Amadeus – Director’s Cut
Director: Milos Forman / Screenplay: Peter Shaffer / Editing: Michael Chandler & T. M. Christopher / DP: Miroslav Ondrícek / Musical Supervisor: Sir Neville Marriner
Cast: F. Murray Abraham / Tom Hulce / Elizabeth Berridge / Roy Dotrice / Simon Callow / Christine Ebersole / Jeffrey Jones / Charles Kay / Kenneth McMillan / Kenny Baker / Patrick Hines / Cynthia Nixon / Brian Pettifer / Vincent Schiavelli / Douglas Seale
Rock Me, Amadeus…
What is there to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, that hasn’t already been chewed-over ad-nauseum since his untimely death at the age of thirty-five, back in 1791? A genius composer of everything from Requiems to Operas, Mozart’s output has become revered, not just for its inventive quality, but for its impact on popular culture.
Which is precisely the headache that writer Peter Shaffer faced, having decided to write about the man. The answer, as ever, lay in the angle chosen. For what Shaffer had discovered – the germ of his idea – was to approach the mountain of received wisdom, not by a straightforward route, as so many before him had attempted & failed. Instead, his research had uncovered the supposed love-hate relationship between Amadeus and Antonio Salieri, the official ‘Court Composer’ to the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II.
This was to prove an overlooked pathway that led to the very summit.
Whilst contemporary artists have opportunities on the Web for attracting audiences and, in-turn, securing incomes, back in Eighteenth century Vienna, live music was the sole outlet for a practising musician. Anything was considered, from recitals and musical theatre, to new compositions taken as commissions. Tutoring young pupils from families wealthy enough to pay one’s fees, was another route one might follow if, as Amadeus, your main passion lay in composition.
It also helped, if you could summon deference & guile when it came to dealing with one’s patrons and selling new material. In other words, the canny artist, writer or composer would increase their chances of prospering, by first studying the market, then balancing their creative impulse with ‘giving the people what they want’.
Shaffer paints Salieri as someone who had that covered. An Italian, Salieri’s native artistic culture was perceived to be ‘higher’ in-worth & esteem than that of Austria’s, so he enjoyed a life of wealth, prestige and influence at-court. He had it all: including an ego that, according to Shaffer’s account, would never admit (at least publicly) to the innate genius of his Austrian rival. In Shaffer’s writing, the bitterness filling Salieri’s heart became all-consuming, with him taking every opportunity to thwart Amadeus’ advancement when offered.
Shaffer uses this as his way in to Amadeus’s story. Of course, this is being told by Salieri in-flashback; a viewpoint that’s always problematic, for it suggests an ‘unreliable narrator’, who tells the viewer only what they wish to impart: it’s a viewpoint that lacks objectivity. But it does give Shaffer a pass, because historical research into Salieri’s own claims in this matter, have themselves been hard to verify. Therefore, Shaffer’s original stage-play and the subsequent picture, are themselves unreliable artefacts, worthy of being treated merely as entertainment, rather than historical veritas.
But what entertainment!
Assembled under the benevolent producer Saul Zaentz, the lavish production chose Forman’s native Prague to double for Vienna. It was a wise decision, as decades of Communist rule since WWII had left the place largely untouched, with minimal set dressing required to create a convincing mise-en-scéne. This was essential, if Shaffer’s play was to migrate to the screen.
Casting would also be vital, as both its director, Czech emigre Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The People vs. Larry Flynt) and Zaentz realised they were dealing with a timeless, archetypal story; one that might be weakened, were it to feature high-profile stars (plus it’d scrimp a little out of the budget). So, after much deliberation, they went with F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. An intelligent, charismatic actor, Abraham had just come off De Palma’s Scarface, so wasn’t exactly an unknown face, but to watch him sink into the role so completely, is to watch someone discover one of life’s darkest truths in real-time. It’s a compelling performance.
For at the heart of Salieri’s character, lays a third-rate talent for composition but a first-rate ear for music. He knows perfection for what it is: he just can’t achieve it himself.
Watching someone achieve effortlessly, what you find so painful and difficult? That’s going to gnaw you from the inside-out if you’re not careful and to watch Abraham deal with this realisation, is to squirm in recognition of one’s own perceived failings. It’s a universal complaint and one reason why we find Salieri’s dilemma so compelling and relatable.
