AMADEUS (1984)

  • Director: Milos Forman
  • Writer: Peter Shaffer, based on his stage play
  • Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones, Charles Kay, Richard Frank, Patrick Hines, and Jonathan Moore
  • Accolades: 1998 AFI Top 100 list (#58), 8 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Milos Forman, Best Actor – F. Murray Abraham, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes, Best Sound, Best Makeup), 3 additional Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Tom Hulce, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Tubi App, buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

“I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am the patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you! I absolve you all!” These are the last lines of Amadeus, delivered by an increasingly crazy Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). This is perhaps the greatest cinematic exploration of some very specific themes, the relationship between the creator and the creation, the very nature of genius. We come to some themes over and over in the movies. The nature of love. Parent-child relationships. Maybe scientific hubris or heroism. Very few movies choose to take on what Amadeus does, and does very well. As a grand narrative arc, maybe it lacks something, but as an explication of some very specific things, it’s spectacular.

Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the real-life composer Antonio Salieri, who everyone believes is the greatest composer in 17th-century Vienna. But Salieri is cursed with the knowledge that the new wild child in town, one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), is the true genius. In his “Great Movies” essay on the movie, Roger Ebert wrote that the truly great make things look easy, the not-quite-great make things look like herculean efforts (he compares Kennedy and Nixon). Salieri slaves and slaves in utter devotion to his music, and he’ll never be as good as Mozart. He marvels at Mozart’s sheet music, astonished that there are no visible corrections. “It’s like he’s taking dictation from God,” Salieri notes. But what he can’t understand is what possible reason God could have to give incredible talent to the man-child Mozart, who likes to chase around his buxom wife (Elizabeth Berridge) on all fours on the floor and has a very loud, barking laugh that he unleashes at inappropriate moments, while leaving Salieri bereft.

And so Salieri spends much of the movie pretending to be Mozart’s friend while simultaneously sabotaging him. Some of Mozart’s famous operas open and quickly close, because Salieri laid the groundwork for them to fail, but he secretly attends every performance, sitting in awe. In the climactic and best scene of the movie, as Mozart lies dying of some unknown combination of crazy diseases, Salieri desperately takes dictation of Mozart’s last piece, trying to wring out one last masterpiece before the genius dies. Salieri plans to pass it off as his own work, but even that, we know, wouldn’t satisfy him. He hates that the talent was given to someone else, but not enough to deny the world the music that comes from that talent. In the end, his intense jealousy needs the music, or he has nothing. The story is being told by Salieri decades later, in a truly awful-looking madhouse, to a priest (Richard Frank) who has come to take his confession. Salieri insists that, somehow, he murdered Mozart, even though it’s clear that, if he did, it was only in a thematic sense. In fact, he has been cursed to live while Mozart died, watching as his own compositions are forgotten while the genius’ work lives on.

I found myself thinking about what other movie I could compare Amadeus to, and the weird link I came up with was to The Social Network. These are both movies that explore these themes about certain kinds of people, but also sometimes feel like they lack that big movie narrative arc. Which is to say, what plot there is, is there to illustrate the characters, and not the other way around, and in the end we’re left sort of chewing on what we just saw rather than feeling some specific emotion the movie wants to program into us. This is less a story than it is a meditation on the nature of human creativity. That doesn’t make me like it any less, I should say.

I first saw Amadeus in a high school Film Study class I took one time, supposedly as part of a unit on how costumes and makeup worked to support other parts of movies. And, yep, it is a massive costume drama, with everyone wearing these crazy wigs, hats, and 18th-century rich people frippery. This version of Mozart often wears a pink wig, and it’s common for all the girls to sport décolletage so impressive that I’m left not quite understanding how the various dresses actually stay on. Director Milos Forman, who had defected from Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Prague Spring in 1968, was allowed to return to Prague by the communist regime for the purpose of shooting the movie in the medieval center of Prague. Many of the performance scenes are actually shot in the original Prague theater where some of Mozart’s operas, including Don Giovanni, first debuted. 

