Tuesday, November 10, 2009

1984 - Amadeus

I know I'm a week late to be discussing baseball, but has it not occurred to anyone in upper management at the MLB that it's possibly a bit of a misnomer to be calling the league's final battle the World Series. With only one team in the league that hails from outside the United States (and they're in nearby Toronto), it seems somewhat farcical to acclaim the winning team as the world champions. I guess when the MLB began, no other country was playing baseball, but even so, a bit of humility wouldn't go astray. World Series. I mean, really.

Right, now that I've insulted America's pastime, which, incidentally, I enjoy watching in lieu of my beloved cricket, let's move on now to the latest Best Picture nominee from 1984 to be viewed, which was...

Milos Forman
Peter Shaffer
(based on his play)
F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dotrice, Simon Callow, Christine Ebersole, Jeffrey Jones
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor

One of the greatest essays on jealousy ever written, Amadeus is the tale of 18th century Austrian Court Composer Antonio Salieri and his bitterness at being outshone by a younger composer with the manners and graces of a nine-year-old. The younger composer is, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and as soon as he enters Salieri's world, Salieri is consumed with jealousy of his musical genius. However, Salieri has a more pressing rivalry - that with God. Convinced that God is mocking him through Mozart, Salieri vows to destroy the famed composer in a treacherous attempt to show the Almighty who's boss.

Amadeus falls into that genre of film in which the protagonist essentially doubles as the antagonist. Salieri is the audience's main point of contact and, indeed, the story is told in flashback by Salieri himself. Just as he is conflicted by his genuine awe of Mozart's innate talent and his utter disgust at Mozart's buffoonery, we, too, are conflicted in our perception of Salieri. On the one hand, he elicits great sympathy by his desperate and unfulfilled longing to create memorable compositions. However, his diabolical plot to bring down Mozart at every turn tests the limits of our empathy. The result is an absolutely delicious portrayal of jealousy at its most primal, an emotion to which I'm sure we all can relate, no matter how much we are disinclined to admit it.

Most of this captivating deliciousness occurs in the first half of the film with jealous discovery after jealous discovery yanking our emotional strings. There is an unfortunate lull during the latter half of the film, but, in spite of that, all the other elements of this fine picture guarantee its entertainment value. For instance, the extravagant design is exactly as spectacular as you would expect from a period piece of this calibre. And then there's the music. Granted, you can hardly go wrong using Mozart's emotive compositions, but to make each selection perfectly appropriate for the images it is supporting, as is the case here, is a fine skill indeed.

F. Murray Abraham claimed the Best Actor Oscar for his sublime portrayal of Salieri, perfecting the many subtle crestfallen expressions of insecurity required of him. His co-star Tom Hulce received a nomination, too, supplying Mozart with a combination of irreverence and passion. Although etched in my mind as Ferris Bueller's principal, Jeffrey Jones is utterly delightful as the Austrian Emperor. Keep an eye out for Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon as the Mozarts' maid. And keep the other eye out for the man inside R2D2, Kenny Baker, appearing in an operatic parody.


  1. We need to match baseball's best screwball pitcher against Cricket's best googly bowler (is that what it's called?). I believe the concept is the same in both sports (ball moves in opposite direction of a curveball or slider). Leave it to us imperialist Yanks to declare our championship the World Series.

    I have "Amadeus" on DVD, but ordered the blu-ray for my re-watch, so won't comment until I see it again. By the way Matt, did you know that the late Vincent Schiavelli, who played Salieri's valet was the childhood friend of Sal's wife Pat? They grew up on the same Brooklyn block.

    While I am waiting for "Amadeus," I got to see "In the Loop," just out on DVD. It is an extended film version of the Brit series "Thick of It." Funniest film I've seen yet this year, it you go for caustic political satire and extreme and inventive profanity. A great comedic ensemble including Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Mimi Kennedy (who has a hilarious moment with bleeding gums), James Gandolfini David Rasche, Gina McKee and Steve Coogan and several others.

  2. Love the cricket reference since I'm Guyanese and all. This is a good film. Not to compare [right...] but Hulce or Abraham? I think it's difficult for me to pick, they're both phenomenal.

  3. ...."Captivating deliciousness".... Matt, you make the world much more brilliant. I am using your quote today, I won't know where, I won't know when, but I am using it.

  4. Mike: Very impressed with your cricket terminology. Yes, the googly is the ball that spins in the opposite direction to what you'd expect. It's pretty rarely used, actually. Probably because it's so difficult to perfect, and the fact that it is most effective as a surprise. Shane Warne, possibly the greatest spin bowler to ever play the game, was the master of the googly, known also as the wrong'un. Anyway, enough about sport...

    That's exciting about Vincent Schiavelli. I'll have to chat to Pat about that. (The Dr. Suess tone of that sentence is unintended.) I loved Schiavelli in Ghost, amongst other films. Such a distinctive actor.

    Andrew: Hulce or Abraham? Hmm, that is a toughie, but I'd probably lean towards Abraham. And not just because I once shook his hand. I simply loved the subtle nuances of his performance.

    Amanda: Consider the phrase yours. But I want to hear how it was used :)

  5. Watched the spectacular Blu-ray of this clash between genius and mediocrity. I agree that there was a bit of a lull in the second half as Mozart began to self-destruct. So much of his tremendous output was left out as the movie concentrated on his various operas. However, it did finish with an emotional punch. Tom Hulce really shines during those scenes. There something that's so exhilarating watching genius in the process of creation.

    F. Murray Abraham deservedly won his best actor trophy. Every now and then a little-seen actor is given a chance with plum role, and he makes the most of it. Despite his character's inflated feelings of self-importance during his younger years, he is also the only one who really understands and appreciates Mozart's music, and this as you have said Matt, creates empathy in the viewer.

  6. Damn, my comment seems to have disappered. I posted it the night this came out, and now cant' remember most of what I said. Oh well, I do remember this: given a choice between the regular Amadeus and the Director's Cut, stick with the regular. The Director's Cut has about 20 minutes of extra footage that was exised for good reasons in the first place. At least of the scenes dramatically alters the way two of the characters interact once you've seen it.

  7. Salieri believes that he's the only one who understands the greatness of Mozart. But that's just a way for him to save some face and feel he's a little bit special, since he certainly can't match Mozart note for note. "No, I can't write like him, but only I can understand what he's up to dammit!"
    His delusions know no bounds. He never had a rivalry with Mozart. One was a genius and one was a hack. He didn't destroy Mozart, Mozart destroyed himself. Mozart wasn't a tart molesting weasel who's only mission in life was to expose mediocrity, he was, by all accounts, a dedicated son to both his parents, a good father and loving brother to his sisters and, above everything else, an extremely hard working professional who was almost never 'off'. You're characterization of this film as an essay on jealousy is spot on and everything Salieri says about Mozart has to be understood in that light.