Maestro and the Art of Oscar Bait

Maestro is a movie that wants to win Oscars so transparently, it’s almost admirable. The film, about the life of legendary 20th-century American conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, changes styles with each era it depicts—which, depending on who you ask, is either its chief artistic innovation or its biggest gimmick. In the opening scene, we see an elderly Bernstein with gray hair and wrinkled, sun-damaged skin, before being jolted back to the monochromatic lens (and smoother visage) of his youth. The scenes set in the 1940s feel cut from an old Hollywood classic: black-and-white, with long panning shots, a youthful romance, singing, and dancing. Forty-seven minutes in, the film transitions into color to mark the passage of time.

Maestro was cowritten and directed by Bradley Cooper, who also stars in it as Bernstein. The film is nominated in seven categories at this year’s Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress—an undeniably impressive tally. But over the last few months, Cooper has been the target of notable backlash for how obviously he seems to have tailored his film to award season. In reviews, Maestro has frequently been described as “Oscar bait,” while Cooper has been accused of “shoving everything else aside” in pursuit of the Academy Award that, despite nine nominations before now, has continued to evade him.

It might sound ridiculous to accuse a film of “wanting” Oscars. Since the very first Academy Awards in 1929—at a time when Washington politicians were vilifying Hollywood as immoral and subversive—filmmakers and actors have coveted the trophies as markers of legitimacy. But there’s something alienating to audiences about a film, or a filmmaker, that seems to be trying too hard. Indeed, so far, Maestro hasn’t resonated with award-season voters; it came home empty-handed at the Golden Globes and the Critics Choice awards. What does it say about us, as viewers, that we often end up turning against these films?

Out of all the movies released throughout a year, only a small number are serious contenders for the big awards. The most-awarded films are usually (but not always) released in the run-up to award season, which runs roughly between November and March each year. Then, capitalizing on momentum, the directors and actors campaign fairly transparently in interviews, at photo calls, and at fancy nominees’ luncheons with voters. In the latest season of Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, Kim Kardashian’s character—cutthroat Hollywood publicist Siobhan Corbyn—summed it up: “Do you think Jamie Lee Curtis liked walking those red carpets? Do you think she thought it was fun to get asked all these inane questions about being a nepo baby? No. No one likes it. But do you wanna know why she did it? ’Cause she wanted that Oscar!”

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Bradley Cooper on the set of Maestro

What type of films does the Academy love? Biopics have had Hollywood—and the Oscars—in a chokehold for some time. Recent examples include portrayals of music icons Freddie Mercury and Judy Garland, physicist Stephen Hawking, and televangelist Tammy Faye. Films that depict the titans of history tend to do particularly well, like Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president), Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill), The Iron Lady (Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher), and The Queen (Helen Mirren as Elizabeth II).

There also tends to be a certain worthiness to the films we see chasing (and often winning) Oscars. Michael Shulman—a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears—tells me that disgraced Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein was the “dark guru” of campaigning. Shulman recalls the campaign for My Left Foot in 1989, in which Daniel Day-Lewis played a character with cerebral palsy. In the run-up to the Oscars, Weinstein sent the actor to Washington to meet politicians, to discuss the Americans With Disabilities Act. Shortly before the 2014 Oscars, the real-life inspiration behind Philomena—another Weinstein-backed film, about an unwed Catholic woman searching for the son she was forced to give up—had an audience with the Pope. The film’s award campaign became a campaign about all of the women who’d ever been put in her position. “These films do really well, at least at nominations, because people feel like they’re voting for the cause,” Schulman says. “The movie becomes the issue it is about.”

The Academy also seems to enjoy a level of—how to put this?—human suffering. Either from the actors, the characters they’re portraying, or ideally both! This pain can take many forms: heavy use of makeup and prosthetics, or a more labor-intensive physical transformation, like Anne Hathaway’s in Les Misérables. (She refused to share the weight-loss method she used to play poverty-stricken sex worker Fantine for fear of glamorizing it.) Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win Best Actress for 2002’s Monster’s Ball, in which she plays the widow of an executed convicted murderer. This emphasis on suffering is the principal reason why, I think, so many (usually straight-identifying) actors are nominated for playing LGBTQ+ people who have been persecuted, like Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game) and Harvey Milk (Sean Penn in Milk). Or why films about people with illnesses (Still Alice, The Theory of Everything, Dallas Buyers Club) or going through traumatic experiences (Room, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) also do well.

