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Based loosely on the lives of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most revered composers of all time, and Antonio Salieri, the once respected but long-since forgotten court composer of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, Austria, in the latter years of the 18th century, Amadeus (1984) is a not a traditional historical drama in any sense of the term. Peter Shaffer's 1979 play and subsequent screenplay adaptation, partially inspired by a 19th century play by Alexander Pushkin and subsequent opera by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, takes the lives of these artists as a starting point for a highly fictionalized drama of envy and audacity; it's the anguished cry of a cultured artist with aspirations beyond his talents who declares war against a crude, boorish young man who has been graced with the genius he so desperately craves.
The story of Salieri's pathological jealousy and scheming attempts to sabotage Mozart's reputation and career is historically dubious to say the least--historians have noted that their professional rivalry was also marked by mutual respect and they even collaborated on a (now lost) cantata--and his "mediocrity" a matter of context. Salieri was an influential composer and teacher in his day, no genius but a consistent creator of popular works whose work (like those of so many of his contemporaries) fell out of favor while the undeniably magnificent work of Mozart became part of the classical canon. But it is that contrast between the revered and the forgotten that makes Amadeus so compelling, with the aging artist living out his life in the shadow of the dead Mozart and recounting the story of how he killed Mozart (or so he says) to a dubious priest.
The play debuted in London in 1979, with Paul Scofield as Salieri, Simon Callow as Mozart, and Felicity Kendal as Constanze, Mozart's provincial wife. It made its Broadway premiere in 1980, with Ian McKellen as Salieri, Tim Curry as Mozart and Jane Seymour as Constanze and eventually earned five Tony Awards. Film director Milos Forman was in the audience of its first London preview and immediately declared his wish to bring it to the screen. "When I asked [director Milos Forman] what he would do with the piece, he replied that a film based on a play is actually a new work, an entirely different fulfillment of the same impulse that had created the original," recalled Schaffer. "The adaptor's task was to explore many variant paths in order to arrive in the end at the same emotional place, and that the director must collaborate with the author in order to achieve this." The process took several months and while the story and flashback structure (framed by Salieri's confession that he killed Mozart) remained the same, the finished screenplay differed significantly from the original play in many other respects. Shaffer's play used distinctively theatrical devices and stylized approaches designed for the stage. For the screen, Forman took a more "realistic" and less expressionistic approach to telling the story.
It's safe to say that few (if any) of the audience members of this highly popular film had even heard of Salieri before the credits rolled, but Mozart is a name that resonates even with those who can't name one of his compositions. As illustrated in the opening scenes of Amadeus, it takes but a few notes to call up works that have long since become part of the musical landscape of our culture. But it's not, strictly speaking, envy that drives Salieri. It's a sense of betrayal that he, who has worked so hard honing his skills and talents and who has the capacity to recognize such innovative genius and be so moved by great art, is refused the genius that God has bestowed upon a rude, uncouth man-child. This Mozart brays like a farm animal in the royal court and brings his lewd manners into drawing room society: a devilish imp who produces music fit for heaven. In Salieri's own words, describing a piece of music composed by Mozart: "It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God." That voice became, to Salieri's ears, a taunt. Denied the ability to make such art, he chooses to destroy that which offends his sense of order and grace in the world.
A number of notable actors played the leading roles through the lengthy London and New York runs of the play but Forman cast the roles anew for the film. With the support of his producer, Saul Zaentz (who had worked with Milos Forman once before, on the Oscar®-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975), Forman chose to avoid recognizable movie stars and audition relative unknowns for the major roles. F. Murray Abraham had appeared on screen in a number of supporting roles but at the time he was cast as Salieri he was still best known for his stage work. Tom Hulce, who was cast as Mozart, had understudied the role on its original Broadway run but was better known in the movies as the bright-eyed college freshman rushing the most notorious fraternity on campus in Animal House (1978). Elizabeth Berridge was a relative newcomer compared to the two veterans and was a last-minute replacement for Meg Tilly, who had to drop out of the film due to an injury before shooting began. Simon Callow, who had originated the role of Mozart in London, took the role of Emanuel Schikaneder, an actor in the popular theater who engages Mozart to compose The Magic Flute. Jeffrey Jones, who went on to cult fame as the obsessive high school principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), played the dim Emperor Joseph II, a man swayed by opinion (notably that of his advisors and his court composer, Salieri) and his own somewhat banal tastes.
Forman shot Amadeus largely on location in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he could most cost-effectively recreate 18th-century Vienna on the streets of the old city, and in Vienna, he was able to stage his recreation of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the Count Nostitz Theatre where Mozart conducted the premiere two hundred years previously. In an unusual creative partnership, Forman worked closely with both Shaffer and Zaentz on the day-to-day production. The score, drawn almost exclusively from Mozart's compositions, was recorded specifically for the film by Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the direction of Sir Neville Marriner. According to Forman and Schaffer, Marriner agreed to participate on the condition that Mozart's music would be presented as written from the original scores, with no revisions or edits.
Released in 1984, five years after the original stage production debuted in London, the film was a popular and critical hit and swept the Academy Awards by winning eight Oscar®s, including Best Picture, Best Director for Forman, Best Adapted Screenplay for Shaffer and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham. In 2001, Forman (with the blessings of both Shaffer and Zaentz) prepared a longer "Director's Cut" for a new theatrical release, incorporating about 20 minutes of extra footage unseen in the original cut.
Amadeus brought a new popular interest in the music of Mozart (the soundtrack recording became one of the best-selling classical albums of all time) and turned the classical composer into a pop-culture figure (which reached its height--or perhaps its nadir--in the dance hit "Rock Me Amadeus" by Austrian singer Falco). The most surprising reverberation from the movie was the rediscovery of Antonio Salieri, all but forgotten for well over a century until the movie inspired orchestras to seek out his works and companies to revive his operas. But even with this minor resurgence of interest, it is the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart that makes this movie sing with the voice of angels.
Producer: Saul Zaentz
Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Peter Shaffer (original screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Miroslav Ondricek
Art Direction: Karel Cerny
Film Editing: Michael Chandler, Nena Danevic; T.M. Christopher (2002 director's cut)
Cast: F. Murray Abraham (Antonio Salieri), Tom Hulce (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), Elizabeth Berridge (Constanze Mozart), Simon Callow (Emanuel Schikaneder/Papageno in 'The Magic Flute'), Roy Dotrice (Leopold Mozart), Christine Ebersole (Katerina Cavalieri/Constanza in 'Abduction from the Seraglio'), Jeffrey Jones (Emperor Joseph II), Charles Kay (Count Orsini-Rosenberg), Kenny Baker (Parody Commendatore), Lisabeth Bartlett (Papagena).
C-158m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Sean Axmaker