B-flat Movie


a film written by Peter Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman

Some months ago on the White House lawn, Ronald Reagan accepted Austria’s gift (whether or not looking it in the mouth) of a Lippizaner called “Amadeus.” The United States soon reciprocated with a film of the same name in which the impersonator in the title role presents himself to an Austrian head of state. At this point the symmetries break down, the Emperor Joseph II, unlike the Gipper, having been a patron and protector of the arts. Yet one parallel remains: the excruciating resemblance of the compulsive giggles of the human Amadeus to the neighs and snorts of a horse.

This is not the only holdover from Equus, Peter Shaffer’s previous play, for the dramatic formula of two adversaries locked in a rhetorical bout also appears there, between the psychiatrist and the psychotic boy, and is familiar before that in the confrontation of Pizarro and the Inca king (The Royal Hunt of the Sun). In all three plays, an apparent hatred unsuccessfully masks a deep homoerotic fervor. Salieri’s jealousy of Mozart ill conceals a desire to possess him, and in scene after scene the well-groomed, satanically dark and intense Italian reveals himself as the would-be seducer of the tousled, frivolous, fair-innocent: gentlemen prefer blonde fright-wigs. Observing Mozart’s intimate manner in conversation with a prima donna, Salieri concludes that “he’s had her” but is really saying, enviously, that “she’s had him.” In the death scene, when finally the two men are alone together and Mozart is securely in Salieri’s web, Mrs. Mozart returns suddenly and orders the villain to leave. He refuses to go; only Mozart can rule him now.

Part of what is wrong with the film is exposed in the first encounter between Amadeus and Joseph II. Whereas the Emperor’s clothes have been faithfully copied from Pompeo Batoni’s portrait, the man wearing them bears little relation to the real-life monarch who, for one thing, could play difficult concertos at sight and not have to struggle over each note of a simple piece, as he is made to do on the screen. In Mozart’s case, even the clothing is wrong. He “dressed elegantly,” Clementi tells us, which would hardly mean glittering like Liberace or a punk rock star. So, too, Tieck’s description of a “small, quick,” but “unimpressive figure,” with “weak eyes” (not crossed ones, as in the newly discovered Hagenauer-Barducci portrait) is contradicted by the cavortings of the film’s hero. Mozart’s playfulness was life-long, in and out of music where its manifestations are unpredictable, as in the composition of A Musical Joke soon after his father’s death. The most recent Mozart manuscript to surface (at Sotheby’s in November 1984) provides another example in that this sketch for the C minor Mass (Mozart’s wedding mass in Amadeus, despite the minor key and the inconvenient date) also contains notations inscribed: “Von Pimberl [Mozart’s father’s dog] and von Stanzerl [his wife].” But to focus, as the film does, on one or two extrovert aspects of a personality of Mozart’s dimensions is…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.