From 1980 through 1989, as far as I’m concerned, there was not a better movie than “Amadeus”. There are movies that are better loved, that are more essential to movie history and to the culture, but when measured as an artistic achievement, I’m willing to throw down for this film. The only movie that comes close is “The Right Stuff“, and while I will admit there are things about the first Mercury Astronauts that mean more to us than a couple of dead European composers, “Amadeus” wins out because it has not just the best performance of the decade but two of them.
One of the reasons that I was excited to do this project in the first place, was that it would give me a justification to delve deeply into my opinions and reactions to this specific movie. While I may have anticipated some of the summer blockbusters more, the critical acclaim and buzz on this film was white hot. Months before it was released, insider screenings had left most critics declaring the the Award season could end on this movies release and it turned out that the film lived up to the hype.
I have a little personal history about the play before I talk about the movie. As a Christmas gift for my wife on our fourth Christmas as a married couple, I bought her tickets to see the stage production of “Amadeus” that was playing in Los Angeles at the time. The two actors in the leads were John Wood and Mark Hamill. That’s right, Luke Skywalker was in the title role, touring with the show after stepping into the part on Broadway. The stage production was a rotating cast of well known actors playing the leads. Ian McKellen and Tim Curry started the show on the Great White Way. We were of course “Star Wars” geeks, and looked forward to seeing Mark Hamill on stage. Our performance was scheduled in the third week of January in 1984, and when the day arrived, I was sick as a dog. I felt miserable and I had a fever of 104. I begged my wife to understand and let me give the tickets away, with the promise that we would go another night. Well, in a manner very similar to our first date, when I went to Grad night at Disneyland with her while I was throwing up regularly, she managed to get me to the theater over in Century City. She can be very persuasive. Anyway, I crammed a bunch of aspirin down my throat, rubbed myself with Vicks, and wore several layers of clothing to the Shubert Theater. After the fact, I was glad I did because the play was wonderful. I had a great sense of what the story was about and how the characters would probably be realized in the upcoming film. As it turns out, I was not really prepared at all.
The screen version of “Amadeus” featured the music in the story in a much more prominent way. The part of Mozart was expanded immensely by Peter Shaffer in his screenplay adaption of his play. There are new characters and a vastly bigger scale to the proceedings, which is exactly what a film adaption should do, make you feel like the story is organic instead of simply a filmed version of the play.
From the moment Salieri’s servants breakdown the door of his bedroom and discover that he has tried to cut his own throat, the music of Mozart takes over the picture. The strains of his Symphony number 25 add urgency and drama to the darkly lit bedroom and streets as Senor Salieri is transported to the asylum where he will narrate the rest of the story.
From here on in, the music is another character in the story. It introduces us to the vulgar child that is the young composer. The music inspires Salieri’s jealousy. We see why the Emperor is interested in having Mozart at court and we get to visualize the power of the music in the opera sequences. When Salieri’s plot begins bubbling in the last quarter of the picture, music cues from Mozart frighten us, move us to tears, show us the one last chance Salieri has at redemption and then mock us with the light notes that finish off the story. When I sat in the dark theater on opening night of the film in Pasadena, thirty years ago, my heart stopped at the opening use of the music, the editing and placement of the sounds was awe inspiring and we were just five minutes into the movie.
The story is structured around what would be considered Salieri’s confession to a friendly priest. The young priest has come to the asylum to help the suicidal old man save his soul. The bitter creature he encounters wants none of that and begins to explain the war with God that he engaged in three decades earlier.
The old age make-up is flawless, but it is matched by the performance of the lead actor. I have heard F. Murray Abraham be judged over the years for the parts that he played later in his career. Films like “Shark Swarm” and “Thirteen Ghosts” hardly seem to be the fare that an Oscar winner should be doing. Abraham though has always been a character actor. He was an usher in “They Might be Giants”, a third string criminal in “Scarface”, and a general television background actor before this movie. Sometimes it is magic when the right actor meshes with the right part. I’m sure that he knew he would never match this performance again. In truth he has had a very nice career and continues to earn respect on movie and TV screens, including a part in this years “The Grand Budapest Hotel”. Salieri is the role that will define his career.
In the early scenes as an old man, his body language and gestures reflect an attitude of resignation to his lot in life. His shoulders are bent and his voice is dismissive when the priest comes in. He sadly tries to inform the priest of who he once was by playing brief snippets of his long forgotten songs. We can hear the bile in his voice when the priest only recognizes a piece from Mozart. Then we can see some life come back in to the old devil when the priest asks if he really did kill Mozart. “You’ve heard that?”, maybe he will be remembered after all, even if it is for something heinous that he did.
