Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Amadeus" (1984)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Let's get this much out of the way first: you'd be hard-pressed to convince any studio today that the world needs a three-hour biopic about a classical composer, even one as universally famous as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Even in the 1980s, it probably wouldn't have happened if Peter Shaffer's play (he also wrote the screenplay for the film) hadn't been a Broadway sensation in 1981, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and enjoying a healthy three-year residence at the Broadhurst Theater. Director Milos Forman was coming off the Oscar-winning success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and a pair of Broadway-musical adaptations, Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), which put him in a position to craft such a large film. It's a good thing, too, because Amadeus stands as one of the biopic genre's best entries, even if it doesn't strictly stick to true events.

The film begins in an early-19th-century insane asylum, where composer Antonio Salieri (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, taking over the role originated on the Broadway stage by Ian McKellen) resides after attempting suicide. Father Volger (Richard Frank) has come to hear Salieri's confession, in which he relates the tale of how he came to become rivals with brilliant young composer Mozart (Tom Hulce, taking over for Tim Curry) and how he ultimately feels responsible for the young man's death. Their rivalry played out in secret, with even Mozart himself being only vaguely aware of Salieri's backroom machinations against him during his time serving the Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). The only people aware of Salieri's deeds are Joseph II's court of advisors and Mozart's wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge).

The relationship between the two men is the film's driving force: despite the name in the title, this story belongs to Salieri just as much as it does Mozart. And their tumultuous rivalry is fraught with Salieri's feelings of mediocrity, Mozart's high-pitched giggle, and, yes, plenty of coded homosexuality.

More after the jump.

It's no mistake that the film is told from Salieri's point-of-view. He is the man who only ever dreamed of becoming great, and when he was finally given his shot at glory, he was upstaged by someone even more talented, a prodigy that the world couldn't help but declare a genius. Instead of being Vienna's favorite composer and God's earthly voice, he toiled in the shadows, with Mozart even adding insult to injury by improving upon his composition - the composition he had written explicitly for Mozart's arrival - in front of the emperor.

Forman and Hulce don't shy away from making Mozart a grating presence, either. Mozart's high-pitched giggle works perfectly as aggressive mockery, every cackle further shredding the nerves of those who aren't fawning over his talent. Mozart is presented as being a vulgar boor, an impish man-child who's never had to grow up thanks to his overwhelming fame and adoration throughout Europe. Just to further drive home the point, he even wears a wig with essentially the 18th-century version of a rat-tail to his first meeting with the emperor.

Forman makes the interesting directorial choice to have the actors, the majority of whom are American, use their natural accents rather than affecting the traditional period piece accent of choice, British (never mind that the film takes place in Austria). Allegedly, this was so that the actors would focus more on their characters and performances instead of worrying about the authenticity of their accents (again, never mind the setting). But it also adds a wrinkle to what is, essentially, a slobs-versus-snobs story. Hulce plays Mozart with a fairly blatant American accent, at times sounding like he would fit right in at Delta House. Similarly, the other "lower class" characters in the film speak in natural American tones, with Berridge's Constanze especially sounding like a teenager who would be more interested in going to the mall than going to the opera.

Compare those, then, to the speech of Salieri and the other members of the "upper class." Their speech, though not necessarily "accented," is certainly more clipped and measured. Salieri speaks in a lofty tone, an affectation that speaks to his high position as the emperor's court composer. It also speaks to his belief that God had chosen him to create beautiful music, and that he was fated to be hailed as one of the greats. That he continues to use this tone in his rantings against God and self-loathing is indicative that, deep down, he still believes that Mozart's reputation should have been his.

That Salieri is putting on this accent, too, demonstrates how much of his life is ultimately a performance. Though neither Salieri nor Mozart came from impoverished backgrounds, neither of them were guaranteed a place in Viennese high society. But where Salieri worked hard to get to his position, leaving his past behind him, Mozart was born with an innate talent that gave him a free pass to the top without the same level of sacrifice.

His background, however, may not be the only thing that Salieri is repressing. It is no coincidence that the film shares many parallels with Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor, an allegory for sexual repression gone horribly awry. In Melville's story, a ship's master-at-arms named Claggart becomes obsessed with new sailor Billy Budd, to the point of accusing him of conspiring a mutiny. Billy has become one of Captain Vere's favorites, which angers Claggart, and the ensuing trial ends in death. Many critics have read Melville's story as being about homosexual repression, with Claggart unable to control his attraction toward Billy and jealous of his revered status in Vere's eyes.

Salieri is a clear parallel for Claggart in Amadeus, with Mozart taking over the role of Billy Budd (as for Vere, that could be Emperor Joseph II, the public, or God). Abraham plays Salieri with just the right hints of a deeper obsession, one that may not even be known to himself. The way that older Salieri rhapsodizes to Father Volger about the beauty of Mozart's music could just as easily be about the young composer himself, his talent an easy subliminal substitute for his admiration of the man himself. Salieri is living a duplicitous life, one in which he's deluding even himself.

Which makes my choice for "best shot" all the more fascinating. Late in the film, Salieri visits Mozart disguised in a black mask that has two faces: one the Greek tragedy, the other the Greek comedy. It is the same mask worn by Mozart's recently-deceased father (the only person "Wolfi" could never impress) at a party that Mozart had taken him and Constanze to earlier in the film. Salieri's hope is to use Mozart's complicated relationship with his father to have him compose a requiem, one which Salieri will claim credit for once he finds a way to kill Mozart.

Forman wisely draws a visual (and comedic) parallel between the two appearances of the mask. At the party, the game the attendants are playing is musical chairs with ribald consequences for losing. Constanze loses a round, as thus must show her legs to the crowd. Mozart looks to his father to see the mask frowning back at him:

But when his father turns his head, the mask is smiling, granting Mozart temporary relief that his father is in on the joke:

Until he removes the mask to reveal his displeasure. Mozart's wide grin quickly disappears, as his father has found yet another reason to be disappointed in him.

When Salieri visits Mozart's apartment, he is donning the tragedy side over his face, so that Mozart once again sees his father's scowl. It's a fantastic moment that shows just how far Salieri is willing to go to prey on Mozart's insecurities, all the while covering up his own. It's an apt visual metaphor for his duplicities, all the more so that he wears the face of tragedy that he is all too familiar with.

*Best Shot*

And for a nice comic beat, when he turns to leave there's the smiling face beaming back at the camera (and Mozart).

Even through the mask, Salieri's smug satisfaction can't be concealed. He can only keep up his facade for so long before it ultimately consumes both men.

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