“When you finish a film, before the first paying audience sees it, you don't have any idea. You don't know if you’ve made a success or a flop. And in the '80s, with MTV, we were having a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes. Don't forget that no major studio wanted to finance the film for these reasons.”
– Milos Forman
History vs. Hollywood’s fictionalized tradition of ‘inventing the truth’…and never the twain shall meet. Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is about two people who never actually met in real life; the gifted musical prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, brilliantly reconstructed by Tom Hulce as oafish punster, and, insanely jealous court composer with daggers in his heart, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Throughout the better half of this three hour colossus, Salieri employs oily charm to ingratiate himself into Mozart’s confidences. Yet Salieri’s envy, all-consuming with devastating results, is well known to seemingly everyone except Mozart, who trusts the serpent with his own ambitions and, tragically, his life. The artist's wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) recognizes Salieri’s darker purpose. Still, the trusting and naïve Mozart cannot bring himself to see the deceiver. Salieri presents himself as friend and mentor, all the while plotting the young composer’s demise. As they used to say, ‘the truth (may) set you free. Alas, it rarely makes for good melodrama. And so, virtually none of Peter Schaffer’s screenplay adheres to the life and times of this brilliant man; Schaffer instead embracing the precepts of an original off-Broadway play, and endeavoring to transform what on the stage had been a series of conversations and altercations, into a sweeping epic with exotic locales, the likes of which Hollywood then had not witnessed in nearly fifty years.
There is nothing new in Schaffer’s level of deception when delving into the bio-pic. Throughout the 1940s, Hollywood was enamored with exploiting the back catalog of famous composers, mostly to regale audiences with a loosely strung together fiction sandwiched between elaborately staged and glossy musical numbers, designed to show off a studio’s cavalcade of their brightest and biggest stars. Every life, from Frédéric Chopin’s (A Song to Remember, 1945) to Jerome Kern’s (Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946) was prone to this Technicolor fantasia into pure escapism. But like all other Hollywood-devised formulas, this too would run its course, fizzling in the mid-fifties. Changing times and tastes, not to mention the implosion of the ‘star system’ and severe budgetary restrictions thereafter, eventually crushed all future prospects for resurrecting this sub-genre. And truth be told, Amadeus is not harking back to these all-star spectacles, but remains something more of a kissing cousin to the ‘art house’ experiment, shot without the benefit of ‘stars’ and made for the relatively inexpensive budget of $18,000,000 – with every dollar showing up on the screen.
Shot in Prague, Kroměříž and Vienna, Amadeus greatly benefits from these sumptuous European backdrops. Indeed, Forman was able to lens various sequences inside Count Nostitz’ Theatre where Mozart’s Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito had actually debuted two centuries earlier. And yet, there is a decided disconnect between these opulent and authentic surroundings, ably abetted by Miroslav Ondrícek’s stunning cinematography, Karel Cerný’s superb art direction and Theodor Pistek/Christian Thuri’s costuming, and, the cast, comprised almost entirely of American talent. The performances in Amadeus are simply that – performances; highly theatrical, with some more skillfully executed than others. Schaffer’s screenplay plays to the strengths in Tom Hulce’s adolescent reinterpretation of this boy genius; dictated to by a stern patriarch, Leopold (Roy Dotrice) and patronized by the Emperor, Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones – a dead ringer for his alter ego). Our Wolfgang – rechristened ‘Wolfie’ by Constanze – is both a scamp and a brat, not above informing admired court composer, Salieri that his melody created in Mozart’s honor “doesn’t quite work” and suggesting to the Italians that their renaissance knows absolutely nothing about ‘love’. He’s also a bit of a deviant, over-sexed and prone to dirty jokes, farting in public, and, wanton revelries that fly in the face of his father’s Teutonic outlook on life.
Apart from registering as pure and magnificent entertainment, Amadeus is a film queerly absent of fact, yet wholly excelling in its alternative verisimilitude. Director, Milos Forman assumed a daunting task with this motion picture: how best to capture the essence of a relationship between two men where no relationship ever existed. Mercifully, the historical record has Salieri's own claim to chew on; made in a fit of madness while convalescing in an asylum; that he orchestrated the demise of this musical genius. And so, our story opens many years after Mozart’s death, with the aged and half-crazed Salieri attempting suicide by slitting his own throat. He is taken to a mental hospital where he begins to confess his sins to a priest (Herman Meckler). From here, the tale regresses to Salieri’s days as court composer for Emperor Joseph II. Considered an authority on composition, Salieri’s supremacy is all but ended with Mozart's arrival – a one-time child prodigy out on his own, in an ambitious spree and lark to take the world of music by storm; laughing hysterically and breaking wind on cue to punctuate his general contempt for authority. One can, in fact, empathize with Salieri during these initial scenes; the jaded stately popinjay forced to kowtow to this upstart, scornful of practically any human thought outside his own limited understanding of the world.
