Milos Forman was invited to see “Amadeus” on stage and dreaded the idea of watching a period piece about classical music. In fact, he said he couldn’t think of anything more boring. That’s exactly how I felt about the prospect of watching a nearly three-hour retelling of a composer’s life. Not only am I not (necessarily) a fan of period movies, I also don’t like classical music. Just as Forman was bowled over by the stage version of AMADEUS, however, so was I by his Oscar-winning 1984 film.
It’s not surprising to learn that no major studio was interested in financing a long biopic about a classical music composer, but AMADEUS got made. And then it went on to receive a total of eleven Academy Award nominations winning eight including Best Picture and Best Director. The movie was not a commercial success, however, by certain standards. In fact, it joined a select group of Best Picture Academy Award winners never to crack the box office top 5. (IMDB)
Despite the complexities of Milos Forman’s film, which is a sensual feast on many levels the purpose of this post is to laud the performance of F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri – one of my all-time favorites. And I will laud it by describing just one scene. However, there are other fantastic performances in the film – most notably those delivered by Tom Hulce who was also nominated in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Elizabeth Berridge as Constanze, Mozart’s wife.
I’d be remiss not to (at least) mention the editing and the music in AMADEUS as well because without them none of the performances would have been as memorable. Editing is key (and in this case outstanding) since the story is told by way of flashbacks as Antonio Salieri recalls his association (and obsession) with Mozart. In addition the music brings all of the scenes to life, real-life orchestrations that serve to bridge the past and the present. As Salieri remembers we listen to what he hears in his head – Mozart’s compositions, which are glorious even to one who doesn’t like classical music.
AMADEUS is an extraordinary achievement, a film that still feels fresh and modern despite the period costumes, lavish sets, personalities and era depicted. The reason for that is its theme, which is universal and timeless. Envy, after all, is unlikely to ever go out of style.
An old Antonio Salieri sits in an asylum quietly playing notes on a piano when a young priest walks in to hear the old man’s confession, the confession of a “soul in pain.” The priest offers Salieri God’s forgiveness and the old man retorts, by way of flashbacks that tell the story of his growing bitterness and envy, that it is God who must ask for his forgiveness. All Salieri ever wanted was the musical gift to achieve glory. Instead God had given him the talent of a second-rate composer and dangled greatness just beyond Salieri’s reach by allowing him the ear to recognize it – the sounds created by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a vulgar, puerile creature through whose music God spoke.
“All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me all the longing and then made me mute.”
Increasingly, Salieri grows putrid with anger and resentment toward a God that would choose an obscene child to be his instrument.
And while Salieri loathes Mozart he is also drawn to him – to his music – with the longing of a deprived beast.
Antonio Salieri achieves success in the musical city of Vienna, a success he is satisfied with until Mozart’s music in shoved in his face. He’s become court composer for Emperor Joseph, a position that allows him influence and the Emperor’s ear. Salieri would use that influence to sabotage Mozart’s professional opportunities as well, all but guaranteeing the genius would remain persona non grata in Viennese society. And as the opportunity presents itself he pretends to be an advisor and confidant to the man who repulses him.
While everyone recognizes Mozart’s talent and his operas are beloved by Emperors, Kings and common people alike, operas don’t put food on the table. Mozart needs steady work and with Salieri honed in on him it’s unlikely he’ll make anything of himself in Vienna.
“…here was the very voice of God. I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes…at an absolute beauty.”
It is both Antonio Salieri and pride that keep Mozart from a royal appointment as music instructor to the Emperor’s niece. The Emperor is willing to offer him the position outright, but Salieri convinces the magistrate that precedence should be set, not favoritism. Mozart must be required to submit samples of his work for review just like everyone else, which doesn’t sit well with the composer. To Mozart the mere thought of having a committee of mediocre musicians judge his work is insulting. So much so that he’d rather do without a wage. But his wife, Constanze feels differently and decides to go see Salieri behind her husband’s back so that the court composer can review Mozart’s work and recommend him for the royal appointment. Constanze is unaware that Salieri despises her husband.
Salieri is intrigued when Mrs. Mozart comes to call on him, but resists taking a look at the sheets of music on principle. Mozart will have to wait in line like everyone else. It takes no time at all, however, before lust gets the better of him when Constanze mentions the sheet music in the notebook she’s brought with her are originals – handwritten by Mozart. The music begins to play as Salieri picks up the notebook. He steps away from Constanze, already lost in the music, in what he describes as “absolute beauty.” Here, before him, crude sketches on paper is the work of sheer brilliance. Without one correction.
“It was beyond belief.”
Remembering the moment as an old man, Salieri recounts what he saw. Straight from his head Mozart had created ecstasy, an ecstasy that both elated and poured salt on Salieri’s wounded soul.
“On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God.”
And as the old man tells the priest of the moment we see him feeling it – all of it…
Struggling with his own torment – the disbelief that turns to anger which turns to astonishment which turns to lust which turns to pure love and finally to pure sorrow. Much like one in the throes of passion in some way – perhaps struggling with a lover until there’s no choice but to succumb. Exhausted. And so it is, indeed, that after the music reaches its height the sheets fall from Salieri’s hands. Complete and utter surrender.
Astonishingly and convincingly the scene is sexual, erotic – from crescendo to climax. Despite the fact that the actor plays opposite sheets of paper.
When Salieri turns back to look at Constanze he has nothing left. Seeing the papers fall she longingly asks if the work is not good. The defeated Salieri responds, “it is miraculous.”
I don’t remember ever seeing such intimacy captured on film. It is miraculous.
This is my entry to the ‘Actors’ week of the 2015 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. Please be sure to visit the other host sites – Outspoken and Freckled, Paula’s Cinema Club and Once Upon a Screen throughout the month to read many more posts dedicated to Oscar notables.
ALSO – be sure to tune in to TCM every day until March 3 as the network celebrates the ‘History of the Oscars’ for the 20th installment of the 31 Days of Oscar festival, which inspired our blogathon. And you may want to tune in to the 87th Academy Awards – or, rather The Oscars – on February 22 at 7 pm est. on ABC.