Amadeus [Retro Review]

“Well, there it is then.”

The Scoop: 1984 PG, directed by Milos Forman and starring F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce and Elizabeth Berridge

Tagline: The Man… The Music… The Madness… The Murder… The Motion Picture…

Summary Capsule: The life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by his contemporary Antonio Salieri. But it’s good. Really.

Lissa’s Rating: Too many notes. No, not really, actually. But this has been a catchphrase that’s been a joke between me, Duckie, and our Ph.D. advisor and the phrase always makes me smile. Much like the movie. A better review is Absolutely Perfect, Go See It NOW.

Lissa’s Review: I don’t know about anyone else, but I was very frustrated with the Oscars this year (2005). The movies nominated may or may not have been good. To be honest, I didn’t see many of them. But that’s exactly my point.

Every now and then (okay, a lot of the time), I feel like the Academy feels that if a movie actually made money, then it can’t possibly be worthy of recognition. God forbid anyone actually honors a movie that turned a big profit! It’s like my college ex who liked bands that weren’t popular so he could look down his nose at all the uneducated slobs who actually thought people like Billy Joel and Queen were cool. Nominate The Incredibles or Shrek 2 for Best Picture? Why do that when you have films like The Aviator and Sideways?

I find it very, very telling that last year’s Best Picture winner (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) made more money in one weekend than all five Best Picture nominees combined made in the same weekend this year. Which brings me to my other point: sometimes, the Academy gets it right.

No, I may not think The English Patient was the best movie of 1996. I might think that Moulin Rouge! should have kicked A Beautiful Mind’s butt. And Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan? Huh? What movies were they watching? Unforgiven over A Few Good Men? (And nominating Howard’s End at all?) And one word for all the doubters: Titanic. (This also proves I’m wrong about the money issue.) Painful, painful choices. But there is justice in the world. Schindler’s List won, trouncing The Piano. Braveheart destroyed The Postman. American Beauty achieved commercial and critical success. And in 1984, Amadeus received Best Picture.

In some ways, it doesn’t add up. Milos Forman, the director, doesn’t have a laundry list resume, although the films he’s directed (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The People vs. Larry Flynt) are strong. Peter Schaffer’s written all of three screenplays along with a handful of plays — none of which I’ve ever heard of. F. Murray Abraham might have a huge filmography, but most of his movies are Italian and he rarely seems to play the lead in the few other movies I’ve seen him in. Tom Hulce’s other famous movies include Parenthood, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Animal House, for crying out loud. The biggest name actors in this are Simon Callow (Gerald in Four Weddings and a Funeral), Roy Dotrice (the coach in The Cutting Edge) and Jeffrey Jones (Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller). HOW did these people find their way to the Best Picture podium?

They made a perfect movie, that’s how.

The movie is the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as told by Antonio Salieri, a popular composer during Mozart’s lifetime. Instead of being a dry, boring biopic, Mozart becomes a character in a story, and as Salieri tells the story of Mozart’s life and career, you can’t help but be drawn in. What makes it more compelling and fascinating is that Salieri does not like Mozart at all. In this version of Mozart’s story, Mozart is portrayed as a whining, obnoxious, vulgar man with a gift that he appears to take for granted. A simple story in many ways, but not.

The story is told in retrospect by a much older Salieri, who has unsuccessfully attempted suicide and is now confined to an insane asylum. It is told as a confession, because this Salieri is haunted by his jealousy, and what he describes as a murder, although objectively one couldn’t quite describe it as that. Through Salieri’s story, we see Mozart’s life through the context of his own career; a career that could never hope to rival Mozart’s.

The relationship between Salieri and Mozart alone makes this fascinating. It’s not an easy relationship to pin down. There’s no real element of friendship, but it never explodes into outright obvious enmity. There’s no real respect, either. Mozart clearly has no respect for Salieri, and while Salieri might worship the music Mozart creates, he very obviously can’t stand the man. There isn’t even really understanding. The rivalry is one-sided. And yet, because they’re forced into each other’s company and lives, it’s impossible for there not to be some sort of interaction. And by the end, during one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen, Salieri comes to understand just what he is envying, and accept that what Mozart has is a rare, rare gift that he will never be allowed to indulge in.

Actually, as I think about it, it’s the character of Salieri that is really the strength of this movie. Mozart is interesting, yes. But Salieri is the role of a lifetime, and kudos to F. Murray Abraham for not only snatching it up, but playing it for all it is worth. Salieri’s character arc encompasses his own fears, insecurities, and ambitions, his relationship and anger with God, and a huge emotional range that so few movie characters are ever given. He is far from a villain, but not a anti-hero, either. He is simply human. Brilliantly, complexly, richly human. Add to that the fact that Abraham plays both Salieri as an old man and Salieri as the Court Composer and you can not fail to be amazed by this performance. It truly was F. Murray Abraham’s masterpiece performance, in the most archaic sense of the word.