I hope people know not to take their history lessons from movies. Once a person is dead, it is not possible to legally libel them, and just about anything can be written and shown, regardless of the truth. Mozart and Salieri were contemporaries, and there might have been some jealousy on Salieri’s part, who can blame him when you are being measured against the greatest composer of the age. Mozart was the equivalent of a Rock Star in his age. I’m sure Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle eyeballed each other occasionally. This story is a fiction. It uses two famous composers and their historical context to tell a story of passion, rivalry, and faith. Abraham Lincoln was not a vampire hunter and Salieri did not kill Mozart.
The flashback narration by Abraham of Salieri’s youth and desire to live a life dedicated to music and God is marvelous. Even though it is illustrated with scenes of a young boy in church or at the family table, we could be entranced by that story if there were no visuals. Abraham uses his voice with a lilt at the right moment and a sigh of resignation at the next. In fact, the visualization is only really useful for the joke that comes at the end of this sequence, one of the few times that the movie is a little too obvious in direction. Miloš Forman had been honored a decade earlier by the Academy for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, a film that has few visual flourishes and is primarily about the performances. This movie requires the story telling to weave together two biographical stories into a single plot and then merge in a murderous theme and keep it jaunty and compelling as it moves along. The music cues and costumes often do the story telling for us. There is a substrata of information being feed to us while the Opera sequences are being played out. Most of this is done in subtle ways but every once in a while there is a moment of grandiosity that startles us. One of my favorites concerns the identification of the Commendatore with Mozart’s father Leopold in Don Giovanni. Salieri’s astonishment at the obvious nature of the parallel is played delicately and we see the pattern of the Masquerade Costume, the part in the opera and Salieri’s plans all start to come together.
What could drive a pious man like Salieri to this jealous rage, so much that he would want to destroy Mozart? It is his own skill at seeing the genius and beauty of Mozart’s works that are under-appreciated. He knows that Mozart’s Turkish Opera is filled with long choruses designed to show off the diva’s voice, and that it is excessive. Yet he also knows that by accepting the Emperor’s description, borrowed from the director of the National Opera, that there are simply “Too many notes”, he is siding with mediocrity against genius, even if this time genius is wrong. Of course, Mozart is a guileless and arrogant young man. He pays lip service to his contemporaries but is so self absorbed that he is self destructive. Salieri has had to sacrifice and work and sweat over every minor accomplishment, and Mozart soils it. The charming little march that he composes for Mozart when he is being presented at court, becomes a plaything in Mozart’s hands and it is a moment of humiliation rather than true humility that begins the inevitable conflict.
A good example of Foreman’s directing choice is found in how Salieri digests each one of Mozart’s new works. He is alone in a private box. He can see and hear without having to notice anything except that which he chooses to see. He can pull back into the recesses of the box when the moment is too sublime for him to appreciate without exposing himself. This way he can manage the two versions of himself that he must knows exist. He is the envious composer who is made miserable by the perfection of the music that he loves but must endure, and he is also the “friendly to his face” professional colleague, who admits the truth of his admiration but never of his anger that results from that admiration. It is important to remember these two selves, because near the end of the story, Salieri almost redeems his character but can’t quite get the two to reconcile with each other in time.
Tom Hulce as Mozart is not outshine-ed so much as out-written. His depiction of Mozart’s vulgarity, arrogance, petulance and pride are all faultless. The giggle that he manages, turns his performance into a living character and not just a cardboard portrait of a genius. Even though he gets to play sick and has a death scene in the movie, all of those behaviors are designed to set up Salieri. Had Abraham not been perfect in the role, everyone would have believed that the movie belonged to Hulce. Mozart is unaware of the impact he is having on others so his performance seems more external. Salierei is calculating and watchful and all of Abraham’s skills are designed to make us see this without everyone else also seeing it.
The movie is filled with great moments from the character actors that populate it. Jeffery Jones was frequently mentioned, although not nominated, in the supporting actor category this year. Emperor Joseph II is a well meaning dilettante, who loves the idea of Mozart and his genius being a part of his court. Jones is facile in agreeing to support a German opera, allowing the Italians in his court to believe they have crushed the idea, and then suddenly, the Emperor chooses. With his occasionally clipped voice and mannerisms, Jones makes Joseph a comic foil without turning him into a comic figure.
Elizabeth Berridge was a last minute replacement for actress Meg Tilly, who left the shoot due a torn ligament in her leg. Berridge is attractive in exactly the non-glamorous way that Constanze is meant to be. As the daughter of a landlady who has charmed the famous Herr Mozart, she is appropriately garish and demure at the same time. When Mozart and she are first introduced, he plays a word game with her that forces her to make sounds in reverse order. When she discovers the vulgar things he sometimes says she is disgusted with the sort of girlish voice we might imagine a woman of those times to use. That voice becomes sharp as she jousts with her Father-in -law later in the film. Her best scene is when she appears the first time to plead the case to Salieri for Mozart to be offered a prized pupil. She is polite, and uncertain and frightened all at once. When Salieri offers her the confection, she looks delighted and embarrassed but amused at what he names it. In the extended Directors cut, there is an awkward second scene that she appears in which leaves her mortified and humiliated and for which, at the end of the film we will take some satisfaction from, as she locks up the requiem away from Salieri’s hands.
