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Scorsese to Direct Bernstein Biopic: Who Should Play Lenny?

Nov 5, 2015

Scorsese seems like the most reassuring possible choice to handle what will be a complicated assignment.

A few days ago, quietly and with an irritating minimum of details, we learned that Martin Scorsese has committed to directing a full-length biopic about Leonard Bernstein.

This, to be clear, will not be another of Marty’s documentaries about musical figures. Those, of course, include entertaining and generally well-received specimens about Bob Dylan, the Band, the Stones and George Harrison.

No, this will be a feature movie, with actors.

I don’t mind saying that, as a sucker for music biopics generally, I found this news exciting.

If the director were someone of lesser stature, I might have found it alarming, but Scorsese -- whose interest in and knowledge of music feels like it’s genuine enough -- seems like the most reassuring possible choice to handle what will obviously be a delicate and complicated assignment.

More about those delicacies in a moment, but the first and most juicily discussable question is: who should play the flamboyant, charismatic, privately unbuttoned maestro?

We have five very public and eventful decades to deal with.

For openers, should it be just one actor? We have seen -- most recently with the Brian Wilson film “Love & Mercy” -- that two performers can sometimes more readily capture a career that starts early and continues for decades.  On the other hand, Jamie Foxx handily traversed a lot of years in his note-perfect embodiment of Ray Charles, as did Sissy Spacek in her winning, and Oscar-winning, portrayal of Loretta Lynn, from backwoods teenage bumpkin to regal queen of country music.

But in the case of Bernstein, we have basically five very public and eventful decades to deal with.

And the film, let us hope, will look in on all of them.         

It would be unthinkable for the film to fail to depict his stunning overnight ascendancy to stardom in 1943, when he stepped onto the New York Philharmonic podium to substitute, on a few hours’ notice, for a flu-ridden Bruno Walter.

Lenny was 25. And he was only a few years older when he and Jerome Robbins and Arthur Laurents and a 20-something Stephen Sondheim began cooking up a modern musical theater treatment of the Romeo and Juliet story -- a show, incidentally, that they originally had named “Gang Way!” before settling on “West Side Story.” (Aside to all you Broadway babies: who should play young Mr. Sondheim? And when does he get his biopic?)

The story has to include the televised Young People’s Concerts; the memorial performances for JFK and RFK (and the subsequent messy premiere of his raucous “Mass”); the infamous (thanks to Tom Wolfe’s sophomoric piece for New York magazine) “radical chic” party at his Park Avenue penthouse at which he and his wife helped raise money for the Black Panthers; the worldwide adulation as America’s first homegrown maestro of international stature.

It might be more interesting if the young one is a nobody -- in a sort of parallel to Bernstein's own sudden emergence.

But -- and here comes the delicate part -- Scorsese will also have to find a decent but honest way to treat the personal stuff: the homosexuality that intruded into a clearly loving but clearly complicated marriage, the often dissolute and even dangerously reckless private lifestyle, especially later in life, the apparently deep episodes of depression, unabated by plentiful alcohol and cigarettes.

If the decision is to have a younger actor for the youthful Lenny and another for the more mature one, I for one don’t particularly care who the former is. In fact, it might be more interesting if the young one is a nobody -- in a sort of parallel to Bernstein’s own sudden emergence.

But the older, craggier, exasperatingly inconsistent Bernstein -- who among living actors could plausibly rise to that assignment?

Leonard Bernstein
Credit ©Arthur Umboh/DG / Deutsche Grammophon

The sketchy news reports suggest that casting has not started in any serious way, so I’ve got a few early thoughts:

Robert Downey, Jr. -- Certainly the dissolute part will not be a challenge. But more seriously, the man is a great actor, and, given a topflight hair and makeup team, Downey could credibly capture the sheer largeness of the Bernstein personality. (And it was only the personality that was large: Bernstein stood barely five-feet eight, almost exactly the same as Downey, Jr.)

Kenneth Branagh -- I know, he’s Irish and he looks nothing like LB. But, first, he is perhaps the best UK actor in history at doing an American “accent,” and second, his sheer brilliance could make it work. Anyway, it would be fun to see him give it a go.

Johnny Depp -- Nothing if not versatile, and there is a kind of Lennyesque intensity to the man. Of course, we would have to be convinced that he could be taught how to handle a baton more convincingly than he handled his singing in “Sweeney.” The latter issue will not be an impediment here, however, as Lenny himself was known to be a terrible singer.

Dark Horses: Colin Firth, Alec Baldwin (don’t laugh -- the man can be serious, and he actually knows something about classical music.)

Classical musicians have not fared well on the big screen, as a rule. Katharine Hepburn and Paul Henried as a risible Clara and Robert Schumann, Hugh Grant as a stammering Chopin, Mario Lanza as a, well, Lanza-like Caruso, the various Ken Russell out-of-control “tributes” to the great composers, etc. -- it’s a pretty sorry history, with a few exceptions.

So let’s wish Marty well with this project. At least the subject and his story, I think we can all agree, could hardly be more cinematic.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.