There’s a line in the movie where Salieri is discussing Mozart’s work and the greatness of it. “Displace one note and there would be diminishment, displace one phrase and the structure would fall.” That is a perfect summation of this movie. Everything about it is brilliant, everything is in line. Nothing could have been improved.

Acting? Amazing, and every single role is acted well. Not a single weak performance.

Sets? Lush, gorgeous, and quite authentic. Costumes follow the same line. The eye is never bored, and the movie never fails to dazzle visually.

Writing? Perfect. Poetic without being nauseating or deliberately obtuse, compact, and funny when it should be. There are emotional highs and lows, subplots, and no superfluous romantic interests. Even though the movie has a long running time (around three hours), there is nothing that could have been cut. Every event, every line of dialogue, every character has a purpose and a place.

Music? It’s Mozart. (And a little Salieri.) It’s stunning. It even made me interested in opera.

I’ve seen a lot of movies that were filmed in the 80’s that just didn’t age well. The plot, the fashions, or the effects seem laughable now. Even classics such as Star Wars might benefit from modern technology. What makes Amadeus unique among 80’s movies is that not one thing about it would be improved on by filming it today. The movie still comes across as perfectly as it must have over twenty years ago, when it took home eight of the eleven Oscars it was nominated for.

It’s rare that I can review a movie that I can say absolutely nothing bad about. This is one of those very rare times. If you haven’t seen Amadeus, go out and rent it immediately, because it truly is one of the best pictures — not only of 1984, but of all time.

Salieri contemplates the aftermath of his "silent but deadly" fart.


  •     The makeup job they did on F. Murray Abraham is utterly amazing! Yes, he did play both the old Salieri and the young one.
  •  Salieri’s wig is never powdered, even though almost everyone else’s is. And yes, it is a wig because we do see him with it off for one brief moment. Does anyone know why this is?
  • Just how often the Emperor says “Well. There it is.”?
  • The intense, amazing, mindblowing speeches that Salieri makes about his bitterness towards God?
  • Mozart was right handed? Apparently, he was actually a leftie.
  • There are some elements of Mozart’s life that are historically accurate. For example, the story about Mozart and Marie Antoinette is apparently true, and the Emperor did tell Mozart that “Abduction from the Seraglio” had too many notes. Mozart’s laugh was described in letters as highly annoying. However, according to the web research that I’ve done, Salieri and Mozart never had a rivalry like the one depicted in the movie. Mozart also had six kids, instead of the one we see.However, there is no concrete evidence that any sort of rivalry or animosity existed between Salieri and Mozart. It IS true that Salieri was senile in the last year of his life, and during that time there was a rumor going around Vienna that he said he poisoned Mozart. Mozart’s widow did take this up and say she suspected it, but it has been confirmed that Mozart died of fever (as he does in the movie). But there is no record that I’ve found that Mozart and Salieri had anything but a healthy working relationship (although I certainly don’t claim to be an expert!) I know I’ve ranted about historical accuracy before, but I only get annoyed when a movie makes a big deal about being historically accurate. Both Shaffer and Forman not only admit that they are taking major artistic liberties, but emphasize it. As long as all involved are aware that they are producing fiction, not near-documentary, I’m completely fine with it, myself.
  • Amadeus was originally based on a play, so several people have played Mozart’s role. These people include Tim Curry and Mark Hamill. Additionally, Mel Gibson auditioned for the role in the movie, and Kenneth Branagh was originally cast for it. While all of these names are much bigger and I consider most of these men obscenely talented, I can’t really imagine the movie with anyone but Tom Hulce playing Moza
  • Amadeus (Mozart’s middle name) means “beloved of God”, which ties in perfectly with Salieri’s assessment of h
  • Emperor Joseph’s reaction to Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio was “too many notes.” Today, we regard this opinion as inappropriate, but it was widely shared during the eighteenth century by both connoisseurs and amateurs. Mozart’s six string quartets dedicated to Haydn were regarded by many as unfathomable and unplayable, for there were “too many wrong notes.” Some dissatisfied customers returned the parts to Mozart’s publisher Artar
  • Amadeus presents a probably accurate picture of Mozart’s burial. In 1791, the communal grave was the typical burial for about 85 percent of Vienna’s populati
  • Incidentally, this film has a Tomatometer reading of 98% at Rotten Tomatoes. Let’s look at the other Best Picture winners since then:
    Out of Africa: 80%
    Braveheart: 81%
    Platoon: 100%
    The English Patient (BORING): 90%
    The Last Emperor: 88%
    Titanic: 86%
    Rain Man: 91%
    Shakespeare In Love: 94%
    Driving Miss Daisy: 80%
    American Beauty: 89%
    Dances With Wolves: 81%
    Gladiator: 77%
    Silence of the Lambs: 97%
    A Beautiful Mind: 78%
    Unforgiven: 97% (I don’t care, I still hated it)
    Chicago: 87%
    Schindler’s List: 95%
    LOTR: Return of the King: 95%
    Forrest Gump: 78%
    Million Dollar Baby: 94%
  • So the average Tomatometer reading for a Best Picture winner since 1984 is 88% (I rounded up), with a standard deviation of 7, meaning 66% of the Best Picture movies will have Tomatometer readings between 81% and 95%. Amadeus is a 98%, with only Platoon beating it out. In the 20 years before, the average rating is a 96%, with a standard deviation of 4. It’s interesting that there are a lot more 100%s in those 20 years. Interesting enough that I looked up the Tomatometer ratings of ALL the Best Picture winners ever. Here’s the graph showing Tomatometer Rating as a function of time:

