I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1984 winner, Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman and starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce. I originally watched this movie when it first came out.
Amadeus is a biopic following the famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, primarily told from the perspective of his competitor, Antonio Salieri. The film is a vivid depiction of life in that time, providing fascinating insights into the man.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart and A Soldier's Story. Amadeus also won Oscars for Best Actor (F. Murray Abraham), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, Best Director, Best Makeup, Best Sound, and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film is adapted from a play by Peter Schaffer, which won the 1981 Tony Award for Best Play.
As the movie begins, we meet Salieri, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, feeling guilty about something he had done to Mozart when he was young. Through flashbacks, we get that story.
Since this is Salieri's tale, we follow things from his point of view. We see how he had loved music from a young age but been raised in a poor family that could not afford and did not value music enough to allow him to focus on it like Mozart did. In Salieri's mind, that's the reason that he didn't achieve the same amount of fame. Yet, it soon becomes clear that he's competing with somebody who has a natural ability, whereas Salieri has to work hard for everything he does.
Salieri becomes a court composer for a very officious nobleman played by Jeffrey Jones, a man who understands he should appreciate culture but really doesn't get it. He once, for example, critiq ues a new composition by complaining there are "too many notes."
From afar, Salieri has admired Mozart due to his reputation. When he first meets him, however, he is shocked to discover the man behind the beautiful music is crude, silly and ridiculous. In Salieri's mind, Mozart does not value or deserve the gifts he has received from God. Of course, Mozart knew nothing else from a very young age, performing in lavish homes.
As portrayed in this film (I'm not sure how much is true), Mozart was one of the first child stars, who fell victim to exactly the same sort of excesses that plague young stars today. I think the contrast between him performing in front of a drawing room full of people, while Salieri is playing with friends, is striking. It shows us how little grounding Mozart would have in normal behavior.
Telling this story from Salieri's point of view is a brilliant move, because it is far easier for most viewers to identify with him. I'm sure we've all found ourselves in a position where we envied those in our field who seem to have enormous success gifted to them, as if by God. In this film, Salieri takes that envy to the extreme, allowing it to consume him. While, in a sense, he blames his mediocrity on the fact that Mozart is stealing the light, he's really stealing his own light by focusing on his jealousy instead of learning from Mozart and improving his own craft.
That's one of the reasons this movie, I believe, did so well. Yes, it's got beautiful costumes, dramatic music, and fantastic locations. But it's also got complicated characters and a great story that holds lessons modern viewers can appreciate.
The attention to detail on the sets was fantastic, including shooting in some of the actual theaters where Mozart's operas had been performed. In addition, the costumes were based on sketches made for the original operas. The entire film was shot with natural light, which helped to give it a more authentic feel. Much of it was shot in Prague, a good stand-in for Vienna because it had escaped modernization under communist rule. Careful attention was paid to the filming so that the keys struck on the piano match up with the music. In fact, Hulce practiced for four hours a day to appear convincing. It's truly no wonder that Amadeus won so many awards.
The most fascinating thing about this movie is its exploration of how creativity works. It's true that there are always going to be people who seem graced by God with a divine gift that seems to come effortlessly, while the majority of people in the creative arts have to work and labor hard to learn their craft. Since the majority of us are Salieris, it's easy to look at the Mozarts of the world and despair, to be jealous of their success. Really, we should do what Salieri failed to do: be inspired by them and learn from them. Continue to perfect your own craft.
Rating: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)
God (and creativity) works in mysterious ways.