Earlier this summer, Roy Dotrice appeared in another film in an embarrassing role that is hard to fathom came the same year as his stern depiction of Mozart’s father Leopold. It is his visage that haunts Mozart throughout the film. Having disappointed his father in choosing a career in Vienna, and a wife from a social class that his Father would not approve of, it is no surprise that the spirit of his Father will plague him. When Salieri discovers this, it begins the process of both of their undoings.
Kenneth McMillian was cut entirely from the original release of the picture. He is really only in one scene but his avuncular patron of Mozart, who has a daughter he would like musically trained, offers another bit of comic relief in the story that was in short supply the first go round. This is a far cry from his Baron Harkonen who will be featured in the “Dune” post when we get to December. I believe it was in the story of “Shakespeare in Love” that a supporting character points out how much a bit with a dog can improve the spirits of a play. In this case, Mozart’s petulance seems entirely called for and we can understand how his drinking could be accelerated by the lifestyle he was forced into.
Ultimately all of the films merits would be in vain if the central performance from Abraham is not up to snuff. Some scenes in movies can haunt you, even when there is not a dynamic action to pull us in. Conversation and confession are where Abraham earns his stripes. Every time we go back to the old Salieri in his confession, we get a snippet of venom and a layer of charm. The priest cannot tell at times whether to be thrilled or horrified by the story he is listening to, but at the conclusion of the film we know which it is to be. As Mozart is pushed closer to the brink of collapse by his own workaholic nature and the insidious plan that Salieri is executing, sadness begins to overtake the film. The housemaid that Salieri has planted in the Mozart home as a spy, despairs of the goings on in the house. She is frightened by everything. The vaudeville opera “The Magic Flute” is performed by a cheerful group of collaborators, who fail to recognize the toll that has been taken on Mozart. With each one of these points, Salieri hardens his heart and waits to take advantage of the failure of “God’s voice”. The culmination of his plot, and the last chance he has to redeem himself occur in Mozart’s bedroom.
This is one of the places where the film will have a big advantage over the play. The music inserts that hover over the descriptions that Mozart dictates, provides us with an ability to hear genius at work. In a play the mix of dialogue and music would be maddening, but the sound design of film is different. Abraham shows us the delight and frustration that come from dipping into the mind of his nemesis. The weakened Mozart dictates his requiem to Salieri, unaware that he is the disguised patron who plans on stealing the requiem to play at Mozart’s own funeral. Both actors make the most of the scene, Hulce, even as Mozart is failing, is demanding, and petulant and ultimately sweet. When he confesses his shame at believing that Salieri did not care for him or his music, it will break your heart. It is an invitation to Salieri to wash his hands of the fiendish plot he has concocted, and share a true friendship with him. Abraham takes us almost to the brink of believing he regrets his actions, until he selfishly prompts Mozart to continue because he himself is not tired at all. That is the moment when we know what is going to happen thirty two years later in the confession to the priest. Salieri will be doomed to all the ignominy that he must confront as he nears the end of his own life.
His plan is thwarted by God, at least in Salieri’s mind. Mozart goes too soon, Stanzi returns too soon, the Requiem is never finished and it is out of reach from the villain , who rejected reconciliation and redemption and tried instead to steal some glory for himself. Rather than a glorious public funeral, attended by the glitterati of the age where Salieri reveals the piece of music that he “wrote” for his supposed hero, Mozart is consigned to a nondescript burial in a paupers field. His mourners are sparse, and one of them is bitter.
The priest ends up in tears and Salieri ends up in madness. Believing himself to be murderer and mediocrity, Abraham plays the deluded and bemused old man, granting dispensation to the other wretches in the asylum with him. Abraham gives Salieri a defeated expression of resignation as he waves his hands in benediction and Mozart’s shocking giggle is heard as the credits roll.
The film was never a box office smash. It did not crack the top five of weekly release numbers. It ended up doing well but was essentially dwarfed by all of the blockbusters of the year. As well loved as all those films are, they do not approach the emotional depth and artistic heights of this movie. A year or two ago, my daughter found a list that ranked the Academy Award Best pictures from first to last. With every film she revealed higher on the list than “Amadeus” I became more and more bellicose. That list buried this movie in the middle of the eighty six films to be honored by the Academy. This is my humble response to such an inane choice.