Maestro: How Carey Mulligan turned supportive wife into leading lady

1 week ago 15

Carey MulliganImage source, Getty Images

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Mulligan says there have been some "extraordinary roles for women" this year

By Emma Saunders

Entertainment reporter

Carey Mulligan has praised Maestro filmmaker Bradley Cooper for giving her such a "fleshed out" role in his Oscar-nominated biopic of Leonard Bernstein.

Mulligan plays the composer's wife, Felicia Montealegre, an actress who put her career on hold to support him.

Instead of making a typical creative genius biopic, Cooper, who stars as Bernstein and co-wrote the film, chose to zone in on the couple's love story.

Mulligan told the BBC the writing had helped make her "the lead in the film".

She has "resisted playing the wife to the great man" in previous films, the British star told BBC culture and media editor Katie Razzall.

"I've been in some incredible... overtly feminist films, which I've absolutely loved and relished being in, like Promising Young Woman and Suffragette.

"But what was amazing about this was that the character was so well-written - fully fleshed out, complicated, nuanced writing for a woman. And that in itself is such a feminist statement and made her the lead of the film.

"I think that says more to progress than anything else. This huge film centres on a woman, really, and her husband, but... she's given this sort of focus."

Image source, Netflix

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Bradley Cooper directed, produced and co-wrote Maestro, as well as playing Leonard Bernstein

While Mulligan's role is clearly pivotal and she enjoys a considerable amount of screen time, most would argue that the British actress is probably best described as the co-lead alongside Cooper.

Nevertheless, while the narrative understandably examines the complexities and motivations behind one of America's most famous composers and conductors, there's no doubt that Cooper has put Bernstein's lesser-known wife at the heart of the movie.

Montealegre's acting career never really got started again after her marriage in 1951, although she was struggling to find work before her relationship with Bernstein took off, having enjoyed some initial success in the theatre and on television.

For the most part, she is seen tolerating Bernstein's extra-marital affairs with younger men (there is some debate over whether he was gay or bisexual; he also had affairs with women) although he does eventually push her over the edge in one scene.

While she may be seen as a long-suffering wife, Montealegre is also a strong, unconventional and liberal woman who is rarely left weeping in the corner. They love each other, and she always gives Bernstein as good as she gets.

Image source, Netflix

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Mulligan's portrayal of Montealegre has earned her a third Oscar nomination

"I think she ultimately felt that her contribution was to lift up his art... [as] that would make the bigger impact culturally than what she could achieve," Mulligan said.

"She was adamant that he never asked her to do that. That was a choice that she made. She's reinforcing this idea, 'I'm not a martyr. I'm choosing this.' I think there was an element of self-delusion in her thinking that that would be enough."

One aspect of Montealegre's life that sadly barely features in the film is her social justice campaigning, although there are a few references to it.

She once put on a controversial fundraiser for the families of 21 accused Black Panthers in 1970, was arrested at an anti-war protest in Washington in 1972, and chaired the women's division of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

"Ultimately, anything that didn't pertain to their love story kind of fell away," Mulligan said. "But I think through the work that we did... that stuff is infused."

Viewers still "get a sense of her being someone with a voice and being someone with opinions and being someone with a sense of justice", the actress said.

Image source, Netflix

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Cooper penned the script with Spotlight writer Josh Singer

Asked whether scripts are getting better for women generally, Mulligan pointed to some "extraordinary roles for women" this year.

"Progress isn't a straight line, but everything is moving in the right direction," she said. "I see it definitely in the writing, and there are people who are certainly responsible for that.

"Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Michaela Coel, Emerald Fennell and Greta Gerwig are writing stories that are not just interesting to a female audience, [they are] interesting to a global audience. And that's ultimately what drives it."

Many critics have praised Maestro and Mulligan's role in it.

The Observer's Wendy Ide wrote: "In the middle of this [Bernstein's] emotional combat zone is Felicia. To call her collateral damage in the battle between warring sides of her husband's personality would be misleading.

"As played by Mulligan, Felicia is not a passive presence; she's an equal partner in this story, taking front and centre stage along with Leonard. That's not to say that she emerges unscathed from the marriage, which lasted on and off for more than 25 years."

But some felt there was too little attention paid to Bernstein's musical career.

The Los Angeles Times's classical music critic Mark Swed lamented the fact that Bernstein the musician wasn't explored in more depth, while acknowledging that the complex yet ultimately loving relationship with his wife was rightly at the core of the movie.

"One of the reasons why Maestro comes across as pretty good, or maybe even a little better than that, is because it is not really about music," Swed wrote.

Succession fan

The film has earned seven Oscar nominations, including best actor and actress nods for Cooper and Mulligan respectively.

Mulligan, who has been nominated twice before, eschewed the usual actors' faux humble response when asked if awards matter.

"To have peer recognition, [to have] people say: 'Do you know what? That was a great job you did.' It's so wonderful when it's an actor that you admire."

She said the Oscar campaign circuit could be fruitful. "[You meet] directors you want to work with, writers you want to work with. I've introduced myself to everyone in the last couple of months. I've been like, 'Hi, Jesse Armstrong, we've never met, but I'm a big fan of Succession!'

"It's so exciting to think that maybe something that you've done resonates with a person that you want to work with."

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