The 1984 film Amadeus is about a man who learns, after it’s a bit too late to really do anything about it, that he is thoroughly mediocre.
When we first meet Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham), he’s an old man who has been confined to a mental asylum because he attempted to slit his own throat. What should drive Salieri — a respected, if not particularly beloved, composer in 18th Century Vienna — to attempt to take his own life? As he explains it to Father Vogler (Richard Frank), it’s the guilt of knowing that he’s responsible for death of the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
When Mozart (Tom Hulce) first showed up in Vienna, Salieri was already the court composer to the thoroughly vacuous Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). At the time, Salieri believed himself to be a genius touched by God. As he recounts to Father Vogler, he prayed to God when he was a boy and he struck what he believed was an ironclad deal. God would make Salieri a great composer and Salieri would remain a faithful believer.
But then Mozart shows up and, from the minute that he first hears one of Mozart’s compositions, Salieri realizes that Mozart is the one who has been blessed with genius. Mozart is the one who is writing the music that will be remembered for the rest of time, long after Salieri and all of his other rival composers have been forgotten. Upon first hearing Mozart, Salieri suddenly realizes that he has been betrayed by God. He is a mediocre talent and he’s always been a mediocre talent.
The worst part of it is not just that Mozart’s a genius. It’s also that Mozart knows he’s a genius. He’s a bit of a brat as well, with a remarkably annoying laugh and vulgar manners that scandalize proper society. Despite the efforts of his rivals to dismiss his talent, Mozart is beloved by the common people. He’s an 18th century rock star and it seems as if no amount of scandal and petty jealousy can slow him down. Even worse, the emperor takes a interest in Mozart and commissions him — and not Salieri — to write an opera.
Rejecting a God that he feels has betrayed him, Salieri plots Mozart’s downfall….
Goddamn, this is a great movie. Seriously, everything about Amadeus works.
The ornate sets and the costumes not only wonderful to look at but they also actually tell us something about the characters who inhabit them. One look at the beautiful but cluttered home that Mozart shares with his wife, Constanze (Elisabeth Berridge), tells you almost everything you need to know about not only Mozart’s tastes (which are expensive) but also his talent (which is undisciplined but also limitless). The empty-headedness of Emperor Joseph is perfectly mirrored by the pretty but uninspired decor of his court while the grubby chaos of the mental asylum seems to have sprung straight from Salieri’s tortured soul. As visualized in Amadeus, there’s a cold beauty to Vienna, one that is fascinating but, at the same time, menacing. As for the costumes, Mozart’s powdered wig somehow seems to be brighter than everyone else’s and his colorful wardrobe demands your attention. Meanwhile, when a costumed and masked Salieri shows up at Mozart’s door, he’s like the Grim Reaper coming to collect a soul.
The witty script is full of sharp lines and director Milos Forman does a wonderful job of balancing comedy and drama. The scenes involving Joseph II are frequently hilarious and Jeffrey Jones does a great job of portraying Joseph as essentially being a very influential dunce. The scene where Joseph tells Mozart that he liked his latest composition but that “there are simply too many notes” is a classic and one to which any artist, whether they’re Mozart or not, will be able to relate. (“Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”)
The film is dominated by the performances of F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. Hulce is wonderfully flamboyant in the early part of the film and, bravely, he doesn’t shy away from portraying Mozart as occasionally being a bit of a spoiled brat. It’s not just that Mozart can be annoying. It’s also that he’s often deliberately annoying. When we first see Mozart, it’s easy to understand why his very existence so grated on Salieri’s nerves and why Salieri considers him to be an “obscene child.” But as the film progresses, Hulce lets us in and we come to see that Mozart is actually a very vulnerable young man. When his disapproving father (Roy Dotrice) comes to visit, we suddenly understand both why Mozart is so driven to succeed but also why he is so instinctively self-destructive.
Meanwhile, F. Murray Abraham — well, what can I say about this performance? In the role of Salieri, Abraham gives one of the greatest film performances of all time. In many ways, Abraham has a tougher job than Hulce. If Hulce has to convince us that Mozart has been touched by genius despite the dumb things that he often does, Abraham has to make petty jealousy compelling. And somehow, Abraham manages to do just that. Whereas the role of Mozart allows Hucle to wear his emotions on the surface, Abraham has to play a character who keeps most of his thoughts and impulses hidden and the fact that we end up understanding Salieri (if never actually sympathizing with him) is a testament to F. Murray Abraham’s skill as an actor. Abraham won the Oscar for Best Actor for his work in Amadeus and it was more than deserved.
At the end of the film, Salieri declares himself to be the patron saint of mediocrities and, to a large extent, that’s what sets Amadeus apart from other biopics. Most people are mediocre. Most people are not going to end their life as a Mozart. They’re going to end their life as a Salieri or worse. This is one of the few films to be made about a runner-up. It’s interesting to note that, even though the film is more about Salieri than Mozart, it’s still called Amadeus. It’s not named Antonio or Salieri. Even in a film made about Salieri, Mozart is advertised as the main attraction.
(It should also be noted that many historians believe that Salieri and Mozart were actually fairly friendly acquaintances and that, beyond the normal rivalry that any two artists would feel, neither held any significant ill will towards the other. In other words, enjoy Amadeus as an outstanding piece of cinema but don’t necessarily mistake it for historical fact.)
Along with Abraham’s victory, Amadeus also won Best Picture of the year. Of the nominees, it certainly deserved it. (My pick for the best film of 1984 is Once Upon A Time In America with Amadeus as a close second.) It’s a great film and one that definitely deserves to be watched and rewatched.