May 26, 2024

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AFI Countdown Challenge #53: Amadeus

One man's jealousy over another man's natural talent in 18th century Vienna.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first:  Amadeus is not a particularly factual retelling of the life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  As pointed out by, among others, Lisa Simpson, Mozart worked very hard on his compositions, Antonio Salieri was fairly well-respected, and Salieri likewise respected Mozart a great deal.

However, that doesn’t make for great drama, so here’s the 1984 film adaptation of the play by the guy who wrote Equus.

You know, I remarked back in the Sound of Music write-up how much that film has seeped into the pop culture consciousness even for people who haven’t seen it.  As it is, Amadeus has as well, not just with The Simpsons, but also with, of all things, Family Guy.

That’s fine, but arguably Amadeus is a biography of Mozart by way of Sid and Nancy.  Mozart really is a cautionary tale for the rock’n’roll lifestyle.  He parties, he spends more money than he makes, he has relationship problems, and he dies young and penniless.  The music may be classical, but the story is very familiar.

Oddly enough, the aforementioned Simpsons episode had Marge Simpson describe Mozart the exact same way, and it really is an apt way to describe this film.

As it is, the film is as much about Salieri as it is about Mozart.  As the film progresses, we see less and less of Salieri and his narrating events as a framing devise and more and more of Mozart as he gradually deteriorates to an early death.

That actually makes sense as Mozart the person and composer goes on to eclipse that of Salieri.

That said, I think Salieri might be the more compelling character.  He is the narrator, and actor F. Murray Abraham did beat his co-star Tom Hulce for the Best Actor Oscar.  And that seems odd since, as great as this film is, it didn’t really have any star-making turns from any of the members of the cast.  Abraham, Hulce, and a number of others never exactly stopped working, but none really went A-list.  In this way, Abraham reminds me of another Oscar winning performance in a film by director Milos Forman, namely Louise Fletcher from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  She’s been working steadily too, but again, was never really a major movie star.

As much as Abraham embodies the man who worked hard to get where he was only to see a natural talent surpass him, it may be Tom Hulce as Mozart who makes the more memorable performance.  Braying loudly and obnoxiously, Mozart comes across as an uncultured child, spoiled but yearning for his father’s acceptance.  He has an arc in the film, growing sadder and less idealistic as the film progresses, even apologizing to Salieri on his deathbed, but as I watched the film, it reminded me of Othello with Salieri in the role of an Iago figure.  He’s the false friend, the one who sabotages Mozart as much as he can out of jealousy, and yet Salieri can and does appreciate Mozart’s work.  He’s a pious man who believes God did not answer his prayers, instead punishing him by giving the ability to a crass asshole.

So, if there are no star-making turns, who is the star of Amadeus?  Arguably, there are two:  Mozart’s actual music that plays throughout the film, and director Milos Forman.

Forman, who died recently, had a keen eye for outsiders and rebels.  All of his best known work reflects that interest, and as much as Mozart may be a side character to Salieri’s pain, it is the flamboyant Mozart who becomes the focus of the film.  Salieri may conclude in his state of madness that he is nothing more than a mediocrity, but Forman punctuates the story with insightful cut-aways, perfectly placed musical cues, and a way of filming Mozart’s operas in a way that shows the spectacle that was 18th century Vienna.  One noteworthy scene featured Mozart, after quitting a job teaching a young noblewoman to play when it seemed he was playing more for the woman’s father’s dogs, walking home through a street teeming with performers:  animal acts, jugglers, musicians, and one composer.  Salieri’s father compared young Mozart to a trained monkey, and while Mozart may be a clown, he resists doing the sorts of things that most composers in this era do:  take students, get a patron, or even follow the rules.

It is that rule-breaking that ultimately makes Mozart’s legacy.  He writes operas that break the law, that defy customs, and he gets away with it because his work is just that good.  It also means he focuses only on his music and the other concerns that he should have (such as his personal finances and overall health) are neglected in favor of writing music and partying.  When it becomes too late to make himself respectable, he nearly loses it all as his loyal wife Constanze actually takes their son and (temporarily) leaves him.  He was obsessed with a man dressed like his late father; she was the one who knew it wasn’t really a ghost.  He was bound and determined to produce work; she was the one who eventually realized he needed to ask for money up-front.  And it was she who knew he needed to actually have a regular paying job, to the point where she would have slept with Salieri to get just that.  Salieri declines, but he did suggest it in the first place.

Is this really how determined mediocrity reacts to natural genius?  Who can say?  But it’s what we have here, and it provides a fascinating (if fictional) look into another time that may not be that far removed from our own.  It’s just our famous party animal musicians don’t really write for orchestras anymore.

NEXT UP:  Let’s skip back to 1953 and check in on the most romantic movie ever about Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity.