35 Years Ago: ‘Amadeus’ Explores the Nature of Genius
The challenge for any work that deals with artistic genius is how to understand the nature of genius itself. No movie ever made has met this challenge better than Amadeus.
The film -- which was released in October 1984 -- tells the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce), one of the most preternaturally talented musicians and composers the world has ever seen. He famously began writing and performing music in public at the age of five, and wrote his first symphony at eight. A master of the piano and the violin, he was able to perform pieces of music after hearing them only once and could improvise complex variations on the spot. He wrote his first opera at 14, and by the time he was 17 had been appointed a court musician by Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo of Salzburg.
Amadeus opens with his arrival in Vienna in 1781, at the age of 25, looking to make his mark – and some money, because Mozart had a chronic habit of living large on borrowed cash – in the city often regarded as the musical capital of Europe. It is there that he meets an older, extremely religious court composer named Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Amadeus turns their relationship into a kind of duet: Salieri becomes Mozart's greatest admirer, most tragically outmatched competitor and eventually his murderer.
Salieri has for his entire life considered all music to be a divine gift. As a child he prayed fervently for the ability to have God's music pass through him, and he has attributed all of his considerable adult success to the Lord. And then he meets Mozart.
Mozart, in Hulce's extraordinary portrayal, is vulgar, completely devoid of all seriousness and an offense to every tradition society holds dear. And yet it is also immediately apparent to Salieri that Mozart has a talent immeasurably greater than his own. Where Salieri makes dull human compositions, Mozart trades in the voices of angels.
Salieri hates the man, but cannot help but love his music. He calls this affliction the "madness of a man split in half" and it slowly begins to eat away at his faith. How could a just God deny Salieri, his faithful servant, the one thing he wants above all else – musical greatness – but grant it to an amoral, aggravating slob? Salieri finally decides that he must kill the younger composer, because that is the only way he will ever be able to "triumph over God."
It's this storytelling structure that allows Amadeus such insight into the nature of genius. Mozart is not, as Hollywood so often likes to make its geniuses, a brooding, inaccessible figure carrying around something that none of us could possibly understand. He is instead an ordinary, even silly man who has been struck by a kind of magical lightning.
He is, in other words, perfectly human. As is Salieri.
The idea for this structure comes from Peter Shaffer, who adapted the screenplay from his own Tony Award-winning stage play, and its realization comes from director Milos Forman, the Czech director whose many other notable works include One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and The People vs. Larry Flint (1996).
In Amadeus, Forman brings his striking classicism to bear in creating a world that is both visually opulent – filled with period detail and perfectly visually composed – and unafraid to show the seedier sides of society life from 200 years ago. He also stages large-scale renditions of operas, including The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and The Magic Flute, filming on location in Viennese opera houses. And he uses the full range of Mozart's music to wonderful effect on the soundtrack, from piano filigrees that emphasize scenes of revelry to the unfinished Requiem that accompanies the closing scene of Mozart's body being unceremoniously dumped into a communal grave.
Watch the 'Amadeus' Trailer
Amadeus won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Adapted Screenplay. But it is perhaps the acting that stands out most of all in the film. Both Abraham and Hulce were nominated for Best Actor, with Abraham winning. His portrayal of Salieri as a man "split in half" is, in turns, majestic and conniving, without ever coming untethered from the small nuances of his character. It's the highlight of a long career filled with both large and small roles marked by absolute conviction.
As Mozart, Hulce is equally remarkable. A trained stage actor whose only previous major film role had been as Larry "Pinto" Kroger in National Lampoon's Animal House (1978), Hulce manages to portray something ineffable about his character, revolving around the ease with which the music pours out of him, the way it obsesses him to the exclusion of all else and a faint confusion about the reasons for the existence of his own greatness.
He distills all this into a single remarkable trait: a high-pitched, uncontrollable laugh that bursts out of him at inopportune times and is loud, arrogant and vulnerable all at once. It's this laugh that, as much as anything else, stays with the viewer after the film has ended.
The supporting cast is equally surprising and talented, from Elizabeth Berridge's sensitive portrayal of Mozart's wife Constanze to Jeffery Jones' wonderful inhabiting of Emperor Joseph II, in which he succeeds in projecting the same air of befuddled authority that marked his turn as Edward Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) without straying from the period setting.
For the classical music and biopic purists out there, it should be noted that Amadeus takes great liberties with history. There's no evidence that Salieri caused Mozart's death. The film plays fast and loose with the facts of which of Mozart's compositions were hits and which were flops. And the characterizations are inventions rather than attempts at accuracy.
With eight Academy Awards, including those to Abraham, Shaffer and Forman, as well for Best Picture, Amadeus should be required viewing for fans of American cinema and for lovers of music. It's a vital reminder that the greatest mysteries – of genius, art, love and the ineffable – are no more than human.