Saturday, September 19, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Amadeus" (1984)

Tom Hulce in Amadeus
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: September 19, 1984
Director:  Milos Forman
Written By: Peter Shaffer (screenplay, stage play)
Starring: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 160 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Milos Forman)
-Best Supporting Actor (F. Murray Abarham)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Make-Up

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Actor (Tom Hulce)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Film Editing

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Killing Fields
-A Passage to India
-Places in the Heart
-A Soldier's Story

And the winner is...

It's likely that you have heard the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He is a great composer with a rich history of music. Yet, there's a certain question that I want to ask you: would you watch a biopic about him, even if it's three hours long and from the director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman? If this sounds like a general struggle, it's because British theater tends to dramatize history with a reverence that plagues any sense of fun. However, Amadeus is in some ways a biopic that wants to surprise you, making you reconsider how much value is actually in his life story. Speaking as he was considered a party animal of his days, Amadeus is like a raucous biopic unlike any other Best Picture out there. It's also why it ranks among the very best even within this field.

While not a lot is known about the financing of Amadeus, there is one notion that is understood: few financiers were skeptical about funding a film about Mozart largely because, by 1984, nobody really cared about classical music. Add on that it was planned to be over three hours, it served as a massive hurdle. While the film reached financing, it was met with certain guidelines in order to appease audiences. Various sexual and inappropriate elements were cut from the final film in order to maintain a PG rating. However, the later version added back the more risque scenes because Forman believed that it didn't matter by this point. While the debate continues between the theatrical and director's cut, both serve as excellent looks into the story.

Of course, it's likely because the overall production went above and beyond for naturalism. Even in the decadent story, Amadeus wasn't keen on trick photography. The film was shot in Vienna, Austria and impressively only had to build four sound stages. The rest were all actual places found locally, including various locations where the real Mozart performed. The film was also known for using natural lighting. The only known tampering came when filming indoors and various tints were used outside of the windows to darken the room. Both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce practiced playing piano for months to look more convincing. Even if the music was played by an exterior source, music scholars note that almost every note in the film looks to actually be played by the performers. Even the laugh has some basis in history, where Mozart was once claimed to be "like metal scraping." 

A lot of the film borrowed from the stage play that it was based off. The stage version of Amadeus debuted in 1980 and ran for over 1,100 shows with Ian McKellen and Tim Curry in lead roles. It incorporated various details of his life, including various small stories from his childhood. Forman and Shaffer spent four months reworking the story that it would come to life better on screen. This mean adding characters to emphasize the plot better. While there's some debate on how much is based in truth, there are still various nods to the stage version, including two child performers who follow Mozart - who served a far more significant role in the stage version. The film was also able to incorporate more details, such as more accurate drawings and set designs, which they used to their advantage.

Various actors tried out, including Mel Gibson, Mick Jagger, and Tim Curry. Kenneth Branagh was scheduled to be in the film, but Forman decided to go with an All-American cast - who kept their natural accents in order to focus on acting. This became more apparent that when once shooting on Independence Day, a flag was dropped from the ceiling and the room stood to sing "The Star Spangled Banner." 30 people didn't stand. They were later discovered to be Czechoslovakian secret police. As like their characters, Abraham (Salieri) and Hulce (Mozart) were distant during the entire filming. In a scene involving writing, Hulce was known to skip lines just to confuse Abraham, which was fitting with his character. Abraham initially sought a smaller role in the film, as it conflicted with his shooting of Scarface, but was so great that Forman reworked the schedule to include him. He was also in the make-up chair for 4.5 hours a day when he had to play the older Salieri.  

Despite all skepticism, the film ended up being a huge success, in theory. Among its lesser accomplishments is that Amadeus is one of very few Best Picture winners to not break into the American box office top five. It was also one of only four Best Picture winners to also be based on a production that won a Tony for Best Play (the others being My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and A Man for All Seasons). When presenting the Best Picture category at the ceremony, Laurence Olivier famously didn't read the nominees, only saying "Amadeus." An AMPAS member quickly cleared up the potential error. During his acceptance speech for Best Original Score for A Passage to India, Maurice Jarre joked that he was glad that Amadeus didn't beat him. The film's double header between Hulce and Abaraham was the last time in Oscars history that two actors from the same film faced off in this category. 

The film was a success with the soundtrack peaking at #56 on the Billboard charts, thus making it one of the highest selling classical music soundtracks in history. The costumes and props would be used in another Mozart production from director Miloslav Luther the following year. Many believe that Abraham also suffered from what is called "The Oscar curse," where winners would have a string of bad films immediately following their good one. While many could say he's bounced back, most recently with a noteworthy role in Best Picture nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, he definitely hasn't done anything as prominent in a leading role since. Meanwhile, Hulce has been more sparing with work, most notably appearing in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Stranger Than Fiction. The stage version still occasionally runs.

While there have been many biopics about eccentric figures throughout history, there are few as unique as Amadeus. From its production to its story of rivalry and jealousy, it's a familiar story told through an epic that captures the excitement of the time while not sacrificing the personality. For a film that seems like a daunting period piece, it definitely has more of an accessible manner than it has any right to. Even if some details are wrong, Forman's hand at making the film as realistic as possible only adds to the many, infinite charms that makes this a wholly satisfying biopic as well as one of the greatest Best Picture winners. Even if its actors may not have gone on to the most satisfying careers, they at least managed to make two otherwise dull-sounding musicians come to live in the most imaginative and invigorating way possible.

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