September 12, 2011
Tom Hulce, genius and dork: Amadeus

Amadeus is a big sumptuous version of Peter Shaffer’s hit play about the deadly competition between two composers in Vienna in the late 1700s. One was a hard-working, competent, utterly uninspiring court favorite named Antonio Salieri. His despised rival was a childish, insufferable prodigy who was one of the greatest artists who ever lived: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Near the end of his life, Salieri claimed that he had murdered Mozart (who died at the age of 35). No one will ever know whether this was true or not, but for Shaffer, it was a starting point from which to build his play about the intense hatred that can be generated by the presence of genius.

Salieri is the center of the play, brooding over the injustice of it all: Why would God bless “this creature,” as he calls Mozart, when Salieri is ten times more diligent, prudent, industrious? The accolades Salieri wins during his lifetime leave nothing but a bitter taste. He alone knows the staggering worth of Mozart’s music—even though Mozart is less heralded during his life, and is buried in an unmarked grave.

For the film, which has been substantially reshaped by Shaffer and director Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the themes are the same, but—although Salieri continues to narrate the story—there is more focus on the Mozart character. In a way, this unbalances the movie. After all, the more you see of an obnoxious character, the more, well, obnoxious he seems.

Also, Forman has attempted to give an approximation of the way music affects us. When Salieri describes the first Mozart piece he ever heard—as we hear it on the soundtrack—there is a real sense of the magic of genius, of the awe we must feel when something beautiful is created from thin air.

Forman repeats this process, with large doses of Mozart operas, throughout the film. Perhaps fewer examples would have sufficed, since the movie is overlong and the second half is full of musical passages. Obviously, the story of composers must be full of music, but Forman may make his point once too often.

Other elements of the admittedly fictionalized biography are Mozart’s down-to-earth wife, his disapproving father (who becomes a ghost in Don Giovanni), and the Emperor Joseph II, a crucial figure played brilliantly by Jeffrey Jones.

The performances are fine. Forman deliberately cast unknowns, because he wanted audiences to see the characters as characters, not as actors. F. Murray Abraham is marvelous as Salieri. He begins the film as an aged man in an asylum, and tells the tale to a confessor.

Mozart and his wife are played by Tom Hulce (Animal House) and Elizabeth Berridge, and I’ll predict their flat American accents are going to come under a lot of fire. This will be unfair. The difference between Abraham’s smooth, masterly performance and Hulce’s rougher-edged work is precisely the difference between the outward appearances of Salieri and Mozart to the court that beheld and misunderstood them. Had Mozart been played by a more perfect actor, it would have been difficult to believe that a man so gifted could also be such a dork. With Hulce, you believe it.

It’s an impeccably mounted production, filmed largely in Prague (Forman is a Czech expatriate) by the excellent cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek. The company even filmed in the same theater in which Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787.

Amadeus founders a bit in its second half, but it has so much to recommend it. More than once it communicates the wonder of Mozart’s gift; to capture the feeling that, as Salieri puts it, “God was speaking through this little man…to all the world.”

First published in the Herald, September 20, 1984

There’s just the right amount of music in this movie; I don’t know what I was talking about, and I wouldn’t want to be like Joseph II and his “too many notes.” And I don’t mean to imply that Tom Hulce is a dork. A few years after this Hulce sat in my apartment and talked with me and a friend about working on a screenplay together, a project that came to zilch after a few interesting conversations. Hulce is exactly right in the movie, though, and just what Milos Forman wants him to be. The thing I like most about Amadeus is how it fits right into Forman’s counterculture bent, his spirited mistrust of institutions and The Man and conformity. The movie’s splendid on that score.