The trailer for Bradley Cooper’s new movie, Maestro, dropped earlier this week, and already the film’s courting as much controversy as it is Oscars buzz—because it wouldn’t be an awards season contender without a little drama, now would it?
Following up his hugely successful A Star Is Born remake with Lady Gaga, Cooper once again co-writes, directs, and stars in this biopic about acclaimed conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein—best known for writing the music for West Side Story—and his complicated relationship with his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan).
Despite their marriage, many now know Bernstein to be bisexual—or, more broadly, queer—as he engaged in a number of affairs with women and men over the years. He was also Jewish. Bradley Cooper is not known to be either of those things.
On the former front, the debate over “gay-for-pay” acting roles rages on. But as we continue to see a (gradual) increase in LGBTQ+ representation on screen and a (gradually) widening acceptance of out actors in the industry—not to mention, our deeper modern understanding of queerness—folks have become a little less precious about who can play who, at least when it comes to sexuality.
Of course, there’s also the belief that a straight actor taking on a gay role—specifically for a “serious” drama—is shameless Oscar bait, which has been skewered endlessly over the years, as recently as Bros‘ parody of Brokeback Mountain. Biopics are also discussed as inherent Oscar bait, so it’s not hard to view Maestro as Cooper’s eager ploy to add some little gold men to his trophy room.
And that’s where the gay-for-pay argument becomes thorny once again: Will Cooper’s decision to play gay be seen by the Academy as more bold, more challenging, and therefore more “awards-worthy” than, say, an out actor like Colman Domingo playing gay political activist Bayard Rustin in Rustin (yet another buzzy biopic Netflix is premiering this fall)?
We’re admittedly getting a little ahead of ourselves here, and it’s hard to make a qualitative performance judgment based off a trailer alone. What we can judge, however—from the trailer, press images, and various leaked set photos—is the fact that Cooper is wearing heavy makeup and prosthetics to appear more like Bernstein, including a prodigious nose application.
Needless to say, folks are skeptical of the need for such a prosthetic, with some viewing it as anti-semitic or racist against the Jewish community, tipping Cooper’s “transformative” performance into caricature.
Speaking with Variety, actor Tracy Ann Oberman—who, on Instagram, equated the prosthetic nose to “Black-Face or Yellow-Face”—elaborates on why she takes issue with the decision: “We are living in a time of enormous sensitivity around the appropriation of characters played by people who aren’t from that background. I have seen little similar concern about Jewish characters where their Jewish religious and cultural identity is intrinsic to who they are being discussed with the same respect.”
In response to the backlash, Bernstein’s children released a statement in support of Cooper wearing prosthetics to play their father, defending it as a decision made to “amplify his resemblance,” which they’re “perfectly fine” with.
If your head’s already spinning, well, buckle up because this is only just the beginning. Maestro—produced by heavy-hitters Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese—is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in just a few short weeks, where folks will surely be weighing in on whether or not Cooper’s work can justify or even overcome the use of such a prosthetic.
After that, Maestro will head to select theaters on November 22, and then hit Netflix on December 30, and will almost certainly be a big player in the Oscars conversation the following year. So, yeah, we’re going to be talking about this for a while.
And while it’s far from the final word, we have to laugh at one actor, in a particular, weighing in on the matter.
Maestro certainly isn’t the first time Cooper has played gay. You may recall that, in the 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, the actor portrayed Ben, a summer camp counselor and drama instructor who explores his sexuality in a hilariously overblown sex scene in a tool shed.
His scene partner, actor and comedian Michael Ian Black—who is Jewish himself—chimed in on Twitter with the perfect response to the whole controversy:
Whether you agree with Black or not, we have to thank him for reminding us of that incredibly erotic scene from Wet Hot American Summer. It may be played for laughs, but it still gets us feeling as sorts of “wet and hot” to this day.