top of page
  • Phillips875


In his classic, exhaustive study on LGBTQ images in Hollywood movies, THE CELLULOID CLOSET, writer and activist Vito Russo offers up a line late in the book that has stuck with me ever since I read it back in college. When addressing the first Hollywood production about AIDS, NBC’s Emmy-winning TV movie AN EARLY FROST, Russo declared a hard truth about the approach most filmmakers take, whether well-intentioned or not, to queer characters: “Straight people are the real people. Gay people are the problem they have.”

I was reminded of this line while squirming – aggravated and angry – through a screening of straight director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper’s biopic about Leonard Bernstein, MAESTRO. I’ve never bought the argument that only queer directors should make movies about queer characters, or, in a more general sense, that any filmmaker who doesn’t share the specific identity of his or her protagonist shouldn’t be allowed to tell their story. In telling stories about people with racial, sexual, religious, or gender identities other than their own, filmmakers have an opportunity to create empathy in a diverse audience, to look for human similarities rather than polarizing differences. (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and THE POWER OF THE DOG are two terrific examples of heterosexual, non-American directors telling vital American queer stories; both Ang Lee and Jane Campion picked up Oscars for their efforts.) The trouble begins when a straight director tells a story about a queer person and insults the queer identity of that person, insulting queer audience members at the same time. On that score, Cooper’s MAESTRO is the most casually, cluelessly homophobic movie I have seen in a long, long time.

Russo’s thesis throughout THE CELLULOID CLOSET is that queer people and their relationships have always been framed as “something to laugh at, something to pity, or something to fear,” as Lily Tomlin’s narration in the 1995 Rob Epstein/Jeffrey Friedman documentary adaptation goes. MAESTRO takes this to the next logical step, which is for us to view Bernstein’s queerness with extreme distaste, a personal failing that gets in the way of his creative work as a composer and conductor, and proves a major hindrance to his real relationship, his marriage to actress Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan. MAESTRO’s depiction of Bernstein as a pathological narcissist notwithstanding, Lenny and Felicia’s relationship is portrayed as loving, supportive, and fueled by a deep, intimate personal connection, bolstered by three adoring children: the perfect, traditional family unit.

This relationship is contrasted – and foregrounded – by the depiction of Bernstein’s queer relationships, which are, without exception, conveyed as inconsequential also-rans, or so addled with substances and deceit that we can’t possibly take them seriously. As Lenny’s early-on lover, David, Matt Bomer – everyone’s favorite non-threatening gay boyfriend – at least gets the dignity of a close-up that allows some subtext of hurt behind his smile when Lenny parades Felicia in front of him with zero sensitivity. (Can someone write this crazy-talented actor a role in which he doesn’t always look like he just shaved thirty seconds ago? Oh, hey – I wrote one, Mr. Bomer! #shamelesspitch) This scene, however, is chased by a later meeting between them that reveals David found his own wife and baby, plowing the same closeted ground as his former lover. After Lenny and Felicia are long-married, Gideon Glick arrives as Bernstein’s younger boyfriend, Tommy. Per the speedy timeline of the movie, this relationship apparently lasted several years, but as presented (and through no fault of Glick’s), Tommy is barely a character, much less a human being. He is framed in every scene as an interloper; when he holds Lenny’s hand while sitting in a box at the symphony, the shot is seen through Felicia’s eyes, giving her one more chance to play the wronged martyr. Lenny gets an opportunity to come clean with his daughter, Jamie, about the “rumors” of his gay affairs, but he denies them, while Jamie practically faints with relief that her father isn’t really a big homo. The last time we see Tommy, he is snorting lines of cocaine off a serving tray alongside Lenny and all the other debauched fags in Lenny’s orbit. He is never mentioned again, but we do get the underlined, juxtaposed shot of Lenny embracing his wife and children, practically radiating with nuclear-family glow. And if all this wasn’t enough to drive the point home, Spoiler Alert: after Felicia dies of cancer, we are treated to the sight of an aging, wasted Lenny, red solo cup in hand, slobbering all over a guy at least fifty years his junior – a student, no less – as dance-club lighting creates a grotesquerie of the sad, sleazy, “lonely old queen” that Felicia told him he would become, complete with an open shirt exposing his sweaty, bloated body. Bleech.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the film were interested in any kind of BROKEBACK or POWER OF THE DOG-style psychological excavation, or if it provided any nuanced discussion of alternatives to Bernstein’s chosen path. Given his life in the theatre, didn’t Bernstein know any gay men who lived at least quasi-openly and/or with a life partner? (Blink and you’ll miss Michael Urie as a typically testy Jerome Robbins.) Or any who didn’t fit some safely othered, fairy stereotype? (I’ll never object to a close-up of Zachary Booth wearing white short-shorts, but come on.) James Ivory’s adaptation of E.M. Forster’s MAURICE ended on two contrasted scenes: Maurice reuniting with groundskeeper Alec Scudder in the boathouse, while Maurice’s shame-filled, now-married ex-lover, Clive, stares out his bedroom window – literally, his face against the glass – pondering the life he could’ve lived. MAURICE would’ve landed differently if our final shot was of Maurice and Alec. What Ivory chooses to do here by ending on Clive is to highlight just how much an inauthentic life costs us. (Clive’s final line – the final line of the film, in fact – is a lie to his wife.) The offering of these alternatives leaves the choice up to the audience, even if the characters already made their own choices.