Yet one of the reasons the movie actually works is not because of the period details but instead because of the way it feels universal. All of the leads are cast with American actors, who don’t use modern colloquialisms, necessarily, but feel very down to earth beneath the powdered wigs. Before winning a very sought-after role, Tom Hulce was best known to the world at large for a part in Animal House. According to legend, Forman had originally wanted to cast Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, which honestly based on Hamill’s subsequent persona I can 100% picture, but the studio felt that he was so identified with Star Wars that people wouldn’t take him seriously in the role. The great Jeffrey Jones, known mostly for playing jerks in comedies like Beetlejuice and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, plays against type as the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II. He has made all the rules that Mozart pushes against, but likes Mozart (and his music) enough to put up with him in spite of himself. Whenever he starts to put his foot down, Mozart says something like, “Well, just let me play the beginning for you,” and he can’t resist.

You could make a historically accurate biography of Mozart, and it would probably be pretty interesting. This is not that. There is no evidence of some big historical rivalry between Salieri and Mozart, or that Salieri was jealous of Mozart at all. If you go down the rabbit hole, it looks like the Russian writer Alexander Pushkin first wrote a story about this in the 1800s, and the idea of the two as these rivals has come down through the years. For his part, playwright Peter Shaffer, whose Tony-winning play was the basis for the movie, called it a “Fantasia on the Theme of Mozart and Salieri.” In other words, this is not a movie with any particular interest in historical accuracy. 

Anyway, for me the genius of this movie is in it not just deciding to be a biopic. It’s about Salieri hating this guy, while not being able to shake the fact that his music will never be as good. No matter how many people tell Salieri he’s the greatest composer, he knows, in his heart, that’s not true. There could easily be a crappy version of this story where Salieri is a villain, but that’s not this. There are some of us, who obsess all the time about whether we’re making a historical mark or if we’re just mediocrities, for whom Abraham’s character, and this movie in general, are a cultural touchstone. I realize that’s not everyone, but, um, it’s me. There are a lot of movies about geniuses. There’s another not-great version of this movie that’s basically A Beautiful Mind, but with music. Instead, this movie is about a normal person gradually going mad in the face of genius, and to me that’s way more interesting.

Amadeus cleaned up at the Oscars in its year, winning Best Picture and seven other awards. It remains the last movie to date to receive two nominations (for both Abraham and Hulce) in the Best Actor category, as Judas and the Black Messiah achieved this year in Best Supporting Actor category. Composer Maurice Jarre, after winning the Best Original Score award for A Passage to India, quipped in his acceptance speech that he was lucky Mozart wasn’t eligible in the category that year. But I do get the impression that today, as the people who saw it when it came out get older and older, Amadeus is increasingly less-watched. It made it to #58 on the 1998 version of the AFI Top 100 list, but a decade later fell off completely for reasons that are unclear to me. I would really recommend it to everyone, it’s a personal favorite, not to mention the first movie in my lifetime to win a Best Picture award, so that’s something.

A quick word on the different versions of the movie that are currently available. The original theatrical version was rated PG and ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. However, the only version I could actually find on streaming was the Director’s Cut, released by Forman in 2002. It adds another 20 minutes or so, getting up to three hours if you count the closing credits, and interestingly is rated R. That’s probably because the biggest addition is a sequence that explains why Mozart’s wife hates Salieri as much as she does. She comes to him asking for help getting Mozart a well-paying teaching appointment, and Salieri agrees, but with a heavy-handed hint that the price for his help is for her to sleep with him. However, when she actually shows up that evening and starts undressing, he panics and calls for a servant, leaving her to desperately cover up. We get the sense that he didn’t actually expect her to do it. Her bare breasts seem to be the primary reason for the rating difference. Forman claims that he originally made the cuts in desperation in an attempt to allow the movie to play more times in a day and be more likely to make its money back. He needn’t have worried. With a budget of $18 million, it made $55 million in its first month in release. Today, one gets the sense that Amadeus would be a prestige Netflix series or something, but I pretty much like it the way it is.

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