By John H. Foote
8. AMADEUS (1984)
Period pieces are far too often very dry, stodgy films with a true lack of emotion, an invisible dust that can almost be seen on the screen, in a word, BORING. The films of Merchant/ Ivory were often described as this, but in fairness they were not. Others most certainly were.
That in no way describes the superb Milos Forman adaptation of the Broadway smash Tony Award winning play Amadeus. Forman breathed energy into the film, it moved, it felt alive, urgent, it seemed as though the gifted filmmaker had travelled back in time and placed his cameras down to capture life at the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, portrayed with childish, giddy, potty-mouthed charm by Tom Hulce. The genius of Forman was his decision to make Mozart the rock star of his time, opera being the rock music of the age. Mozart’s music broke ground, took risks, came straight out of the young man’s soul, perfectly emulating what happens with rock music. And he was dressed in different shades of color than everyone else, his wigs tinged pink, purples, his clothes the same, only purple, and blues very much brighter than everyone else. He stood out, but we know through the letters he wrote to his father that he always stood out, he needed too. While he knew how timeless his music was, that he was breaking new ground as he wrote the operas, he made sure everyone else knew it too, and he told everyone he encountered.
Now to be clear, Amadeus is in no way a biography, neither the stage play nor the film. The film follows the path of the play and asks the “what if?” question about a meeting between Mozart and the court composer of Vienna, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). History can show no record that they ever spent any time together, but they might have met, being standouts in the world of music, but nothing can be found to suggest Salieri wanted Mozart dead and blamed himself for his death. OK? Clear on that?
Set sometime in the second half of the 18th century, after Mozart had left Salzburg to come to Vienna. The court composer Salieri, who sits at the arm of the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones) as he struggles to teach the dense leader music, though the royal man does not have a shred of talent. What he does have is unabashed devotion to Salieri, hailing his opera as the best yet written, cheering broadly at each performance he attends. And Salieri loves the praise, because he knows how timeless Mozart’s music is, he knows that his will die out as Mozart’s grows with time. There are two men who know how astonishing the music of Mozart truly was, Mozart himself, never shy about declaring himself genius and Salieri, who quietly attends every single performance of every opera Mozart writes, in awe of the majesty of the music. The more he learns about Mozart, that he does not do rough work, he writes one copy of his work, as it spills out of his head and onto the page, like he “was taking dictation.” Raging at God, Salieri had only asked to serve the Lord with his music and now finds that God has given musical genius to a depraved little man, who speaks openly about bowel movements, swears liberally, discusses sex with anyone who will listen, seduces women at a furious rate, often using his celebrity to bed them, and has the braying high-pitched laugh of a mule. For more than two hours we explore the differences between genius and mediocrity. We hear the music of each man throughout the film, Mozart’s lifting us to the heavens, Salieri’s average, even boring. In his opera’s, Mozart explores his life, his dreams, his nightmares, as great artists do, challenging the audience, making demands of them to listen, to watch and to experience.
His arrogance makes Mozart an enemy of Salieri, who secretly conspires to make life hell for Mozart, blocking appointments, offering advice about his work, though he loves each new opera from Mozart. He eventually commissions a Requiem from Mozart, which brings the younger man to exhaustion and eventual death, leaving Salieri convinced he killed Mozart.
The film opens with an ancient Salieri cutting his throat and being rushed to an asylum where his confession is heard by a young priest. In flashback his story is told, and we realize his curse in life was to live a very long life, listening to his own music become extinct, while that of Mozart towered through the years, making the little man immortal.
In creating Amadeus, the director knew casting was crucial and turned to the actors from the stage play, and those who came in when their time was done. Ian McKellan was considered for Salieri, but the studio felt he had no name in cinema (true at that time) and Tim Curry as Mozart, though that was stomped on when the studio worried he was too recognized as Frank N. Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Thus began a line of auditions bringing actors such as Al Pacino and Richard Burton, testing as Salieri, while just about every young actor in film auditioned for Mozart. Tom Cruise (no kidding), Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke were all considered, but in the end Forman went with two well-known Broadway actors who were mildly known on film. Best known as Omar, a drug associate in Scarface (1983) hung from the helicopter, F. Murray Abraham won the role of a lifetime as Salieri, while Tom Hulce, best known as the virgin from Animal House (1978), was cast as Mozart. Each knew the play from the stage, each had seen it, and now were tasked with portraying two historical figures in a film directed by a world class filmmaker in Prague, standing in for Vienna.
When the film opened the reviews were ecstatic, hailing the performances, the direction, hailing the film as the year’s finest achievement. Nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including two nominations for Best Actor as both leads found themselves against one another, eventually winning a whopping eight Oscars. Among the wins were Best Picture, Best Director (the second for Forman), Best Actor for Abraham, who announced he shared the award with Hulce, Best Screenplay for Peter Shaffer who adapted his own play, and four other awards. I was rather shocked it did not win Best Cinematography as the cameras brought to life a part of history we had not seen before. Both actors returned to relative obscurity after a couple of years. Hulce stopped acting altogether and began developing and producing plays in New York, while Abraham continued acting, finding work in television on Homeland as a CIA operative. Neither danced close to the Oscars again.
In strong supporting roles, Jeffrey Jones was a standout as a droll and rather dim Emperor and Elizabeth Berridge replaced Meg Tilly who broke her leg the day before shooting began, leaving Berridge to portray Mozart’s wife, Constanze.
The brilliant use of the music on the track demonstrated the genius of Mozart, and the utter mediocrity of Salieri, especially when the older man finds sheets of Mozart’s music and begins to hear it in his mind. Near weeping in awe, he both reveres and despises Mozart for having the gifts that he hoped God would give him, instead bestowing them on a shrill child. He is horrified the first time he is in a room with Mozart, not knowing it is him. The genius is playing a game with a young lady as he kisses her breasts, using vulgar language and sex talk with her, until eventually they begin to play his music and in shock Salieri realizes this obscene little beast is Mozart. He adores music enough to realize that the music created by Mozart is for the ages, and will last as his becomes extinct, but his hatred for being betrayed by God makes Mozart the target of his wrath. As he grows older, he is doomed to hear his rival’s music become immortal and feels guilt over silencing him (he thinks) and preventing any more music from him.
Abraham is superb as Salieri, slithering like a snake through the Vienna court, advancing himself with a mere suggestion to the Emperor, remaining chaste as he promised to God for the life of music he has been given. He lusts, no question, but does he ever take advantage of his standing in the court as Mozart does? As the aged Salieri, Abraham truly shines, a wrinkled old demon sly remembering his life with a smile, until Mozart came along, supposedly ruining his life. I love that he portrays him as a man who hates the man but not his music, oh no, the music of Mozart he so reveres. So in love with the art of music, he can set aside his hatred for Mozart to appreciate his music, even telling him, “You are the greatest composer known to me”. Abraham is superb throughout the film; he does not have a single scene in which he is nothing less than brilliant.
Tom Hulce as Mozart is equally fine, braying that high pitched laugh like a silly child, playing vulgar games with ladies of the court, bedding women at a furious pace with his celebrity, knowing he can get away with his antics because of his music. With a devious gleam in his eye, Mozart is out for fun and the more the better. Watch Mozart all but shine at a party enjoying the attention as he impersonates other composers, including Salieri, unaware the older man is there. His vulgar actions offend Salieri, but there is little he can do about it. Hulce always seems to be in some kind of motion, and we even feel his mind furiously moving as he composes his music.
The film was a huge hit at the box office and well admired by film critics. Forman richly deserved his second Academy Award, and would be nominated again before his death. An absolute, soaring work of art.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.