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Amadeus is bigger but not better

Amadeus (Director’s Cut)
Directed by Milos Forman. Written by Peter Shaffer. With F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Roy Dottrice, Jeffrey Jones, Christine Ebersole, and Simon Callow. Music conducted by Neville Marriner. Choreography by Twyla Tharp. A Warner Bros. release. At the Harvard Square.

Starting this Friday, you’ll have your choice of Oscar-winning biographies of mad geniuses that are very wide of the factual mark but delight middlebrow critics and reassure audiences that God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with Hollywood. Joining A Beautiful Mind will be the 180-minute director’s cut of Milos Forman’s Amadeus, the 1984 movie that, based on the Peter Shaffer play, won eight Academy Awards (including Best Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham). Fearing that audiences would find three hours too much, Forman shortened the film by 20 minutes for its original release. (I can hear those 1984 dinner conversations: "Let’s go see Amadeus tonight." "I don’t know, honey, I heard it was three hours." "No, it’s only two hours and 40 minutes." "Oh, well, in that case . . . ") Now the film is back in all its pristine director’s-cut glory.

So, what’s in those 20 minutes? After watching the two versions back to back, I made out four new scenes. At the conclusion of the premiere of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Constanze Weber is introduced as Wolfgang’s fiancée, whereupon the opera’s soprano, Katerina Cavalieri, swats Wolfie with her bouquet and Salieri’s voiceover exclaims, "At that moment, I knew he’d had her." In the director’s cut, we follow Katerina to her dressing room, where Salieri congratulates her and she concludes that Constanze must have snagged Mozart with her virtuoso bedroom performances; Wolfgang tries to explain but she throws him out.

The second sequence follows Constanze’s appeal to Salieri to secure for Mozart a lucrative appointment as instructor to Emperor Josef’s niece. Instead of telling her he can’t help and stalking out, Salieri names his price: she’s to return, alone, that night. Flustered, she leaves, but she does return and bares her breasts before Salieri (who, remember, has made a vow of chastity to God) grows disgusted with himself and orders her out. After he declares God his enemy, we get the third sequence: Mozart tells Salieri he’s in financial straits and Salieri recommends a wealthy couple with a daughter — and dogs whose barking makes a mockery of the lesson. In the fourth sequence, a destitute Mozart returns to this family to ask for a loan but is turned away.

It’s easy to see why Forman cut these scenes; only in Salieri’s thought to seduce Constanze do they expand on the plot. That section makes more sense with the added footage, and overall the movie "reads" better with the 20 minutes restored. I had forgotten just how good Amadeus looks on the big screen. F. Murray Abraham deserved his Oscar, Tom Hulce gives a one-of-a-kind performance, and when heard through theater speakers, even Neville Marriner, whom I’ve always thought of as a mediocre conductor, sounds good.

But this is still the same bogus movie it was in 1984. If it wasn’t apparent back then, the biographies by Maynard Solomon and Robert Gutman and H.C. Robbins Landon’s study of the composer’s last year have since made it clear that Peter Shaffer’s Mozart is a crude, boorish comic-strip version. A childhood prodigy whose father tried to keep him from growing up, the real Mozart was a complex, interesting figure whose musical genius frequently outran the taste of his audiences; toward the end of his life he suffered from depression and even paranoia. The real Mozart and the real Salieri would have made for an interesting pair, one profound, one popular.

Shaffer, however, makes fun of not just Mozart but the whole 18th century. Jeffrey Jones plays Emperor Joseph II as if he were Adam West doing Batman, and the rest of Joseph’s court (with the occasional exception of Jonathan Moore’s Baron von Swieten) are doddering fools. Salieri stands head and shoulders above the century — which is to say that Amadeus is Shaffer’s revenge on the past. You could argue that his play and Forman’s movie aren’t about history, but in that case you have a tale told by an idiot about a jealous composer who makes a manipulative compact with God and then seethes for three hours instead of realizing his true destiny as the world’s greatest music critic. No, Amadeus — which took the Oscar away from better films like A Passage to India — is itself the triumph of mediocrity over genius. It’s the Salieri of movies.

Issue Date: April 18 - 25, 2002
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