The battle of the swinging batons is finally over. In summer 2018 came the news that the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein had been caught in an unlikely tug-of-war between two of Hollywood’s leading actors, Jake Gyllenhaal and Bradley Cooper, both vying to play him in high-profile biopics.
Gyllenhaal was going to team up with the director Cary Fukunaga, who ended up taking charge of the next Bond film instead, but Cooper then swooped in with his own project, backed by would-be producers Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. The Bernstein estate got behind Cooper and gave him the rights to Bernstein’s music.
Now this as-yet-untitled biopic has been picked up by Netflix. Cooper will star, direct and co-produce (he has only co-written the script, with the Spotlight writer Josh Singer) and production is expected to begin early next year. Netflix says the film will be mostly about Bernstein’s relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre.
That’s probably just as well. Cooper showed impressive musical chops in A Star is Born and last year spent an evening in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera in New York watching the company’s music director at work. However, scenes of his Lenny pretending to conduct Mahler or notating crotchets in the early drafts of Wonderful Town might not have that Oscar zing.
Still, charting Bernstein’s marriage will be complicated too. He was bisexual and in the 1970s separated from Montealegre and moved in with a young music producer, Tom Cothran. Eventually he reconciled with Montealegre, nursing her before she died. As Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, has written, the conductor’s final decade without her was an unhappy cocktail of addictions (to drink, pills and sex), illness and professional bitterness. “I am only going to be remembered as the man who wrote West Side Story,” he said. As Spielberg’s new film version of that musical comes to the cinemas late this year, perhaps Cooper’s biopic will tell the rest of the story.