Sex with an improper young lass seems to have turned Mozart’s head – both of them – Constanze seen as a sort of enterprising interloper, disparaged by Leopold, who disavows his son of his inheritance upon learning of their secret marriage. At least the movie gets most of this subplot right. The real Mozart’s marriage to Constanze was considered mildly scandalous, insofar as he had courted her while boarding with her family, was asked to leave by them – did – but took Constanze’s affections with him; the two eventually engaging in illicit rendezvous inside Mozart’s apartment. This prompted Constanze’s sister, the Baroness von Waldstätten to threaten an intervention based on the mores and laws of decency then in place. To prevent a full-blown scandal, Mozart married his sweetheart almost immediately, quelling any allegations of indecency, but very much incurring ire from both Constanze’s family as well as his own. Although this vignette from Mozart’s life might have fueled enough tension to sustain an entire movie, Amadeus is not particularly invested in exploring the turbulent union, except as backdrop to an even more treacherous and downward spiral in Wolfgang’s fortunes – and misfortunes – presumably, compounded by his unsuspecting good nature toward Salieri; the man who (at least, according to Schaffer’s designs) will push him into an early grave.
Mozart and Salieri get off to a rough start; Mozart illustrating his mastery of composition by instantly memorizing, then re-composing the welcome march written in his honor by Salieri, but bumbled rather badly at the keyboard by the Emperor. Mozart’s ability to simply ‘pick up at tune’ impresses both the Emperor and his court cronies; all except Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines) who regards Mozart as an evil little bug to be squashed. Thus, when Mozart insists his first opera under Joseph’s patronage be in German, rather than traditional Italian, he incurs Bonno’s considerable opposition. Mozart compounds this displeasure at court by seducing Katerina Caveleri (Christine Ebersole) – the operatic diva whom Salieri has lusted after for quite some time. Salieri pretends to be unimpressed by Mozart’s efforts, when, in reality, he is seething with jealousy. When it is announced Mozart will marry Constanze instead, Katerina flies into a rage. In Salzberg, news of his son’s hasty marriage to this lowly girl all but breaks Mozart’s father, Leopold’s (Roy Dotrice) heart. Even after paying a visit to the happy couple, Leopold cannot contain his displeasure. Instead, he departs the city, the rift between father and son never entirely healed. News of Leopold’s death shortly thereafter leaves Mozart tormented and fearing his father’s ghost will forever haunt him.
From here, Salieri begins to deliberately plot a richly satisfying and extremely vial, well-orchestrated plan of revenge – first, to tarnish Mozart’s good standing with the Emperor; then, to pretend to be Mozart’s confidante in order to steal his latest composition; a requiem Salieri has secretly commissioned, but meant to drive this young zeitgeist into his early grave. Constanze, who had left Mozart in a marital quarrel over monies owed them by Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow) several months before, now returns to discover Salieri’s ruse too late. Salieri has been driving her ailing husband, bedridden and delirious, to finish his requiem. Recognizing the terrible strain this work has put on his health, Constanze gathers the pages of Mozart’s unfinished composition and locks it away in a nearby cabinet, ordering Salieri from the house at once. Alas, in their moment of heated exchange neither has yet to realize Mozart has already died, presumably, from heart failure brought about by extreme exhaustion.
Mozart’s burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave is heartbreaking (and untrue); just one in a heap of nameless bodies committed to the same hole in the earth without fanfare or even a faint remembrance of the musical genius that once occupied his corruptible flesh. In reality, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was laid to rest in a ‘commoner’s plot’ with a private headstone – merely, denoting he was neither a member of any royal house or even the aristocracy. Again, we regress to the asylum where the aged Salieri has survived his suicide attempt; his confession to the priest taken as fact; his sins destined to condemn him for eternity. As Salieri is wheeled back to his cell, he gleefully passes an entourage of unfortunates; mad, filthy, lost in their own tortuous thoughts and chained to the walls or restrained in straightjackets; smiling and absolving them of their sins, the sudden echo of Mozart’s infectiously juvenile laughter, piercing his mind and causing Salieri to wince in extreme mental anguish.
In these final moments, Amadeus almost degenerates into a sort of moralizing grand guignol. The asylum is a house of oddities. Yet, within its walls of yowling despair we glean the nucleus of Peter Schaffer’s exercise; his decision to illustrate how revenge is never as sweet or as satisfying as the avenger might at first anticipate. In murdering that which he secretly loved and desired to become – though, publicly condemned, and, swore to destroy as a rebuke of God’s purpose and presumed curse on his own willful talents – Salieri condemns himself to a fate worse than death. He is void of love – ethereal or otherwise – and plagued by a vengeance far more self-destructive and enduring than the swift end to which he has sent Mozart. In 1984, the Academy simply could not decide who had given the better performance; electing to nominate both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Best Actor and let the voting members of AMPAS decide. They chose Abraham who, in his acceptance speech declared, “Only one more thing could have made this evening complete…to have had Tom Hulce standing by my side” to which Hulce, from his seat in the auditorium, mouthed the words ‘thank you’ in reply. If animosity and competition between Salieri and Mozart was the order of the day, it was anything if nonexistent between Abraham and Hulce throughout the shoot, and particularly absent on this Oscar night.
