Friday, November 21, 2014

Amadeus (Best Picture of 1984)

Amadeus is probably one of my all-time favorite movies. I think I have watched it half-a-dozen times atleast. And the funny thing is, because there are so many things going on in this movie there is always something new to see and enjoy. This last time I watched it, for example, I kept my eye on the costumes and the scenery. I knew that the movie was filmed in Prague, which stood in for Vienna, but to actually look at the actual streets, and the buildings, and homes from that era...! At the end of the film there is a credit that tells us that some scenes were filmed at the Tyr Theatre, the actual theatre where Don Giovanni had its premiere on October 29, 1787. And the Czechoslovakian Cardinal's residence played the part of Emperor Joseph's palace. The level of opulence...and history! It just makes a great film even better.

And Amadeus is a great film. It tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his final years, scratching out an existence in Vienna. Really, however, it is the story of Antonio Salieri, court composer to Emperor Joseph. It is a highly fictionalize account of how Salieri supposedly thwarted Mozart at every turn because he was jealous of Mozart's talent. Although almost no historical data survives to support this theory, and certain facts absolutely dispute this (Salieri being present when Mozart dies, for instance) it still makes a good story...and a great film! Truly, Salieri suffered from dementia at the end of his life. So perhaps he really did believe that he was responsible for Mozart's death, irregardless of the facts?

Salieri was a devout Catholic and believes that his musical talent was a gift from God. He is in awe of Mozart, who, although several years younger, is already making a name for himself as a musical genius. However, when Salieri finally meets his idol, he is disappointed to find that he is crass, vulgar, arrogant, and rude. He hopes that the rumors he has heard of Mozart's talent are unfounded. Later, when he gets a chance to see for himself several of Mozart's hand-written compositions, though, this is irrefutable proof of Mozart's genius. Instead of being in awe, however, Salieri is jealous. He angrily vows to God that he will thwart His vessel, because God only gave Salieri the ability to recognize Mozart's talent, not to match it.
The rest of the film is a series of scenes of Mozart trying to gain acceptance at Court or to make money off of his compositions, and Salieri secretly blocking him at every opportunity. One particularly dramatic scene is when Salieri tells Mozart's wife that in order to attain a Court appointment for her husband, she would have to sleep with him (Salieri). She begins to disrobe, but after she removes most of her clothes he throws her out. She is desperate enough to help her husband by compromising her morals, but Salieri is only intent on embarrassing her, knowing she will never tell her husband what he had done to her.

Eventually Salieri come up with his master plan: commission a Requiem from Mozart in secret, and after he receives it from Mozart, he will kill him and then present the composition as his own. Salieri dons a costume to remind Mozart of his dead father (and to conceal his true identity) and pays him a visit in the middle of the night. Mozart is freaked out by the costume, and although he begins working on the Requiem, he begins to think that it is somehow his own death he is writing it for. Finally, during a performance of The Magic Flute, Mozart collapses. Salieri, who secretly attended all of Mozart's operas, has him carried back to his apartment. There the two men work together on the Requiem. This is my favorite scene of the film, as Mozart "conducts" the separate instruments and voices heard in his head as Salieri tries frantically to keep up with his dictation. It's a wonderfully filmed scene and shows beautifully the process necessary to create music, especially to people like me with only rudimentary musical skills.  

In the end Mozart dies, but Salieri is not able to steal the Requiem. Several years later, in a pique of delusion, Salieri tries to kill himself, blaming himself for the death of Mozart. At the end of the film he embraces his mediocrity, even blessing the young priest who has listened all night to his tale.

What more needs to be said? The story is gripping. The costumes are spectacular. The make-up is fantastic. The locales are historically accurate. And the music...! Oh, yeah, I should probably talk about the music and the operas. Bits and pieces of dozens of Mozart's pieces are played or performed throughout the film. Even before I bought this movie, I had bought the sound-track. In fact, I bought the cassette tape back in 1985 and played it until it wore out. Then I bought the CD a few years ago to replace it. I'm listening to it right now! I read that the sound-track is one of the best selling classical music CDs of all time. Personally I love it. And although I have never seen an opera, if I ever go I would like see either The Marriage of Figaro or Don Giovanni, because both they are featured so prominently in this film.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as Mozart were both nominated for Best Actor for their roles, with Abraham winning. Hulce had the more difficult role: to make an arrogant, self-centered egoist insecure over his talent into a sympathetic character. At the very end, when he is literally on his deathbed, he has his greatest scene. He realizes that Salieri has always appreciated his talent, even though he had always treated him with disdain. Of course, Abraham as Salieri had the meatier role, as he has to pretend to be sympathetic while actually doing evil. He does a fantastic job, especially as he is in the vast majority of the scenes. He absolutely deserved to win Best Actor.

Amadeus was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won eight. Besides Best Picture and Best Actor it was awarded Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (for Peter Shaffer, who adapted his own play), Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, and Best Make-Up. 

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1984*
Produced by Saul Zaentz
Directed  by Milos Forman
Screenplay by Peter Shaffer
Based on his play 

Everything you've heard is true.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Killing Fields
A Passage To India
Places In the Heart
A Soldier's Story
This was a great year for Hollywood, as all of these nominees are excellent. The Killing Fields is the painful story of The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during The Viet Nam War. Sam Waterston was nominated for his leading performance, but his co-star, amateur actor but real-life Cambodian survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor, won Best Supporting Actor. A Passage To India is the film based on one of my favorite books on cross-cultural relations, a beautiful tale by E. M. Forster. I like to think of it as the book-end to Gandhi, as it tells the troubles of British citizens living in Colonial India. Peggy Ashcroft won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mrs. More. Places In the Heart is the melodrama starring Sally Fields, John Malkovich, and Danny Glover. Malkovich was nominated for Best Supporting Actor; Fields won Best Actress and made her famous "..You like me. Right now you  like me" acceptance speech. And A Soldier's Story is the melodrama about murder on an Army base which features riveting performances from Howard E. Rollins, Jr and Supporting Actor nominee Adolph Caesar.

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