not in our stars, but in ourselves
8/52: An Oscar-winning movie
It’s very, very easy to be cynical about the Oscars nowadays (and especially this year). While they still have all the cachet of a serious award for Great Films, they’re mostly an award for great marketing. And it is a relatively recent phenomenon: the rise of “for your consideration” advertisements in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter didn’t begin until the mid-1990s. On the rare occasions when the right movie wins an award, it’s usually for political reasons rather than merit: again, marketing. It’s all pretty depressing. Going into this week, I wondered if I would gravitate towards a great, snubbed movie; or a terrible, lavishly awarded movie; but that all seems pretty cynical on my part, even by my standards. I do love movies, and I like to think about the days when the industry – while always cold and ruthless and awful – was mostly doing good things.
And that brings me to Amadeus. Of its eleven nominations, it won eight Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, and Best Sound Mixing. (Maurice Jarre, who won Best Original Score, quipped, “I was lucky Mozart was not eligible this year.”) It deserved all of them. It deserved all eleven, but I think everyone was still pretty happy on that night thirty years ago.
Amadeus is the (ever so slightly fictionalized) story of Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). In 1823, Salieri – an old, all-but-forgotten man – tries to kill himself, crying out that he killed Mozart. When a young priest (Richard Frank) comes to visit Salieri in the asylum, offering God’s salvation in return for Salieri’s confession, Salieri unleashes hell. Once upon a time, Salieri was a simple boy in small-town Italy. He wanted to praise God through music, and prayed for God to let him. God very kindly killed Salieri’s father – who thought music was a waste of time – and Salieri moved to Vienna. When he grew up, he became the Court Composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffery Jones), and believed he’d made the big time. Then, sometime in 1781, Mozart blew into town. Mozart, a foul-mouthed brat. Mozart, a lecherous little jerk. Mozart, a drunk and a debtor and all kinds of other things. And despite all his personal failings – Mozart, the most prodigiously talented, brilliantly creative, extraordinary composer of all time. Salieri cannot understand why God – who’d seemed to accept his boyhood prayers – would continuously expose his own inadequacy and mediocrity by contrasting it with Mozart’s apparently divine gifts. He therefore decides to “get back at God”: by destroying His own beloved creation. (Get it??? “Amadeus” means “beloved of God.” Yes, of course you knew that. You all know your Latin roots, I know, I know.) Well, God gets the jump on him, and lets Mozart die in obscurity and poverty, rather than give Salieri even the small satisfaction of exacting murderous revenge. All he has, as he tells the very much shaken priest, is his status as the champion and patron saint of mediocrities.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall an essay I’d written for uni, about Amadeus through a psychoanalytic lens. You can go read it if you like, but in brief: Salieri presents a decidedly Freudian worldview (all about punishment and obsessions and weird feelings about fathers) while Mozart presents a much more Jungian worldview (creative, generous, full of tricks and turns). I mention it here only because it strikes me that you could replace “Freudian” with “religious” and “Jungian” with “artistic”, and you’d have a nice little takeaway from the movie. Religion/Freud shuts down, limits, quashes creativity; art/Jung opens up, frees, generates not just creativity but immortality. Ask Nabokov. He’ll tell you.
Another allegory struck me on this viewing, however: Amadeus has prefigured the current state of the Oscars. Salieri – favored by the Emperor, flourishing financially – will end as a footnote. Mozart – shunned at the time, buried in a still unknown paupers’ grave – is literally the most famous composer of all time. Earlier this week, Indiewire put together a (not very well written, I must say) list of fifty classic films that weren’t even nominated for an Oscar, let alone won. For your consideration: The Big Lebowski, The Shining, His Girl Friday, The Searchers. Zero Oscar nominations among them. The winners those years: American Beauty, Ordinary People, Rebecca, and Around the World in 80 Days, respectively. As you all know, I love Rebecca, but apart from that – the Academy has fucked up for decades. Anyway, back to my point: just because a movie wins an award doesn’t mean anyone will care about it, years later; and just because Salieri is rich and successful and composed an opera that a musically illiterate emperor deemed “the best yet written” doesn’t mean anyone knows or cares about his music now. Great art can survive on its own merits, regardless of how many awards it wins.
That’s nice for the long term, but in the immediate term, it’s pretty fucking unfair. Consider Selma this year: certainly the best picture I’ve seen of 2014’s offerings, and certainly the most important picture I’ve seen this year. It does circles around the two frontrunners for Best Picture this year, Boyhood and Birdman. And it won’t win. In the long run, that won’t matter – but right now, it has huge implications for the careers of Ava DuVernay and, to a lesser extent, David Oyelowo. That’s not fair, and it sucks, and it makes me angry.
I’ve lost the plot, ever so slightly, so let me close with something that is actually about Amadeus. As Jarre said, it’s lucky indeed that the Academy deemed Mozart ineligible for the Oscar, because how can anyone else compare? He wrote perfect music. Amadeus not only spends quite a lot of time and energy demonstrating the perfection of that music – even including a scene wherein Mozart breaks down the specific elements of the “Confutatis Maledictus” in his Requiem – but it makes it seem like the most exciting music you’ve ever heard. And, unless your musical taste level is somewhere down below sea level with the Emperor’s, it probably is. It certainly would have been nice if real life had been as kind to Mozart as Amadeus – but at least the decidedly surreal life of awards season was kind to him in retrospect.
Well. There it is.
P.S. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the unnecessarily inflated Director’s Cut is now much easier to track down and watch than the original theatrical release. Nothing is improved by the extra 20 minutes of footage; in fact, I feel quite strongly that the film is harmed by the inclusion of Frau Mozart’s tits and additional scenes of Mozart stumbling around drunk. If at all possible, seek out the film as it was released in 1984.