1984 / Best Actor / Best Director / Best Picture

Film #347: Amadeus (1984)

During my review of Dangerous Liaisons I commented on how Stephen Frears’ film changed the game as far as costume drama was concerned. But not watching these films in chronological order has meant that I was unaware of another such picture that played around with the conventions of the genre.

Amadeus, which triumphed at the 1985 ceremony, was a joyously anarchic look at the life of Mozart and his alleged feud with the more stuffy court composer Antonio Salieri. The entire story is told in flashback as the elderly Salieri confesses his sins to a priest after being committed into a mental asylum. Salieri claims that nobody will listen to how it was he who killed Mozart so the priest willingly listens to the composer’s confession. Salieri’s story begins by illustrating his first sighting of the talented Mozart when the latter first arrives in Vienna. Although Mozart is portrayed as incredibly talented from the get-go we also see that he’s incredibly vulgar, lustful and quite crude. This is in contrast to the dignified Salieri who currently works as the court composer even though he isn’t as well-known as he would like to be. Soon the current Holy Roman Emperor commissions Mozart to write an opera for him but the production is plagued by changes as the talented composer comes up against the Emperor’s rules and regulations. Meanwhile, Mozart openly mocks Salieri leading to the court composer feeling that the young upstart is a messenger from God. Soon Salieri hatches a plan that will cause Mozart’s downfall as he poses as a mysterious stranger and pays him to write a requiem mass for him. The financially constrained Mozart agrees however the amount of work that is on his plate means that he neglects his family and struggles to achieve perfection.

Like the majority of the costume dramas of the 1980s, Amadeus is wonderfully designed with the film winning awards for make-up, costume and art direction. Indeed, that year’s Best Picture won eight awards with further nods for the adapted screenplay, director Milos Foreman and the all-important sound editing statuette. For a film all about classical music, the opera sequences in Amadeus are some of the movie’s best as they really demonstrate how great a talent Mozart was. Amadeus is definitely a film that is steeped in decadence with Vienna being portrayed as a lavish and wild city throughout. As Salieri, F Murray Abraham won the Best Actor award and to an extent I feel this is well-deserved. Abraham’s performance is initially the less showy of the two but he is excellent at showing the gradual build-up of Salieri’s madness. I feel part of the reason he won the award was that he was able to portray both the young Salieri and the current incarnation of the character who is narrating the story. But I felt that Tom Hulce, also nominated for his role as Mozart, was the stronger actor of the two. Hulce really encapsulated this young upstart and brought the vulgar yet talented composer to life. Anybody who’s seen the film will remember Hulce’s performance over anything else and in particular his rather infectious laugh.
Although Abraham and Hulce dominate the screen I still think that Jeffrey Jones put in an excellent supporting turn as the fickle Emperor Joseph. If there’s one criticism I have of the film it’s that none of the lead characters are particularly likeable. Aside from Mozart’s wife Constance, all of the other characters are obsessed with being the best and most are either sly or extremely vulgar. Despite both gaining their ultimate redemption, for the most part Salieri and Mozart are fairly selfish characters and that means it’s hard to connect to either of them. Ultimately, this doesn’t matter all that much as Amadeus is a joyous film which is both extremely well-designed and also thought-provoking due to its central rivalry. I really enjoyed the film as a whole and feel that it’s the most deserving of the Best Picture winners of the 1980s that I’ve watched so far.


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