In retrospect, Amadeus is very much a product of its time, disinterested with virtually all particulars when creating any authenticity outside its own marvelously achieved falsehoods. Hulce’s performance is especially of the moment – that moment very much catering to the social mores and mannerisms of youth circa, 1984; or as the studio’s clever marketing then declared, “the man…the madness…the music…the murder…everything you’ve heard is true!” Hulce’s own genius resides in conveying a sort of timeless aura of puckishness; the high-pitched cackle of a virtuoso, drunk on his own success and contemptuous of all those who would dare question its legitimacy; his awkward inability, unable and unwilling to assimilate into the culture of court life – farting on cue and engaging in ‘blue-humored’ parlor games that would make even a lowly scullery maid blush, much less the rigidly cultured boors who populate Joseph II’s court. And yet, Hulce shows great restraint in never going all the way with this performance. It so easily could have devolved into cheaply orchestrated ridiculousness, pantomime and/or rank parody.
The more subtly nuanced of the two is, of course, F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri; an enviable and sustained blend of simmering wrath and mildly amusing comedy. Like all truly magnificent villains who endure in our collective memory, Abraham’s court composer is infectiously mischievous as well as ill-advised. His evil stems from the core of a very sad and lonely individual. We can truly empathize with the way the cocoon of authority he has struggled to construct around himself is almost immediately questioned and all but dismissed by the young upstart, presumably poised to eclipse even his greatest personal triumphs. Here is a man who prayed to God for his talent – limited as it may be, compared to Mozart’s – but to have it recognized as such. For this wish, Salieri has sacrificed much and will, ultimately, give everything over to a devil’s sin as his devotion is turned asunder to avenge God’s betrayal of this promise he wholeheartedly believed was made in good faith and exclusively to him. Mozart’s death seals two fates – God’s little dynamo on earth destroyed – and Salieri’s chance to ever be redeemed into the gates of heaven. It is this sobering self-destruction that continues to linger as the houselights in the theater come up. It is also largely for this reason that Amadeus – the movie – has endured.
Milos Forman’s skilled direction of these dramatic sequences is counterbalanced by cosmetic interludes of lavishly appointed musical excerpts from Mozart’s operas, including whole portions from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Abduction from the Seraglio. Far from simply interrupting the story for an orchestral respite, the music inserted augments the emotional core of the drama it bookends. In hindsight, Amadeus is a prestige production in an era unaccustomed to the concept: Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, a vibrant tapestry that typifies the stately grandeur of ole Vienna. Patrizia von Brandenstein's production design is a minor miracle, immeasurably aided by Theodor Pistek's costumes. Amadeus may have absolutely nothing to do with reality, but it remains a superbly crafted revision of that life itself, a superior adaptation of a beloved stage work and ultimately, an exceptionally engaging entertainment besides - truly, one for the ages.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is of Forman’s director’s cut adds another 23 minutes of girth to the film’s already weighty runtime. In 1984, Forman removed this footage for the sake of the movie’s success – perhaps, understanding that any story about classical music was a stretch in the first place, and, the unlikeliest of candidates to catch the public’s appetite. The irony, of course, is that Amadeus did just that; raking in more than $51,973,029.00 in the U.S. alone. The imposition of these cuts to the movie’s theatrical release is forgivable; especially since the newly reinstated scenes on home video only serve to augment and enrich our movie-going experience with insightful embellishments. Warner’s Blu-Ray – one of their very first releases in hi-def – continues to be a standard bearer in the format, easily besting the original 2-disc collector’s set on DVD. In the days before Warner simply went for extravagant packaging, but scrimped on actual remastering, Amadeus in hi-def is a both vibrant and true to the theatrical experience. Color fidelity and saturation are superb; ditto for contrast levels, fine detail and a light smattering of indigenous film grain looking extremely natural. Flesh tones are particularly satisfying, as are reds - blood red – the overall image, more eye-popping and spectacular than ever.
Another revelation is the 5.1 PCM Dolby Digital audio. It is perhaps a minor regret, Warner never bothered to upgrade the experience to DTS. Nevertheless, what’s represented here accurately recaptures the acoustics of the theatrical release. Extras include an extensive look back at the making of the film, directly ported over from the 1996 deluxe LaserDisc release, an audio commentary from Forman and the film’s theatrical trailer; all of it contained in a handsome digipak design with an audio CD sampler of portions of the soundtrack, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)