.  His Rustin is a many-faceted individual who is forever frustrated by a world that hates him for what he is.  Domingo’s greatest moment is when he speaks to MLK about Wilkins, Powell and other homophobes within the movement.  “The day I was born Black, I was also born homosexual,” he says. “Either they believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

Maestrohas been condemned in some quarters for not portraying the social activism of Leonard and Felicia Bernstein.  (They were mocked for it while they were alive, particularly by Tom Wolfe in his famous New York Magazine article, “Radical Chic.”)  Critics have been assiduous in finding any number of excuses to hate Maestro.  Some hated Bradley Cooper’s decision not to emphasize Bernstein’s tenure at the New York Philharmonic; many excoriated Cooper for wearing a prosthetic nose, which they referred to as “Jewface.”  I too was put off by the early stills I saw from the film, until I saw pictures of the young Bernstein which looked exactly like Cooper’s Bernstein.  In the film itself, Cooper just looks like Bernstein, and his performance cancels all doubt.


Maestro begins with a sad Bernstein, sitting at the piano, being interviewed about his late wife.  The film—photographed by Matthew Libatique- -switches from color to black and white, and to the moment in November 1943 when the twenty-five-year-old Bernstein, asleep in his bedroom, receives the call to replace an ailing Bruno Walter in that evening’s performance of the Philharmonic.  He slaps his lover David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) on the buttocks, throws on a suit coat, and—still barefoot and in his undershorts—strides down a long corridor that leads to Carnegie Hall. 

This section of the movie, comprising roughly its first third, is the most stylized and the most exciting, charting the beginning of both his star career and his relationship with Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).  The high point is a rehearsal for Fancy Free, Bernstein’s early collaboration with Jerome Robbins and his first big compositional success, during which Bernstein and Felicia are suddenly transformed from spectators to dancers.  The swirling elegance of this sequence is breathtaking both choreographically and thematically; it’s obvious Cooper knows not only his Jerome Robbins, but also his Gene Kelly and Michael Powell.

The rest of Maestro is mostly in color and more conventional in style, but essentially the film remains a dance movie, swirling with movement as it portrays the elaborate dance Bernstein did with his wife, his children, his lovers, his colleagues, and his fans.  Although Bernstein didn’t suffer a fraction of the prejudice Bayard Rustin did, he had more to worry about than being outed.  He met anti-Semitism with stubborn courage. Serge Koussevitsky (Yasen Peyankov) advised him early on to change his name from Bernstein to Burns; Bernstein replied that he would be Bernstein or nothing. 

Bernstein proudly acknowledged his Jewish heritage, but there were other things he couldn’t acknowledge, and Felicia felt the brunt of that.  This is seen clearly in her reaction to Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick), a young musicologist whom Bernstein meets at a party and is immediately smitten with.  We also see it when Felicia asks Bernstein to talk to their daughter Jamie (Maya Hawke) about rumors she has heard, admonishing him not to tell Jamie the truth.  The matter comes to a head in an argument one Thanksgiving, with the balloons from the Macy’s parade floating past the Bernsteins’ Fifth Avenue apartment windows. “There’s a saying in Chile about never standing under a bird that’s full of shit,” Felicia says.  “And I’ve been living under that fucking bird for so long, it’s actually become

Maestro is essentially a portrait of the Bernsteins’ marriage, with Leonard’s career as an admittedly spectacular backdrop.  The film is of course awash with Bernstein’s music, especially Candide and Fancy Free (West Side Story is heard in only one short clip, at a point of marital discord).  But the main focus, especially in the film’s last half, is Bernstein’s life with Felicia and their children, which is portrayed as warm and loving despite his infidelities.  (Maestro is dedicated to the Bernsteins’ children, who fully cooperated with Cooper.) Some of the film’s juxtapositions between the Bernsteins’ public and private lives are truly heart-piercing.  One of the most triumphant moments of Leonard’s career, conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony at Ely Cathedral in England, is followed immediately by his sitting beside Felicia as her doctor tells her she has terminal cancer.  (In the film and in life, neither Leonard nor Felicia was ever without a cigarette and both paid for that with their lives.)


The performances in Maestro are first-rate, especially those of Cooper and Mulligan.  Cooper’s Bernstein looks magnificent on the podium (reportedly he spent six years rehearsing his conducting moves, with Yannick Nezet -Seguin as his coach). Even more, he captures the tension in Bernstein’s
life.  The self-intoxicated genius, the loving family man, and the semi -closeted gay man were all there, all the time, and Cooper presents those warring impulses movingly.  Yet as good as Cooper is, Mulligan is even better.  Her Felicia is a strong, witty woman frustrated by the tension between her love for her husband and her being forced to play second fiddle to him in every conceivable way.  She fights back as best she can, such as when she catches Leonard kissing Tommy Cothran. “Fix your hair,” she tells him. “You’re getting sloppy.” 


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Miles David Moore is a retired Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4’s Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2024 Miles David Moore
©2024 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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