T he 91st Academy Awards, held in 2019, were a stressful night for the Calgary-born, Paris-based artist Connor Willumsen. Unlike the anxious hopefuls sweating in Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre, Willumsen was not nominated, nor was anyone he knew. He had just turned in the final draft of his graphic novel Bradley of Him, a surreal tale of either Bradley Cooper or a man convinced he’s Bradley Cooper and his desperate bid for an Oscar. How could Willumsen have predicted that the actor would co-produce, direct, co-write, and star in the third remake of A Star Is Born, which garnered eight Oscar nominations, including three for Cooper?

“If you wanted to make a movie designed to stack up in nominations, you might do a remake of A Star Is Born,” Willumsen says. Worried a Cooper victory might spoil the premise of his book, he emailed his publisher to see if he could change his draft once he submitted it. “She told me, ‘No, you can’t change it. And on top of that, I think it’s almost certain he will win, so you should plan for that.’” When Cooper left the Academy Awards empty handed, the only person more relieved than that year’s best actor, Rami Malek, was Connor Willumsen.

Bradley of Him has renewed relevance in the buildup to the 2023/24 awards season as Cooper campaigns for his Leonard Bernstein biopic, Maestro, another film he co-produced, co-wrote, directed, and starred in. With Maestro carrying seven Academy Award nominations, including one for best actor, Cooper has once again made a film that seems tailor-made to win Oscars. Five years after Bradley of Him debuted, Cooper’s apparent desperation for an Oscar has become something of a meme: one image that circulated online, of Cooper smiling politely as Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy accepted his Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, could have been a panel in the graphic novel.

The Academy Awards don’t mean what they once did. “We Aren’t Just Watching the Decline of the Oscars. We’re Watching the End of the Movies,” a 2022 New York Times op-ed headline declared. Blame COVID-19, streaming, social media, inflating ticket prices, deflating attention spans, or the advent of flat screen TVs, but we don’t consume movies like we used to. Eleven years ago, the Oscars fetched 40.3 million American viewers—if a tree falls and Nielsen declares only 18.8 million people watched the Oscars, does it even matter?

The type of movies that get nominated for Oscars don’t do much to improve viewership: Oscar movies slip in and out of cultural discourse. Who can remember a single detail about CODA, Nomadland, or The Shape of Water, all best picture winners in the past several years? So often, the Oscars prize banality: the best picture is a movie Obama can safely endorse and which generates pleasant water-cooler chatter—a movie designed not to chafe or stir controversy, all the things good art is supposed to do. What is it, then, that drives a person to want to win an Oscar? Is it the opportunities and prestige—or just appreciation? (“You like me!” Sally Field infamously cried when she accepted best actress in 1985.) And what is it about wanting something that audiences find so repulsive?

W hen it came to casting a lead for his book, Willumsen considered some of Hollywood’s biggest male movie stars, from Ryan Gosling to Jake Gyllenhaal to Leonardo DiCaprio, but none felt right. “I needed someone who was trying to transition from low brow to high brow and stuck in the vibrating edge between the two,” Willumsen says. Bradley Cooper, who in the span of a year had headlined both The Hangover Part III and Silver Linings Playbook, fit the bill perfectly. “He’s an underdog in the sense that he’s trying to elevate himself. But on the other hand, he’s the opposite of an underdog because he’s commercially viable, mainstream, and handsome.”

In Bradley of Him, Willumsen has the protagonist preparing to play Lance Armstrong—there’s no better Oscar bait than a faithful biopic. The Tour de France seems to mock Cooper in its simplicity: if only the Academy Awards were as straightforward a contest of speed. The role of Armstrong is one Cooper takes so seriously that it’s difficult to distinguish between the actor and cyclist. That the real-life Cooper reportedly studied conducting for six years in order to play Bernstein in Maestro makes Willumsen’s fiction all the more clairvoyant. A Star Is Born aside, it’s difficult to think of a project more poised for awards than Maestro: both Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese produced the film; it’s reverent toward a key figure in American cultural history; it features a straight actor playing queer; and perhaps most importantly, Cooper commits to a physical transformation replete with a controversial and ridiculous prosthetic nose. Oscar analysts have identified a correlation between Oscar-nominated lead actors and best makeup and hairstyling nominees: think the prosthetics that transformed Brendan Fraser into a 600-pound man in The Whale or Gary Oldman’s turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. So often, Oscar voters confuse a physically transformative performance with a good one.

But the film debuted to mixed reception, with detractors decrying Maestro as Oscar bait. Just as Cooper’s fake schnoz obscures the idiosyncrasies of his actual face, the film’s strain for mimicry overwhelms any real insight into Bernstein’s life and work. While Maestro’s shot-by-shot recreations of footage from the real Bernstein’s life are impressive, the single-minded pursuit of verisimilitude obfuscates more ambiguous, and ultimately more interesting, artistic goals. The same, of course, could be said of the pursuit of an Oscar.

Cooper has hit all the touchstones of a “serious actor”: he played the Elephant Man on Broadway, a bipolar man in Silver Linings Playbook, a traumatized war hero in American Sniper, and an alcoholic country singer in A Star Is Born. His work has often yielded commercial success and critical acclaim, but even his wealth, fame, and good looks can’t save him from seeming desperate—Twitter legend has it that when John Cassavetes was cast as a conductor on Columbo, he prepared by watching clips of Bugs Bunny conducting.

But maybe, Willumsen posits, desperation is a feeling we’re projecting onto Cooper. Maybe his small smile in that photo from the Golden Globes really is gracious; maybe he’s sick of award ceremonies; maybe the Oscar is an afterthought to his creative pursuits. “I think people assume Bradley Cooper’s mad about not winning awards because in movies he often plays a guy that would be mad,” Willumsen says. “And just from a visual point of view, he kind of looks like someone that was mean to you in high school.” Willumsen is just as interested in the relentless pursuit of achievement as he is in our expectations of how a successful person ought to behave.

Bradley of Him opens on the protagonist practising an acceptance speech: “I’m so lucky. So lucky to be here. Honoured,” he mumbles to himself against the backdrop of Willumsen’s psychedelic sketches. The syntax of an acceptance speech is particular—it requires a finicky cocktail of faux modesty and reverence. While campaigning, you have to pretend not to care too much about wanting an award, yet many Oscar winners are overcome by emotion once handed the golden statue. “I think it would be refreshing if someone was very upfront and said, ‘Yeah, I really want this award. I want to win, and I think I deserve it,’” Willumsen says. Cooper’s Oscar bid is a mirror for our own compulsions, and often failures, to achieve; the only thing more embarrassing than trying is failing, and maybe we experience a modicum of relief when it’s someone else.

At the end of Bradley of Him, in what’s almost certainly a fever dream, Willumsen’s version of Cooper does find himself accepting an award and finally delivers the speech he rehearsed at the beginning of the book. “I am deeply, profoundly moved by all of the brave individuals inside and outside this very industry,” he declares. “The artists . . . the scientists . . . the politicians who actually care enough to enact real and lasting change . . . and those facing adversity . . . this award, for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, belongs to you.” And just as this kind of acceptance speech so often seems to be an impression of the way a grateful person is supposed to act, Maestro is a composite of the kind of movie the Academy is supposed to like. The result is work calculated for the artists, scientists, politicians, and those facing adversity—art that belongs to everyone and no one at all.

Ariella Garmaise
Ariella Garmaise is assistant editor at The Walrus. She has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, LitHub, and Catapult.