Maestro might feel like Oscar bait because it crosses over into several of these categories. It’s a biopic, in which Cooper undergoes physical transformations with heavy makeup, wigs, and prosthetics. His Bernstein is also seen embarking on affairs and sexual relationships with men, and the film ends (spoiler alert!) with his wife tragically dying of cancer. In interviews, Cooper has talked up how long it took—six years, apparently—to master Bernstein’s sweat-heavy conducting technique. “Usually, men talk about how much they suffered some kind of physical adversity,” Shulman says. “For women, you often hear about changing appearances, such as stripping down their makeup, like Charlize Theron in Monster.”

But Oscar bait can turn audiences—and more importantly, Academy voters—off. Despite its seven nominations, Maestro doesn’t seem to have enough momentum to win in the major categories. And I suspect that, for Cooper—already nominated many times as an actor, director, ensemble cast member, and now screenwriter—mere nominations will fall short of his ambitions.

Schulman thinks that sometimes films like Maestro might come across as too “on the nose.” He remembers finding out that Steven Spielberg was making The Post—a film about the power of the press—during the Trump administration, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. “The big joke was, ‘Oh well this is gonna win every single Oscar!’—and then it didn’t. That just shows you that the idea of Oscar bait doesn’t always work.”

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Cooper and Maestro costar Carey Mulligan

The Academy doesn’t just like films about underdogs, but also films that become underdogs themselves. Remember in 2017 when Moonlight upset Lala Land, in the most dramatic fashion, to win Best Picture? “People love to feel like there’s an organic choice, like they’re discovering something rather than [it] being forced on them,” Schulman says. “That’s what makes Oscar campaigning tricky, because you don’t want to hit people over the head with it, because they get annoyed.”

Which is exactly how the Oscar campaign for Maestro has made me feel. A Star is Born—Cooper’s 2018 directorial debut—had a similarly full-on vibe when it was in contention, but at least then we had the heavy dose of ridiculous Lady Gaga quotes and showmance rumors to balance out the hyper-seriousness of it all. I wonder why this type of in-your-face, JUST-GIVE-IT-TO-ME campaigning is so specifically annoying? As a society, we have a difficult relationship with people who try hard at just about anything. Just look at how much hatred was directed at Anne Hathaway, particularly when she hosted the Oscars in 2011, then won one herself in 2013, or how Ariana Grande and Timothée Chalamet are often derided as “theater kids.” We want performers to work hard and entertain us, without doing too much or being too loud about it.

Oscar bait can turn audiences—and more importantly, Academy voters—off.

Oscar bait also feels icky because it pulls back the curtain on Hollywood. We know that most of the creative works we consume—music, TV and films—are profit-seeking ventures. But award season feels different—it’s not just about money, but also status and career advancement. Like stumbling across a friend’s incredibly corny LinkedIn profile, Oscar bait reminds us that, ultimately, films are products. And the Academy Awards? They exist so that people in the industry can give themselves gold statuettes and tell each other how great they are. We want award season to be about celebrating what we think are the best films and performances, but the process ends up becoming less about the art, and more about industry politics and personal ambition.

Oscar bait brings these tensions, which we’re all peripherally aware of, to the fore—and we don’t always like it. As viewers, we’re encouraged to form an emotional connection with the stories we watch on screen. That’s what cinema is all about. But when we start to get that nagging sense that a film is Oscar bait, there is a feeling of being misled—a bit like going on a date and realizing the other person thinks it’s a business dinner. It can be disconcerting—and a little humiliating?—to have approached a film emotionally, only to then discover its makers view it primarily as a vehicle for their own celebration.

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Chasing after what Academy voters are supposed to love often produces underwhelming results. The individual Academy strands—cinematographers and makeup artists, for example—select the nominees, but the entire academy membership votes on the winner. In this system, subtlety can be a casualty. “If you want to predict the winner, my advice is to change ‘best’ to ‘most,’” Shulman says. “Most editing, most makeup, most acting.”

I remember being so disappointed when Leonardo DiCaprio finally won Best Actor in 2015 for one such performance in The Revenant—a joyless three-hour suffer-fest in which he had a fight with a bear or something. (I can’t remember; I blocked it out.) Leo got his Oscar, sure, but I found myself wishing he’d won for just about anything else—one of the more interesting roles that made him a star. Something more nuanced, or something fabulous.

Often, it feels like filmmakers have a rather basic opinion of what Academy voters—and we, the viewers—want. But now that the voting demographics of the Academy are becoming more diverse, it’s thrilling when films are celebrated for breaking away from the standard formula. Award season suddenly feels relevant again when a film like Everything Everywhere All at Once redefines what a Best Actress or Best Picture winner looks like.

I hope that when Cooper wins, which I’m sure he eventually will, it’s for something less predictable than Maestro. Something that he doesn’t feel the need to hit us over the head with. The good news is that, after losing so many times, he will soon have gone full circle to become something the Academy loves just as much as biopics and prosthetics: an underdog.