On the other hand, Tom Hulce plays Mozart with an impish buffoonery. I have no idea whether his singular take on the character was based on contemporary accounts, but in Forman’s picture, he reminds me of an anachronous rock-star. There’s an over-worn naiveté when it comes to money, etiquette or what passed for ‘Society’ in period Vienna. A boorish spirit of nature, Amadeus romps on all fours in the Bishop’s palace, with his fiancé Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). Appears to favour parties and the ‘demon drink’ over his young family and wears pink-tinted wigs for their shock value, like some proto-punk. Again, I have no idea whether this is based on fashions of the day or is a whim of the production, but it emboldens Hulce. It gives him licence to expand upon the notion of Amadeus as a crude buffoon, who’s willing to puncture the stuffy self-regard in which the Court holds itself: and we love him all the more for it.
Look at the Emperor Joseph (Jones). This straight-faced automaton of a character actually likes what this young man is creating and admires his spirited defence of the work, against the advice of his courtiers, yet can’t bring himself to have it banned, under his own laws of censorship! Little wonder that Salieri is portrayed as hating this maverick; a character won’t to undermine the Establishment through sheer talent, rather than any skill at negotiating Courtly politics.
As the feud deepens between the two leads, Shaffer cleverly expands the notion that only Salieri was working to undermine his rival. Amadeus, it seems, had nothing but respect for the man, having apparently mistaken genuine twists of Fate as being the work of his ‘friend’.
Only at the end, is Salieri’s true nature revealed when, as the debauched Master lays dying, Salieri takes dictation of the final Requiem. Look at how greedily he soaks-up this last work and struggles to get it down onto manuscript. He hates Mozart-the-man and
loves adores his work. Throughout the picture, Salieri has demonstrated scant regard for passion or animation, yet here he is, both passionate and animated, as he urges Amadeus unto deliverance. He might’ve given the man succour. He might’ve cared for him; nurtured him back to health out of guilt or, at the very least, compassion but… As written, Salieri is driven by impulses as dark as Mozart’s were dazzling.
Yet it’s Constanze, who will ensure the legacy continues to torture Salieri into a disgruntled old-age, long after his own corpus has faded to insignificance.
There’s so much to admire here. Forman’s DP Miroslav Ondrícek (a regular collaborator & fellow Czech) photographs it all with deft authority, especially scenes in the ‘Viennese opera house’ (Prague, remember), which glows amber from the candle-lit chandeliers. A wintry shoot, also gives scope for suggestions of needling cold, beyond cosy fireplaces. Zaentz hired Sir Neville Marriner as music supervisor and his spirited interpretations of both Mozart’s and Salieri’s work really shimmer in playback. Let us not forget a wide ensemble of supporting actors; each of whom creates an indelible impression. Here is a gallery of individual faces. None are out of place. Each one belongs here, in Eighteenth Century Vienna. There were Oscars all-round, of course, for a grand picture that won hearts and minds and introduced a new audience to Amadeus’ music.
And it’s the music that stands above everything. Or, rather, it’s Shaffer’s dialogue, given to Salieri, that describes not just the work itself, but what it might feel like to experience, for the first time, work you instinctively recognise as being great. As Salieri confesses to a priest, as an old man, his face and energy light-up with enthusiasm as he talks about the work. You can see the appreciation in another’s art, almost despite himself.
I watched the 2002 Director’s Cut for this review, that restored twenty minutes of excised material to proceedings, among which were two key scenes. The First, showed exactly how & why Amadeus would never settle for taking-on private tuition, but I found the Second more intriguing. Desperate for ‘Wolfie’ to secure a position, Constanze allows herself to be humiliated by Salieri. In the end, he’s so startled by her grand demonstration of love for her husband, that he turns her away in a state of deshabille. Salieri is repulsed by that which he has foresworn and can never reclaim: love. In pledging his life to a Muse who appears deaf to his entreaties, Salieri can’t believe in his own mediocrity and loneliness.
So he begins a feud with someone, who’s already soaring yet remains, tantalisingly Earthbound.
Chamberlain: ‘You’re not the only Composer in Vienna.’
Mozart: ‘No. But I’m the best!’