There are two vital pieces of insight I’ve learned about Amadeus in the years since I first saw it.
The first was Milos Forman’s observation that the film had not two brilliant stars, but three: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, and the music.
In a way, this is a bit of a cheat, as the music in question had existed for hundreds of years before the play or movie ever existed. The “standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants” concerns can be swept aside in light of the scope and presentation of that music by Forman—both in terms of the actual staging of the large, operatic and orchestral scenes, as well as the depiction of the creative process itself.
The second bit of insight came from Hulce’s revelation that he based his spectacular performance as Mozart on observations of John McEnroe. McEnroe had become the greatest tennis player in the world by the time of the filming of Amadeus, and, by the time of its release, arguably the greatest tennis player the world had ever seen.
McEnroe’s single-minded pursuit of greatness created a seeming duality to his existence—a petulant brat incapable of controlling his own emotions, and a genius whose unquestionable, unparalleled brilliance suffered as a result of that lack of emotional discipline.
In truth, as with Hulce’s portrayal of Mozart, the duality is false. These elements are two manifestations of a single (and singular) characteristic. McEnroe’s pursuit of excellence was the reason for, not at odds with, his outbursts. His frustration with the amateurish officiating that marked early-80s tennis emanated from a place of unrelenting intensity, and an understanding of his craft that far exceeded that of nearly every human on Earth.
McEnroe could do things others could only visualize, and he could visualize things that others could not see. McEnroe’s friend and fellow tennis pro and broadcaster Mary Carillo once observed that his standoffish behavior toward fans came from a place of saying “just shut up. None of you understand what I’m even trying to do.”
This is the nature of true genius, something seen perhaps once a generation, if that. Someone like Sir Isaac Newton or Mozart or the 1984 version of John McEnroe not only exceeds the abilities of his contemporaries, but he transcends their understanding as well.
Hulce captures that beautifully, perhaps most pointedly in one of the scenes in which F. Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri is helping him transcribe his work. Here, Salieri, a world-class musician, cannot keep up with the speed and faculty of Mozart’s mind, even when Mozart does his best to explain.
Against Jimmy Connors—at the time the second- or third-best player in the world—in the 1984 Wimbledon final, McEnroe won 6-1, 6-1, 6-2 and committed only three unforced errors the entire match.
By comparison, Novak Djokovic committed 52 unforced errors in his 2019 Wimbledon final victory over Roger Federer (admittedly, in a much longer, five-set match). Federer committed 62.
Amadeus tells its story largely from Salieri’s point-of-view, which makes sense. The audience empathizes with the flawed Salieri as it, too, struggles to appreciate Mozart’s genius fully. Salieri, a world-class composer in his own right, suddenly realizes that his abilities and achievements, as impressive as they are, are insignificant compared to Mozart’s.
Whereas McEnroe’s / Mozart’s frustration was with others’ inability to understand, and, therefore, is definitionally unrelatable, Salieri’s is a much more familiar struggle. He must come to grips with the fact that, despite considerable talent, devotion, and ambition, his best will always pale in comparison to someone else—in this case, an actual genius.
That leads Salieri to attempt suicide and lament his status as the “Patron Saint of Mediocrities.”
The performances of Hulce and, especially, Abraham (in an Oscar-winning turn), along with the mesmerizingly beautiful and powerful music, combine to cement Amadeus as one of the better films in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection, one of the better films of the 1980s, and one of my personal favorite films of all time.