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[whitespace] Tom Hulce Horsing Around: Tom Hulce plays a maddeningly gifted Mozart in 'Amadeus.'

Mo' Better Mozart

Twenty years after, director Milos Forman pads out musical epic 'Amadeus'

By Richard von Busack

PETER SHAFFER'S argument in both his stage play and screenplay for Amadeus has it that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a coarse genius, a cackler, a letch and a punk rocker. Compared to this musical titan, the rival composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is nothing: a smooth, correct, court politician, who wins the awards and preferment that should have rightly gone to the great Mozart.

The 1984 film is being released as Amadeus, the Director's Cut. This version includes longer footage of the musical numbers and an extended finale scene depicting the composition of Mozart's requiem. The sound has been rerecorded to modern audiophile standards. No one has mixed down Hulce's grating guffaw as Mozart, a cross between Stan Laurel's titter and a laughing hyena.

Salieri's conceit is that since he's a good servant of God he ought to have been rewarded with God-given gifts. Weirdly, when the old Salieri delivers his complaint in a confessional, the priest (Herman Meckler) is mute with shock. What? He's never heard someone complain that God didn't given him the good things he deserved?

Salieri fixates on Mozart's name, "Amadeus," which he interprets as "Beloved by God" instead of "Lover of God." The name, Salieri believes, is a sign that God has lavished a bounty on an unworthy vessel. And the donation from God to this silly upstart makes Salieri a bona fide atheist, a crucifix burner. Shaffer has Salieri actively conspiring against Mozart, smiling to his face and tangling the younger, greater composer's path to success.

There's comedy here; thank God for Abraham, who understands it. Pauline Kael commented that Abraham's Salieri resembles Wile E. Coyote. In his best moments, Abraham also recalls Dennis Price's revenger in Kind Hearts and Coronets, punishing unthinkable gaucherie with death. Abraham's smoldering reactions to his foiled plans is funnier than the film's deliberate stabs at comedy--the coarse country-matters stuff that's a hallmark of director Milos Forman's work at its weakest.

The curious part of Amadeus is that Mozart hardly lived an enviable life, plagued as he was by ill-health, smallpox, bad kidneys. This hardworking slave to music had the touchiness of a child prodigy hauled from place to place--in a situation familiar to those who followed the stations of Judy Garland's cross. Like Judy, Mozart married beneath himself, but was Constanza (Elizabeth Berridge) really as prolix as this inert booby? In the press notes, Berridge claims her direction from Forman was "Don't do anything, just be there." So it's not her fault.

A prestige movie in its time--the Best Picture of 1984 according to the Oscars--Amadeus satiates an audience's hunger for big frosting-covered cakey spectacle, cathedrals and palaces. The production numbers are stagey, though, Vegas/opéra bouffe acted out in towering pink hairpieces. They may appeal to the crowd that went for Moulin Rouge. Under the surface, Amadeus is The Fountainhead in a fright wig, a story of genius held down by conspiracies of mediocrity.

The story appeals for all the worst reasons--we all feel we're injured geniuses, held back by a conspiracy of the mediocre. An attitude like this hardly helps the appreciation of the gifts Mozart gave us. Instead, its elitism really makes us at one with the poofy courtiers who held back Mozart in real life.

Amadeus, the Director's Cut (R, 188 min.), directed by Milos Forman, written by Peter Shaffer, photographed by Miroslav Ondricek and starring Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham, opens Friday at the Del Mar in Santa Cruz.

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From the April 3-10, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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