The movie with the most stunning soundtrack of the 20th century – and the 21st, for that matter – would be the harshest understatement for Miloš Forman’s (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest) “Amadeus,” based on the life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
It begins with the tortured scream of Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham (Finding Forrester), indicating that he had murdered the young musical genius.
Through the hauntingly neurotic eyes of Salieri – tinged with a tsunami of envy – we learn what happened to the history’s greatest composer.
A young prodigy is making his way through the courts of Vienna as Salieri rises as chief court composer of Emperor Joseph II.
Intrigued by his reputation, Salieri’s curiosity is peaked about the identity genius possesses. Can genius be written in the face, he inquires – can it be seen whose talent expresses the voice of God?
It turns out that the voice of God is placed in a decidedly immature and obnoxious youth, more concerned with scatological humor than accepted courtly behavior.
As Mozart ascends the compositional throne, his eventual colleague, Salieri, grows further envious and enraged at the audacity of God’s gift to such an undeserving host.
Abraham seemingly lives the role of the tortured second-string composer, who oft perceives himself as the “Patron Saint of Mediocrity.” Though jealous and often conniving, the audience finds Abraham’s sensitive portrayal sympathetic. He is a man who gave himself entirely to higher powers in exchange for musical prowess, yet he faces a young, crude possessor of the kind of talent only approachable in his wildest dreams.
Abraham’s Salieri rages and mourns, but still possesses enough humanity to prevent viewers from dismissing him as a villain – after all, the blind urge for fame is a decidedly human darkness of which the best of history’s princes have been guilty.
All in all, Abraham is heartily-deserving of his Academy Award for “Best Actor.”
Tom Hulce’s (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) Mozart, however, pales in ironic comparison to his co-star’s brilliance. At first glance, his character’s persona is vulgar, distasteful and crude – with a piercing laugh shrill enough to make a hyena howl in pain. However, as one recalls that this film is told from Salieri’s perspective, this all begins to make sense.
How else could he have perceived an imperfect human possessing a perfect gift?
Peter Shaffer, the playwright of the work on which the film was based, received considerable criticism for his portrayal of the immortal genius, though he cited several sources defending his claims, including the letters of Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna Thekla.
Even so, his extreme capacity to annoy seemed forced and exaggerated at times.
There were sparse moments, however, where Mozart shed his comparatively uncouth edge and Hulce’s blinding skill shone through.
This was enough for his nomination for “Best Actor,” putting him in direct competition with Abraham.
Aside from these, the film was nominated for 53 awards of which it won 40, including the Academy Award for “Best Picture.”
The aforementioned awards, incidentally, are entirely justifiable. Forman’s epic is so carefully crafted that everything seems perfectly in place and its subplots flow seamlessly to the film’s gripping conclusion. Behind it, a soundtrack consisting entirely of the real Mozart’s works elevate the spectacle to admirable heights – though realistically speaking, the music alone could have made anything a gem.
“Amadeus” may be one of the greatest films of all-time, but it isn’t due to the performance of F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, but rather the very inspired performance by Tom Hulce as Mozart.
Hulce, provides the exquisite one-of-kind performance that most actors dream of having one day. He is a genius that was plagued by his own creativity and tries to block that out by doing just about everything he shouldn’t. Whether it is chasing women or making a mockery out of Salieri, he just seems to want to be a normal person and not a genius. Hulce provides clarity in that in his performance.
His performance is matched almost equally by Elizabeth Berridge (“The Funhouse”) as Constanze Mozart. She portrays a loving wife that grows tired of his childish ways and desperately hopes that he will grow up.
Abraham’s performance as the whiny Salieri is not an easy character to root for and really is the type of person that you would never want to hang out with in the real world.
But the real icing on the cake is make-up artist Dick Smith’s (“The Exorcist”) creation of the old Salieri, which enabled a slightly more believable aspect to the story. If that make-up was done even the slightest bit wrong, the whole perception of the movie could have been ruined.
This along with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” cemented Milos Forman as one of the best directors in Hollywood, but it sadly did not give Hulce the career he should have had.