(Sidebar: I feel duty-bound to acknowledge that Bomer’s current limited series FELLOW TRAVELERS kinda-sorta does this, I just wish creative honchos Ron Nyswaner and Daniel Minahan had more up their sleeves than a no-surprises THE WAY WE WERE remake peppered with self-consciously naughty sex scenes. I know, I sound like a Grinch, but I can’t help it: I’m a New Queer Cinema baby who’s always gonna prefer rough edges. That said, I’m glad a major studio financed this show, and Jonathan Bailey’s live-wire performance serves as partial antidote to all the good taste. [I wrote a role for you, too, Mr. Bailey! #anothershamelesspitch])

MAESTRO bends over backwards to keep its focus on Lenny’s relationship with Felicia, yet as great as Mulligan is – and she’s always great – the role is not. With the exception of the “lonely old queen” throw-down in which Felicia finally lets her rage fly, Mulligan isn’t asked to express much beyond the standard Lifetime presentation of Long-Suffering Wife. We don’t get the scene in which the marrieds actually discuss whatever arrangement they arrived at, or its implications; we don’t get a true breakup or makeup scene. We definitely don’t get any private time between Lenny and his male lovers; what the hell did these guys talk about when they weren’t making out, guzzling alcohol or doing drugs? When Lenny triumphantly conducts Mahler to rapturous applause, he rushes not to a male companion, but to an evening gown-swathed Felicia, still waiting in the wings. When a doctor offers options following Felicia’s blunt cancer diagnosis, Lenny answers for Felicia rather than letting her make her own decisions. Lenny is a self-centered asshole, for sure, but instead of digging deep on the hows and whys of his complicated relationships and identity, Cooper seems content to settle into the structural trap of most all-encompassing biopics: “…and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened…” What, exactly, is MAESTRO about, other than a closet case whose “real” relationship was heterosexual? What, exactly, are we supposed to take away from this as viewers, queer or otherwise?

I’d guess that Cooper, the director/co-writer/star of the queer-friendly, all-inclusive A STAR IS BORN, considers himself an ally, and would likely balk at the idea that he’s a purveyor of anti-gay bigotry. That said, I’m also mystified that no reviews I’ve read – including those by LGBTQ critics – have pointed out this homophobia. We’re living in a time when authoritarian forces are seeking to not only erase LGBTQ history, but make us invisible in the present, and unfortunately, Vito Russo is no longer around to call bullshit on this bullshit. Current Supreme Court justices are even threatening to roll back the equal rights we do have, namely the legal recognition of our unions; the timing could not be worse for an Oscar-bait movie sending the message that queer relationships are less “real” than heterosexual ones. MAESTRO is an invalidating, even dangerous film, a throwback to a time when faux biopics like WORDS AND MUSIC failed to mention their real-life subjects’ queer identity at all.

My biggest gripe about what passes for LGBTQ entertainment these days is how most of it resembles one long, highly curated “Speaking My Truth!” Instagram scroll. With few exceptions, movies and series about the queer community today don’t seem particularly moved to interrogate our actions, challenge each other beyond bitchy one-liners, or express alternative perspectives to the boilerplate narratives we've seen for decades. To paraphrase filmmaker Jan Oxenberg in the aforementioned CELLULOID CLOSET documentary, I’m not interested in “positive” depictions of queer characters; I long for honest ones, queer characters who are given the same flaws, layers, contradictions and complexities that straight characters are given, while staying true to those characters’ ultimate humanity. MAESTRO accomplishes none of this.

If, like me, you reject both reductive homophobia and simplistic affirmation, I urge you to skip MAESTRO and instead check out Emerald Fennell’s recent SALTBURN. Fennell, a straight writer-director who deservedly won a screenwriting Oscar for another Mulligan showcase, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, uses queer sexuality in some genuinely erotic, tantalizing ways throughout SALTBURN, a movie also shot in Academy Standard aspect ratio, like MAESTRO, but with a much clearer intent. Fennell uses the tight frame to shove her characters closer together, creating maximum discomfort and claustrophobia, demonstrating just how small their decadent world really is. There’s not a single character in SALTBURN that could be considered “positive,” but Lordy, are they fun to watch. By the time you get to Fennell’s curdled conclusion, you realize what she’s been after. It takes some serious chutzpah to build a whole movie around people with nothing more going on than their external trappings, their creation of personalities to fit whatever surroundings in which they find themselves. Fetishized “trauma” doesn’t inherently make us more interesting, and the hollowness is the point. When SALTBURN’s ultimate victor dances naked through their empty mansion, Fennell thrusts the question out to the audience: Who the Hell Are You? No one, whatever their claimed identity, makes it out of SALTBURN alive – true inclusivity in action.

Compared with MAESTRO’s homophobic, dated binary, SALTBURN’s anything-goes spectrum, no matter how mercenary, seems downright radical. More of the latter, please. Let’s retire the former.

bottom of page