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What Is a Bradley Cooper Film?

“I always knew that I wanted to direct something,” Bradley Cooper explains in a featurette for A Star Is Born. “And I always wanted to tell a love story because it just feels like something that everybody can relate to.” Since then, Cooper has directed a second something, and it is, functionally, the same kind of movie. A Star Is Born is a love story about a tormented artist (country-rock star Jackson Maine, played by Cooper) and his wife (Ally, played by Lady Gaga). Maestro is a love story about a slightly less tormented artist (American conductor Leonard Bernstein, played by Cooper) and his wife (Felicia Montealegre Cohn, played by Carey Mulligan). Two movies is hardly a prolific body of work, but it’s enough to change some trailer text. Whereas A Star Is Born was touted as a movie “by director Bradley Cooper” before it was released, Maestro — now on Netflix — is “a Bradley Cooper film.”

What is a Bradley Cooper film, beyond a love story starring Bradley Cooper? A Star Is Born and Maestro share more than the obvious narrative similarities. Both are devoid of rote cinematic rhythm. They are not actually musicals; no one bursts into song. But there is plenty of singing in A Star Is Born, and Maestro does have a bit of dance, and all musical interludes are strategically deployed to heighten that which already feels big — immense flirting, significant love-making, a lot of fighting. It takes some time to adjust to all that enormity, as well as the pat-pat pattern of dialogue. Cooper’s characters banter quickly, haphazardly even, stumbling over what they mean as though they are running out of time to make their point. On top of it all, the director blocks like he’s filming a screwball comedy in the 1930s, making full use of the 1:33 aspect ratio in the first half of Maestro. When Lenny and Felicia meet at a party, they sneak off to a side room for a rapid-fire expository dump, their profiles hovering at the borders of the frame until ***** friends suddenly appear in the center.

The MVP across both of Cooper’s films is cinematographer Matthew (or Matty, as Cooper refers to him) Libatique. In A Star Is Born and Maestro there are no functional villains — these are not stories of good guys and bad guys — but if there is any sense of malignant force, it is that of the gaze. To be a celebrity, as Cooper’s characters are, is to be watched at all times. Libatique shoots both films with a forceful intimacy, peeking through doors or windows. We are not watching so much as we are barging in. But while there is some menace to this lens on fame, there is also beauty, evidenced by Libatique’s abundant use of sunlight and stage light. Fame affords Bernstein his sunny Connecticut property; it affords Jackson Maine a bright private plane. These shiny possessions are not only decadent but truly enviable.

How much of this style is Cooper’s intention? In order to grasp Cooper’s own prowess as a director, it’s useful to consider his influences. Though his latest, Maestro, is executive-produced by both Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, neither of these directors appears to make much of an impact on his work; Cooper is not as doggedly political as Scorsese or as ruefully nostalgic as Spielberg. His more significant mentors seem to be his two most frequent mid-2010s collaborators: David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood.

Russell’s manic romantic-comedy capers have fallen out of fashion (as has the director after allegations of ****** assault), but the unpredictability of his plotting lives on in Cooper’s work. When Russell was good, his movies were beguiling because you never knew if someone onscreen was going to kick someone else onscreen in the head. Cooper’s scripts, even if you’d never know from watching his trailers, are abruptly silly too. Maestro’s best moment (outside of its six-minute-long Mahler sequence) is a visual gag in which, after a heated Thanksgiving Day argument, a giant Snoopy balloon drifts past the window of the Bernsteins’ apartment. The anger between the couple simmers, unspoken, as the iconic cartoon breezes by. “Outside the window, this Snoopy sort of represents where he is in his life,” Cooper explained to the New York Times. It’s hard to know if he’s kidding.

Eastwood, on the other hand, works in a more indulgent American-masculine style. In his films, men are weighed down by honor and expectation. Cooper says he’s “exploring love stories,” but he’s also making and remaking The Bridges of Madison County, a movie in which its director-star looks hot and the ending is tear-soaked and operatic. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a “traditional” musician, meaning he plays with guitars, not synthesizers, and his songs reflect his own sorrows. But Cooper’s turn as Leonard Bernstein has a more direct line to the American masculine responsibility borne by the titular American ****** Chris Kyle. They are both distracted husbands, overwhelmed by a sense of duty, and Cooper gives them an earnestness and a reflexive belief in themselves.

As moved as Cooper says he is by the concept of love stories, both of Cooper’s romances are tragically undone. Maine struggles with addiction and depression; Bernstein struggles with latent homosexual desire and depression. Their women try and fail nobly to keep them afloat, but they cannot contend with fate. In A Star Is Born, Maine’s suffering dominates the screen with a blustery obnoxiousness. Gaga holds her own against Cooper’s misery, even if she’s forced to work in reaction and service to him. In Maestro, Cooper passes the baton to Mulligan for the second half of the film, when she is given the charge of brutally dying of cancer. Under the guise of selflessness or unyielding respect for whatever stage of feminism we’re in, he has also bestowed Mulligan with first billing in Maestro. The film commends Felicia for her stalwart bravery in continuing to love her husband through high and low, *** and kind of straight, but she is ultimately not the maestro of Maestro. Cooper’s heroines, well-meaning and independent and brilliantly performed, always collapse into gestures; this, too, makes a Bradley Cooper film “A Bradley Cooper Film.”

It’s easy to label a director a genius — if you view filmmakers like surgeons, their work being either astounding or horrible with little room in between. But film is a ridiculous medium: whimsical, epic, strange. Directors can be surgeons, or they can be romantics. Cooper is undoubtedly the latter, even if the romance he’s observing is more often between his lead character and himself. And with only two films, he’s established his micro-genre as Oscars worthy: A Star Is Born was nominated in 2019, and while Maestro is still waiting on 2024’s Academy nominee announcements, the movie managed to nab a Golden Globe nod.

In a recent interview with Howard Stern, Cooper was asked if he’d rather have three Oscars (two for himself and one for Mulligan) for Maestro or see the Eagles win the Super Bowl. Like Hollywood greats before him (Chris Rock, Jack Nicholson, Jack White looking ****** off at the Cubs game), he is known for his undying sports-franchise loyalty, and so Cooper doesn’t miss a beat. In the same rom-com patter of Lubitsch, he replies, “Eagles Super Bowl victory.” Is he lying? Stern thinks so. But consider this: Globes viewers joked about Cooper’s dead-eyed grin as he lost awards to Christopher Nolan and Cillian Murphy, ignoring the more brutal reality that the Eagles lost that night too. Maybe the real message in Cooper’s films truly is simpler — that any love can pull away the artifice of fame.

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