Sunday, November 29, 2015

Amadeus (1984)

Director: Milos Forman                                 Writer: Peter Shaffer
Film Score: W.A. Mozart                               Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge and Jeffrey Jones

Forget Titanic. Forget Lord of the Rings. Milos Forman’s Amadeus is the greatest film going experience of all time. I have never watched a lot of films in the theater, but this is one I thankfully attended at the time, and that experience has stayed with me my entire life. This is a film that is able to transport the viewer back in time like no other has before or since. It’s little surprise that art directors Patrizia von Brandenstein and Karel Cerný won Oscars for their work, or that the film itself won seven more that year. Forman shot the film primarily in the Czech Republic as well as Vienna, and the old buildings and cobblestone streets come to life under the director’s touch as the viewer watches the unfolding of greatness in Mozart’s last great period of composition. And surrounding it all is the magnificent music of Mozart as it fills the theater with the sound of genius. What is so magnificent about the film is the attention to detail in bringing the past to life. Today, much of that work would be done with computer imagery and color manipulation. And it would show. The natural light that Milos Forman and cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek worked with is so real and so believable that it surpasses anything that could, or would, be made today. The film rightly won the Academy Award for best picture in 1984 against a very strong field.

The film begins at the end of the life of Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria. Abraham attempts to commit suicide by cutting his throat, and so a priest, Richard Frank, is called in to hear his confession. The bulk of the film is told in flashback as the aging composer tells of his love/hate relationship with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played by Tom Hulce, the greatest classical music composer of all time. Abraham’s torment is that Mozart died young, at age 34, and his music continued to grow more and more celebrated while he lived to old age and found his music dismissed and forgotten in his lifetime. Abraham’s confession centers on the rumor that he killed the great composer. He speaks briefly of the childhood of Mozart, contrasting it with his own. On the death of his father, however, Abraham was thrust into the world of music and eventually became the court composer in Vienna. After Hulce, as Mozart, plays a performance there, the Emperor, Jeffrey Jones, decides to keep him in Vienna, and Hulce begins composing operas for the national theater. Shortly after his first opera appears, Hulce marries Elizabeth Berridge, at first as full of life and energy as her young husband. All the while Abraham is working behind the scenes to destroy the composer’s career as a way of getting back at god for not giving him the talent, only the ability to recognize it in Mozart.

One of the incredibly smart decisions that Milos Forman made was in hiring very good actors who did not have much notoriety at this point in their careers. F. Murray Abraham had done a series of guest spots on TV shows and bit parts in films over the previous decade. This part brought him not only worldwide acclaim but an Academy Award for best actor. And it is a magnificent performance. He of course plays the young Salieri to Hulce’s Mozart, but the most impressive part of his performance is as the old Salieri, at once childish and frighteningly bent on the other composer’s destruction. If ever a film performance deserved the Oscar, it was this one. Tom Hulce had been working in much the same manner as Abraham, his most memorable role to this point as the innocent pledge in Animal House. His playfulness and slightly manic performance won him an Oscar nomination as well. Jeffrey Jones had also been doing television guest spots and brings a perfect note of authenticity to his performance as the Emperor, while this was an early effort by Elizabeth Berridge who was unable to leverage her appearance in the film into a career and has, ironically, been consigned to television work ever since. Simon Callow, who appears as a friend of Mozart in the film, played the part of Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s original play, which Milos Forman had seen and immediately set about acquiring the rights to. Shaffer won a Tony Award after the play appeared on Broadway, as well as an Oscar for his screenplay.

Costume design, also a major aspect in achieving the amazing sense of realism in the film, was awarded an Oscar for the work done by Theodor Pistek. Paul LeBlanc and Dick Smith were similarly recognized for their make up work in transforming Abraham, as were the team that brought Mozart’s incredible music to life on the soundtrack. The film won eight Oscars in all, out of eleven total nominations. The greatest vindication of his work was Milos Forman’s Oscar win for direction, having already earned the award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a decade earlier. The film was not one that studios were interested in financing. The director said himself that in the age of MTV even he wasn’t sure people would want to sit through a two and a half hour film about classical music. As such, he cut out everything from the film that wasn’t directly related to the plot, which is part of what makes the film so great. As a result, this is one of many instances when the director’s cut, which adds an additional twenty minutes to the running time, doesn’t add up to a better film. In this case the theatrical release is the preferred version. The soundtrack album, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, was also a big hit and also helped to spur new interest in Mozart’s music. Amadeus has yet to see a major re-release in theaters for some time. Hopefully that will change soon as it is one of the truly magical experiences cinema has to offer.

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