In Defense of Bradley Cooper, Whose ‘Maestro’ Oscar Campaign Was Genuine and Vulnerable — Not ‘Thirsty’

Bradley Cooper can’t win.

That’s meant literally; there seems, based on how the precursor awards have shaken out, effectively no chance that he will capitalize on his three Oscar nominations this year, for acting in, writing, and producing the Leonard Bernstein biopic “Maestro.” (He wasn’t nominated for directing the film, as he wasn’t for 2018’s “A Star Is Born.) His career tally is likely to bloat to a lopsided 0-for-12 nominations, making him, at 49 years old, the most overdue man in the industry.

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But he also can’t seem to put his best foot forward — at least as regards the Oscar-watching commentariat. This year, his zealous and enthusiastic campaign on “Maestro’s” behalf has included a variety of gestures perceived as head-scratchers. In one televised interview, Cooper wept in front of the late Bernstein’s adult children, describing his spiritual connection to the man he played; the fact of Cooper’s having studied conducting for six years in order to perform one six-minute scene in action in front of an orchestra was well-worn. And a recent podcast interview featured the revelation that Cooper took time to realize he loved his daughter, who is now six years old, in the months after she was born.

All of these add up to a perhaps unflattering picture, of a star less born than self-manufactured, pushing his way to the front of the line. Cooper was the first nominee cited in a recent New Yorker story on “the ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ hour” of the Oscar voting period; a Vox story headline blared that “No one wants an Oscar as badly as Bradley Cooper.”

That claim, though, doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Oscar campaigns happen every year for more stars than there are spots on the ballot, and many if not most undertake the glad-handing, well, gladly. (Why, for instance, did the genial and down-to-earth Paul Giamatti find himself in the path of a camera while dining at In-N-Out on the night of the Golden Globes, with his new trophy in tow? Well, he was probably hungry. But it also cohered nicely with his regular-guy Brooklyn dad persona.) The first rule of Oscars campaigning may in fact be that everyone in the room wants it; the months spent on the trail have a tendency to winnow out ambivalence.

And while opinions can differ about “Maestro” (this viewer found it compelling, humane, and deeply flawed), it is hardly the movie one makes if one’s objective, first, is to win an Oscar. It takes an awards-bait premise (the life of a great American artist) and refracts it, peering down often-unrewarding blind alleys — the question of Bernstein’s sexuality, the compromises and deceptions underpinning his marriage. A version of “Maestro” that centered Bernstein’s gifts and impact, rather than knottier and more painful questions, would be less strange and urgent. It would, perhaps, be likelier to win an Oscar, too. Similarly, speaking frankly about the likely near-universal experience of sorting out one’s feelings early in parenthood is many things — honest, worthwhile, uncommon — but classic Oscar campaigning it is not. In his work and in what he allows us to see of his life, Cooper is reaching out, eager to be known more deeply.

Interpreted in this light, what Cooper seems most urgently to want is not a trophy but status as One of the Greats; the read of him as Oscar-thirsty tends to completely elide what a non-presence he was during the 2018 awards cycle, when best actor seemed legitimately within his grasp. (He didn’t seem eager to talk about his personal life in a New York Times profile, whose author, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, returned the favor by depicting him as withdrawn and reticent.) Now, he’s committed to campaigning with a Method intensity, but doing so not with typical smiley awards appearances but with press opportunities that reveal, at once, a desire to be liked and a willingness to present the more challenging sides of himself.

The sort of obvious ambition that hovers around Cooper wears well once one has made it to the peak — perhaps, someday, Cooper’s eagerness to talk about the years he invests in his project will look to all the world more like Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese (both credited “Maestro” producers) than like the guy from “The Hangover” getting ahead of himself. But the world has a hard time going easy on stars who don’t go easy on themselves. Anne Hathaway brought an intensity to her Oscar run for 2012’s “Les Miserables” that read, to those disinclined to be generous to a woman in a nerve-wracking position, as “theater kid energy”; her path back from being the first target of an organized and directed insult campaign carried out on social media took years.

And we’re the better for it! Anne Hathaway is fabulous, and the flourishes of extra-ness that follow her wherever she goes — belting a Kelly Clarkson song on “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” openly weeping at the SAG Awards tribute to Barbra Streisand — make the entertainment ecosystem more fun. I could defend Cooper’s filmmaking, and the way he describes it and advocates for it, as human in the best way. He’s vulnerable in a way all people, not just artists, often struggle to be; that he is at times unintentionally revealing of vanity or ego or, yes, the desire for recognition, in whatever form that may take, is refreshingly un-mediated by the many industry forces that keep actors speaking about safe topics in a safe way. But the easiest way to stick up for Cooper is this: If you don’t enjoy the spectacle of interesting people extending (and sometimes contorting) themselves in order to catch the public’s eye, why are you watching the Oscars at all? The Dolby Theatre wouldn’t just be boring if it excluded all those whose eagerness to see hard work rewarded meant that they spent months acting out; it’d be empty.

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