Both Versions: Amadeus

Evidently there isn’t much of a story behind the return of Amadeus to theaters in 2002 — with, as advertised, twenty minutes of added footage. By then, the world was well into the home video era, when the concept of repackaging old films with extra stuff started proving lucrative. Amadeus was the right combination of box office hit and prestige event (with its eight Academy Awards) to take this trend a step further. Warner Brothers agreed to put it back on the big screen for several weeks. Producer Saul Zaentz and director Milos Forman jointly decided to restore some scenes that had been cut from the original release. As Forman tells it, the cuts had resulted from anxiety at the thought of foisting a three-hour classical music film on MTV watchers. With the film’s reputation secure some eighteen years later, he felt confident that the movie could now take the shape he’d always preferred. Thus we have the “Director’s Cut” of Amadeus, which has quietly become the default version of the film, though as always there are different opinions about its merits. In examining both versions, I will avoid the obvious joke about how many notes there are, and whether there should have been fewer.

With the exception of a couple shots that have been replaced by slightly different camera setups, as well as the need to adjust certain music cues, the original film is basically intact within the expanded version. The additions are scattered throughout the film but are mostly concentrated in the first half. The biggest function of these new scenes is to deepen and complicate the portrayal of the main character, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Already something of an antihero, Salieri comes off as less sympathetic with the new material, but a little more well-rounded emotionally as well. His sweet tooth, important in the scene where he first sees Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), gets a little more screen time in the longer cut. He has a couple more face-to-face (and undisguised) scenes with Mozart in this version, in which they even share a few laughs. In the original version, Salieri functions as a hovering presence in the background, seeking his revenge in secret. With the new scenes, there’s more duplicity in his character. He spreads horrifying rumors about Mozart behind his back but is all avuncular admiration when they meet.

Salieri has his most despicable moment during a roughly five-minute sequence that has easily the biggest impact on the film. For starters, it suffices (and in fact a few seconds within it do the job) to change the film from a PG rating to an R. I’m talking about female nudity, of course — a quick glimpse at a man’s genitals in the early madhouse scene didn’t figure into the MPAA’s decision-making. To be fair, context matters, and the exposure of breasts in this scene has definite connotations. Here’s the situation: Constanze Mozart (Elizabeth Berridge) asks Salieri to help her husband get a teaching position in the court of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). Salieri, jealous of Mozart’s musical genius, has no intention of complying. To force Frau Mozart to give up, he tells her she must sleep with him in return for his help. (In the original version, Salieri simply walks out of the room without a word after a brief, lightly flirtatious conversation.) That night, she returns to his home and starts undressing. It is abundantly clear from Berridge’s performance that Constanze’s heart is not in it and she only proceeds because her husband is in desperate need of a stable income. Salieri must sense this, but some combination of guilt and spite makes him watch her debase herself. He then summons his servant at the most humiliating moment, transferring blame onto her.

This is a contentious sequence, for any number of reasons. At first pass, it could appear to have nothing but empty shock value. But there are some important things brewing underneath the sordid episode. It wasn’t until I read this blog post that I realized this sequence has some crucial rhymes with the final scene in the film. Salieri and Constanze have only two interactions in the director’s cut, and only one in the original version. Without this earlier painful experience, Constanze’s suspicion of Salieri, when she returns home to find her husband on his deathbed, doesn’t make much sense. When the scene is restored to the film, it creates long-simmering hostility between them, something that she can never confide to her husband. It isn’t enough to prepare her for Salieri’s murderous rage, but it’s enough for her to instinctively lock up the score of Mozart’s Requiem before Salieri gets his hands on it. This uncomfortable detail adds some nuance to what would otherwise be a fairly stereotypical “How will we pay the bills?” type of character.

The nude scene is the only (relatively) essential addition to the film. A brief earlier scene of Salieri praying for Mozart to leave Vienna for Salzburg has a nice effect by way of juxtaposition. Salieri concludes his prayer, and the film cuts to the Archbishop of Salzburg (Nicholas Kepros) refusing to employ the “spoiled brat” anymore. Salieri’s prayer is one of the few added scenes that really make the original look incomplete by comparison. Much of the rest of the “new” material is disposable. A dressing room scene with the opera star Caterina Cavalieri (Christine Ebersole) and a failed attempt by Mozart at teaching another pupil don’t communicate anything that isn’t better expressed in the shorter version already. As far as I can tell, and contrary to some reports, there really isn’t more music in the Director’s Cut. What we get is more talking in what was already a talky period piece.

I’m sliding back into my usual position of preferring the original cut of a film, but the benefits of the three-hour version do generally outweigh the drawbacks. What strikes me is that the longer version puts more emphasis on the central conflict: mediocre composer Salieri is outraged that God blesses the immature Mozart with talent far greater than his own. This is fertile dramatic territory, no question, but what I love about Peter Shaffer’s script (adapting his own play) is that there are other conflicts built into the main one. Mozart’s insubordination isn’t just a character flaw. He resists the stuffy, elevated demands of high society in favor of a more populist, entertaining form of art. That impulse is right at home in an American movie, and I have a lot of sympathy for it as well. In Shaffer’s conception, Mozart was doomed always to remain a young artist, only beginning to mature (with the likes of Don Giovanni and the Requiem) when his life was cut short. The script makes the two composers mirror images of one another, both forged by difficult fathers, one temporarily successful but forgettable, the other a timeless genius underappreciated in his own day. Maybe portraying that genius as a prototypical rock star who liked fart jokes was nothing more than a sop to those MTV people. But it worked, and it continues to work even today, when it’s even harder to imagine this kind of movie becoming such a cultural success story. I’d imagine Warner Brothers could make some more money if they put out a Blu-ray that included the original cut, though.

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