How ‘Amadeus’ Turned A Risky Gamble Into An Oscar-Winning Blockbuster

By 1984, pop culture had exploded in ways that had never been seen before. John Hughes had made Sixteen Candles, a very dated but breakthrough comedy that would represent a generation. MTV was three years old and as popular as ever. Saturday morning cartoons were competing for young minds. And Madison Avenue was selling everything they could for people to buy.

Movies like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and The Karate Kid were raking in millions at the box office. No one was asking for a period piece drama set 200 years in Vienna starring the guy who was killed half-way through Scarface and Pinto from National Lampoon’s Animal House. Amadeus was based on the play by Peter Shaffer who wrote the screenplay and directed by Milos Forman, who had directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It told the very fictionalized rivalry between Wolfgang Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the lesser known Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).

Mozart whose middle name is Amadeus is portrayed as a cocky, young know-it-all who is more interesting in partying, boozing and bucking the normal status quo set forth by Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). The rest of Mozart as an adult is first seen playfully chasing Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) around the empty rooms of a huge prestigous mansion as the older and more refined Salieri watches in shock at the younger man’s vulgarity.

The movie is told in flashback as Salieri, as an old man, has been committed to a psychiatric hospital following a suicide attempt and tells his story to a sympathetic but gullible young priest Father Volger (Richard Frank). Salieri tells the priest that even as a child there was jealousy as the younger Mozart was considered a musical prodigy and toured all over Europe by his father Leopold (Roy Dotrice). However, Salieri says his own father never encouraged his musical interest. But since his father died when he was a teenager, Salieri was able to pursue his efforts as he had developed a devout relationship with God.

By the 1770s, Salieri has been named court composer for Joseph II and his methods of music align with the others who are more religious and refined. Mozart doesn’t want operas that are in Italian but wants to make them in German. The compositions are scandalous because he’s writing about The Marriage of Figaro, even though the Emperor has forbidden it. Despite his constant need to buck the system, Salieri can’t help but secretly love Mozart’s work. Even though Mozart unknowingly criticizing one of Salieri’s compositions and actually improves it, the older composer is amazed at how well Mozart can compose as well as remember his works, so he doesn’t make copies.

It seems throughout the 20th Century, people began critizing the music of the younger generations at an alarming rate. There’s a debate over which is better jazz or bluegrass. Many thought the big band era, such as the Glenn Miller Band, would last forever and didn’t care for the rockabilly of Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly. Elvis reportedly didn’t care for the Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Then, you had more hard rock like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath followed by disco of The Bee Gees or Peter Frampton.

I could go on but musical trends seem to a few years or so with the older people criticizing the younger generations. Different tastes come about every few years without much warning. In real life, there was only a six-year age difference between Mozart and Salieri but I think the wider age gap of 14 years works better for Abraham and Hulce. And the casting of Hulce works. Despite his most popular role as Larry “Pinto” Kroger in Animal House, he had actually been performing Equus, also written by Shaffer, with Sir Anthony Hopkins for years prior to that movie.

There was some heavy competition for the role. On stage, Mark Hamill had played the role in the first national tour opposite John Wood as Salieri. He even campaigned to play the role on screen. Sadly, I can understand why Forman and producer Saul Zaentz didn’t cast Hamill. Even though it might have pulled in some more money at the box office, it might have been criticized as stunt casting to cast Luke Skywalker as Mozart. It was easier for Harrison Ford to play in Force 10 from Navarone, Raiders of the Lost Ark and even Blade Runner because they were mostly considered action movies. It might have worked easier these days with actors like Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver in more serious roles. But the 1980s was a different time.

Hulce gives a more memorable performance with a youth look and that unforgettable braying laugh that he does. Part of what I like about Hulce’s performance is he doesn’t mind making Mozart somewhat unlikeable. He drinks uncontrollably and is too stubborn at times. When an argument breaks out between Constanze and Leopold, he doesn’t try to stop it but retreats into another room. Berridge has a difficult job of being the supportive wife but fed up with the politics of the era. Berridge’s previous movie role was horror flick The Funhouse. That’s quite a transition.

There was a cut scene that was later restored on the DVD in which Constanze goes to meet with Salieri and takes off her clothes think he wants to have sex with her for help. But he has her removed embarrassing her. This explains why at the end as Constanze comes back home after leaving Mozart for an undisclosed amount of time, she’s very short and angry with Salieri who has helped him and taken care of him after he fainted during a production of The Magic Flute.

