Winning an Academy Award usually helps an actor get better parts, have a shot at real stardom … but not always. Remember Louise Fletcher? There’s a good chance you don’t, though she won an Oscar (and just about every other award) for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s not that she hasn’t had a career, she has worked regularly ever since. But she is not a household name.
Nor is F. Murray Abraham. He was a surprise winner, partly because Tom Hulce played an equally important role in Amadeus, and was also nominated, which often results in a split vote. And I must say that Hulce was brilliant, too, but despite the title, the movie really is more the “story” of Salieri than of Mozart.
I put quotes around story up there because, aside from the names and the music, almost everything else in the movie was made up. And I don’t care. Don’t take this as history. It is not. The playwright and screenwriter, Peter Shaffer, calls it “highly fictionalized.” No shit! We have no way of knowing if Mozart was the annoying twit with the worst giggle I’ve ever heard in a film (I doubt it, because someone would have strangled him before he reached the age of majority), but we do know he was a vulgarian, vain, a procrastinator, who lived beyond his means. Shaffer exaggerates all these things deliberately.
The central idea of the play and film is that Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart out of jealousy. This was a rumor that started circulating quite a few years after Wolfie’s death, and it makes no sense. Salieri was not the second-rate hack depicted here, he was quite well-respected, even by Mozart himself. There was a rivalry, but they got along, and even had a cordial relationship. But there’s no real story in that, is there? By setting the fool against the envious, angry wannabe, Shaffer gives us a thrilling story of dastardly plotting, a tragedy of a bitter, small-minded man up against one of the geniuses of the age. And it is true that Salieri is mostly forgotten today, while Mozart is one of the half-dozen universally acclaimed composers in Western music.
Everything about this movie is sheer perfection. You could not ask for more from either of the principal players, nor from the supporting cast. It is one of the most sumptuously beautiful pictures ever made, too, shooting in some of the grandest spaces in Czechoslovakia and Austria, including the actual theater where Don Giovanni was first performed. The opulence, the mind-blowing grandeur of these places has never been equaled. The budget for costumes and even wigs must have been enormous. This was a time when people out-dressed peacocks, men and women alike. Wigs could tower three feet above a woman’s head. The staging of the various operas is terrific, as is the choreography by Twyla Tharp. And of course there is the music, the wonderful music …
I must mention the climax of the film. It takes place, almost unbelievably, in Mozart’s bedroom, with him lying there, dying, unable to move, while Salieri takes his dictation, trying to finish his Requiem Mass in D Minor. (Never happened, needless to say. Somebody did try to steal it, apparently a well-known plagiarist named Franz Xaver Süssmayr, but was foiled by the widow, Constanze. And the piece remains unfinished.) There is almost no movement in the scene, just Mozart calling out the key signatures, the instrumentation, the notes, the choral parts, every detail of the music in his head. And as he describes it we hear each part, then two parts together, then three, then everything together. As I said, no action … and I was riveted. It was like being there for the process of creation, and how often do you get to see that? Brilliant!