  • Please note that for two films (Cimarron in 1931 and Cavalcade in 1933) there were no ratings. I assigned these a rating of 90, just because.
  • As I said, there were a lot more films that received a Tomatometer rating of 100% before 1984. In fact, there were 23: Wings (1928), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Rebecca (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hamlet (1948), All the King’s Men (1949), All About Eve (1950), On the Waterfront (1954), Marty (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Tom Jones (1963), A Man for All Seasons (1966), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Patton (1970), The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). (By the way, the two low ratings belong to The Broadway Melody and The Greatest Show on Earth.) Now, of course, the question here is two-fold: how many reviews do each of these early movies have listed at Rotten Tomatoes (often as low as 10-20, compared to the hundreds listed on current movies), and how many of these are written retrospectively? It is clear that there is more variation in the ratings in the last 20 years or so, and it almost appears that we are seeing a slight downward trend. Is this because the quality of movies is decreasing or because the number of reviews is increasing? (I’m sure someone could do a study on it, but I’ve geeked enough for the day and still need to find the pictures for this review.)
  • In any case, the average Tomatometer rating of a Best Picture winner over the 77 years that the Academy has been giving the award is 91, with a standard deviation of 12. So what I’m saying is that even in relation to those films hailed as Best Picture of the Year, Amadeus is on the top of the heap.
  • This concludes the absolute proof that Lissa is an incredible geek with too much time on her hands this weekend.

Groovy Quotes

Salieri: Do you know who I am?
Priest: That does not matter. All men are equal in God’s eyes.
Salieri: Are they?

Salieri: That was Mozart. That! That giggling, dirty-minded creature I’d just seen crawling on the floor!

Salieri: But why? Why would God choose an obscene child to be his instrument?

Salieri: Of course. In Italy, we know nothing about love.
Mozart: No, I don’t think you do.

Emperor: Well. There it is.

Salieri: All I ever wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing, then made me mute! Why? Tell me that. If he didn’t want me to praise Him with music, then why implant the desire?

Salieri: Understand, I was in love with the girl. (Pauses to consider) Or at least lust.

Emperor Joseph II: Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Mozart: Why must we go on forever writing about legends and heroes?
Emperor: Because they do.

Salieri: Did my work please you?
Mozart: I never knew that music like that was possible.
Salieri: You flatter me.
Mozart: No, no. When one hears such work, what can one say but… “Salieri!”?

Salieri: From now on we are enemies, You and I. Because You choose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me only the ability to recognize the incarnation. Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind I will block You, I swear it. I will hinder and harm Your creature on Earth as far as I am able. I will ruin Your incarnation.

Salieri: His funeral! Imagine it, all of Vienna there, Mozart’s coffin, Mozart’s little coffin in the middle, and then suddenly, in that silence, music! A divine music bursts out over them all. A great mass of death! Requiem mass for Wolfgang Mozart, composed by his dear friend, Antonio Salieri! Oh what sublimity, what depth, what passion in the music! Salieri has been touched by God at last. And God is forced to listen! Powerless, powerless to stop it! I, for once in the end, laughing at him! The only thing that bothered me was the actual killing. How does one do that? Hmmm? How does one kill a man? Well it’s one thing to dream about it; very different when you, when you have to do it with your own hands.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Confutatis maledictis” – when the wicked are confounded. “Flammis Acribus Adictis.” How would you translate that?
Salieri: Consigned to flames of woe.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Do you believe it?
Salieri: What?
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A fire which never dies, burning you forever?
Salieri: Oh yes.

Salieri: Your… merciful God. He destroyed His own beloved, rather than let a mediocrity share in the smallest part of His glory.

Salieri: I will speak for you, Father. I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint.
[Being wheelchaired through the insane asylum]
Salieri: Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you. I absolve you all.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Immortal Beloved
  • Phantom of the Opera
  • Shakespeare In Love


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