January 11, 2024 at 9:25 a.m.
No matter what film cleans up at awards season, 2023 should and will be remembered for being the year that Barbie and Director Greta Gerwig, topped every superhero movie, sequel and big budget feature at the box office. We’re talking over one billion dollars.
However, 2023 was also the year of the iconic male biopic. Earlier in the year we had Oppenheimer, which also benefited from the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, and Ridley Scott’s Napolean. Closing out the year there were two more movies about famous men, Maestro and Ferrari.
Bradley Cooper co-wrote, directed and stars as legendary composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein in Maestro (Rated R and available on Netflix). Cooper’s approach to his subject is a bit unconventional. For example, Bernstein’s work on West Side Story gets maybe two minutes in the 129-minute film and his groundbreaking Young People’s Concerts TV series that ran for 14 years, is barely mentioned. So, if you don’t know much about Bernstein’s career going into Maestro, you’ll know only a bit more coming out.
The film does spend a considerable amount of time on Bernstein’s relationship and marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). Felicia falls in love with Leonard and agrees to marry him, despite understanding that he is also attracted to men. Throughout their marriage she remains committed and tolerant. Unfortunately, Montealegre’’s life outside of marriage, including her philanthropic and political activism is left off screen. Worse, even though it’s obvious that Bernstein was a bit of an absentee father, there are no scenes of Felicia as primary parent. Did she drive the kids to school? Did they go on vacations without dad? For me, this lessened the emotional impact of Felicia’s illness toward the end of the film. A shame, since Cooper films these scenes with extraordinary sensitivity and insight.
Cooper has never been better. It will take you less than a minute to get used to the prosthetic nose that everyone was talking about. He captures Bernstein’s ferocious energy and he apparently studied for six years for the big conducting scene. It’s a terrific and charismatic performance, deserving of the award nominations and Oscar talk.
Mulligan is also impressive, especially when the film turns its focus on her as she battles lung cancer. (I’d say “spoiler alert,” but the very first scene in the film has Bernstein reflecting on his wife’s death).
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique also worked with Cooper on the actor’s first directorial effort, A Star Is Born. He does a masterful job on Maestro, shooting in black and white and color. There are several breathtaking shots, and the mesmerizing scene I mentioned earlier of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony in 1973.
While I am not all in on Cooper’s narrative choices in Maestro, I was captivated by Leonard and Felicia’s relationship, the lead performances and the insightful look at an influential and complicated genius.
The relationship between Enzo Ferrari and his wife Laura, is not so, shall we say, supportive. Ferrari focuses on one very tumultuous year of the very tumultuous automaker’s life. It is 1957 and Ferrari (Adam Driver) has retired from racing. Still reeling from the death of their only son from muscular dystrophy, and not thrilled with her husband’s unfaithfulness, Laura (Penelope Cruz) is angry. And nobody does angry like the scene-stealing Cruz. Since she owns half of Ferrari, Enzo can’t get out of the marriage to spend more time with his mistress (a miscast Shailene Woodley), and their son.
His complicated love life isn’t Enzo’s only problem. Having given up racing, Ferrari sells just enough cars to sheiks and high rollers to finance his passion, auto racing and he’s just about bankrupt. He believes that he can save his company if the Ferrari team can win the grueling Mille Miglia road race and orchestrate a deal with Fiat.
Director Michael Mann is known for his stylish thrillers (Heat and his most recent film that you didn’t see, 2015’s Blackhat) but Ferrari is more like Mann’s film about Big Tobacco, 1999’s The Insider. Driver is a bit stoic as Ferrari, again allowing the ferocious Cruz the opportunity to totally dominate their scenes together. Driver’s accent is decent, certainly improved since 2021’s House of Gucci and at 40, he convincingly carries off playing the nearly 60-year-old Ferrari. None of the other supporting players even register but it was fun to see racing enthusiast and Sexiest Man Alive Patrick Dempsey as veteran driver Piero Taruffi.
Mann makes up for the film’s occasionally slow narrative, with the racing scenes which are alternately thrilling, triumphant and harrowing. The climactic crash at the 1957 Mille Miglia open road race is as horrific as anything I’ve seen on screen, and it unfortunately stayed with me for days. Even if you know what happened at that race, the brief but graphic depiction of the accident that rightly put an end to the race forever, is shocking and brutal.
Watching these films, I feel I learned more about Bernstein than I did Ferrari, and I would have liked to learn more about both their wives, who in my opinion deserve their own biopics