Despite what was mentioned in The Last Action Hero, Salieri didn’t kill Mozart and probably didn’t dress in a costume worn previously by Leopold to get him to compose the Requiem. Both Salieri and Mozart in real life had no rivalry. Salieri would go on to become a teacher to Mozart’s son. The rivalry is probably based on an 1830 play Mozart and Salieri by Alexander Pushkin. Mozart was paid to right the Requiem but it was commissioned by Count Franz von Walsegg.

Salieri also had a wife with eight children and at least one mistress whereas in the movie, he’s shown as mostly a loner. There are no reports that he ever tried to kill himself nor was committed to a hospital. Some historians say if there was a rivalry, it was more akin to a friendly rivalry between two music lovers. Mozart and Salieri collaborated together and composed a cantata for voice and piano, Per la recuperate salute di Ofelia. Salieri was also a big fan of The Magic Flute as well.

Shaffer’s play and Forman’s movie is really more on the focus of how some celebrities and artist don’t get as much attention as others. Salieri tells the young priest he is “the patron saint of mediocrity.” Salieri’s works lost their popularity in the 19th Century following his death and remained obscure until the popularity of Amadeus. The movie also raises the question of what constitues excellence and what is just for entertainment. Following Leopold’s death, Mozart compose Don Giovanni to deal with the grief. But it’s later turned into a silly production by his friend, Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow). Emanuel also wants Mozart to move away from the royal theater to his own Theater an der Wien with a promise of half the box office receipts.

We see this same argument now as some filmmakers like Martin Scorsese don’t care for the MCU movies but rally behind movies like Tar. The Magic Flute, considered one of Mozart’s best, premiered at the Theater an der Wien. Because he published more books faster than John Irving, Stephen King is considered a hack writer. It’s all really a matter of taste. Some of the most influential musicians and songwriters never had top 10 hits.

Produced on a budgert of $18 million, Amadeus made $52 million at theaters in the United States and Canada and $90 million worldwide. At two hours and 40 minutes with credits, that’s an impressive total for a movie in the mid-1980s. Amadeus, itself, won eight Oscars. It was nominated for 11 with Shaffer, Forman and Zaentz all walking home with a Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, Director and Producer. The Oscar win was notorious for an aging Sir Laurence Olivier forgetting to read the names of the other Best Picture nominees and just opening the envelope leading to Zaentz to name all the other nominees in his acceptance win. Both Abraham and Hulce competing for the Best Actor Oscar with Abraham winning.

And as life as imitated art, critics have said the Oscar win didn’t lead to bigger roles for Abraham who followed it with The Name of the Rose, a hit with critics and the box office. However, he soon found himself in some less than stellar movies such as Mobsters and The Bonfire of the Vanities. Film critic Leonard Martin said professional failure following an early success in Hollywood is called “F. Murray Abraham Syndrome.” But rather than get angry, Abraham responded to his critics by saying, “The Oscar is the single most important event of my career. I have dined with kings, shared equal billing with my idols, lectured at Harvard and Columbia. If this is a jinx, I’ll take two.”

He also told Maltin: “Even though I won the Oscar, I can still take the subway in New York, and nobody recognizes me. Some actors might find that disconcerting, but I find it refreshing.” Well, people are recognizing him now, at 83, following an appearance at the Golden Globes where his face lit up when fans on the red carpet started calling his name. Abraham was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Motion Picture for his role on HBO’s The White Lotus. The red carpet footage went viral with many people commending Abraham’s reaction to his fans has gone viral.

This and Abraham voicing Khonshu in the MCU series Moon Knight seems to have found Abraham some more of the success his critics say he no longer has. Hulce went on to appear in movies like Parenthood and voiced Quasimodo in Disney’s animated movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but he reportedly retired from acting in 2019 after 45 years of working on stage, in movies and on television.

What do you think? Please comment.

Published by bobbyzane420

I'm an award winning journalist and photographer who covered dozens of homicides and even interviewed President Jimmy Carter on multiple occasions. A back injury in 2011 and other family medical emergencies sidelined my journalism career. But now, I'm doing my own thing, focusing on movies (one of my favorite topics), current events and politics (another favorite topic) and just anything I feel needs to be posted. Thank you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: