I watch AMADEUS – screenplay by Peter Shaffer, based on his play, and number 73 on the list of the WGA’s 101 Greatest Screenplays – as a comedy. Which might make me a terrible person.
But it’s just so funny. For one thing, it attributes fart jokes to a historical icon. (“We are in the residence of the Fartsbishop of Salzburg!”)
But there’s also complex interplay between characters. Salieri’s childlike hatred of Mozart’s brilliance (“So that was he!… That giggling, dirty-minded creature I’d just seen…crawling on the floor…Mozart!”) and Mozart himself, existing in some kind of genius-infused, childish dream world (“Here everything goes backwards. People walk backwards – dance backwards – sing backwards – and talk backwards!”).
The film’s flawlessly balanced grandiosity is just perfectly timed for laughs.
Shaffer’s original premise is especially effective – telling the story of Mozart’s decent into madness from the perspective of his biggest, albeit covert, rival, eventually doomed to madness himself.
It’s like the ultimate straight-man comedy. Cancel their flight home for Thanksgiving and they’d be Steve Martin and John Candy. OK, that might not be the most apt comparison. But you can’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see Salieri and Mozart try to share a small motel room bed.
I’ve watched this force of a film exactly twice now – once in college and then again recently for this post. Thinking back now it’s amazing how similarly I reacted to this film at vastly different times in my life. Both times this impressive eight-time Academy Award winner hit me as a totally complete film – not missing a beat, laugh or twisted, poignant moment.
My theory is that, in this case, it all starts with the tone. Delving into the copy of the script we have here in the library, the 1982 final draft, is a study of pacing and balance.
Fittingly to its content, Amadeus masters tone in a way that is perfect and rare. Its completeness comes from the cohesive and overarching feeling of madness sustained and driven by each and every character.
It is delightful and terrifying at the same time. Like the two-faced mask Mozart’s father (and later more sinisterly Salieri) wears, the script’s tone hangs on a double-edged blade of light and dark, comedy and tragedy. All that is beautiful is hardened. All that is funny sours.
The straight man not only points to the absurdity of his comic foil but highlights his own tragic flaw.
“Do you want to rest a bit?” Mozart, very near death, says to Salieri as he composes, and Salieri transcribes, in a fit of creative frenzy that helps him to his grave.
Scenes like this speak to me from one of the darkest places of the human spirit. Yet somehow it’s silly. Somehow the absurdity of this line in the context of reversal is strategically and manically lighthearted.
And that laugh. Let’s not forget about Mozart’s laugh. An eerie, indulgent and absurd laugh loosed by Mozart into his unending parties and dark nights.
I was particularly interested to know if Mozart’s insane, Salieri-tormenting giggle was written into the script or strictly an element of Tom Hulce’s brilliant performance. It turns out to be a combination of both – written into the script as a “high-pitched giggle” and then performed to the height of compete absurdity.
Amadeus is simply a perfectly balanced film – all the more effective and poignant considering it is about two extremely unbalanced individuals.
Here’s the deal: Throughout 2014, we’re posting pages from every script on the WGA’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays, as chosen by Guild membership, because we have every one in our library. Sure, we have other scripts that didn’t make it onto the list, either because they didn’t make the cut or because they were produced after the list was generated (presumably SHARKNADO, which we totally have a copy of, is only in the latter category).