Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A remembrance of things past: "MY AMADEUS STORY"


As the San Francisco Symphony prepares to screen the Oscar-winning film, I reminisce... 

 

Amadeus first entered my consciousness back in the early ‘80s, when I worked in the promotion dept. of Fantasy Records (Dave Brubeck, Vince Guaraldi, Creedence Clearwater Revival) in Berkeley, which was owned by Saul Zaentz and his partners, along with several jazz and R&B record labels. A few years earlier, before my time with the company, in the 1970s, Saul had begun producing movies under Fantasy Films, the film division of the parent company. His second feature, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), had gone on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and the first of Jack Nicholson’s three Oscars. Saul would continue to make films, and the film division would soon change its name to the Saul Zaentz Company.

In 1979, Milos Forman, who had directed and won an Oscar for Cuckoo’s Nest, saw the first preview of the stage production of Amadeus in London and was so impressed that he immediately approached playwright Peter Shaffer’s agent insisting that he had to make a film of it.  Forman later got in touch with Saul about Amadeus and Saul listened. In time there would be buzz swirling through the Fantasy offices that Saul had a new project, that it was a movie based on the Tony-winning Broadway play about Mozart.

I left the company when Amadeus was in the early stages of development, but Saul and the gang remembered me. And so, when in September 1984 the company staged a lavish premiere in San Francisco, I received an invitation. 

Gone but not forgotten: the Galaxy Theater, San Francisco
The special screening would be held at the Galaxy Theater, a then brand-new fourplex on Sutter St. at Van Ness. San Francisco has been home to many celebrated movie palaces: the Castro (San Francisco Landmark #100), the Alhambra (landmark #217), the Metro (landmark #261) and the El Rey (recently awarded landmark status), to name four that still stand. The Galaxy, a soaring pile of glass building blocks, was a palace of a different sort, the shiny, showy ‘80s kind. Built for United Artists, it boasted multiple screens, certified THX sound, and it had opened just six months before the Amadeus premiere. It was the perfect site for the film’s local debut for a lot of reasons. Aside from the theater’s glitz factor and sound system, it was just a few blocks from the Great American Music Hall, the historic concert venue where the premiere’s extravagant after-party would be held.
Elizabeth Berridge with Tom Hulce as Mozart
What I knew of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before seeing Amadeus was a few prominent musical works along with the knowledge that he’d been a child prodigy and had died young. I imagined Mozart the (young) man to have a personality that reflected his music: refined and elegant - and perhaps reserved, as I assumed a complex and genteel musical genius might be.

The film told me that though he was nothing less than a genius, Mozart was also a rather frivolous and louche young fellow. He was also financially destitute, a spendthrift who depended on the largess of patrons and friends. Something I’d never imagined, and central to the plot, was that Mozart's death may have been expedited by another much less talented composer, a bitter rival by the name of Antonio Salieri. I later I learned that not all of this was entirely true. License was taken with history to better contrast the irony of a Salieri, portrayed as dedicated and hardworking, a craftsman whose work is at best mediocre, against a Mozart, depicted as childish and freewheeling, a hedonist whose work is brilliant high art. The film is about the venom of envy, Salieri’s envy of Mozart’s great and, in the lesser composer’s view, undeserved genius. But Salieri's envy is particularly toxic and complicated for, according to Amadeus, he adored Mozart's work.

With its sumptuous set design, baroque-era costuming, magnificent staging of the composer’s celebrated works, Shaffer's screenplay and more than a few fine performances, Amadeus was opulent in the extreme - and the scene that followed at the Great American Music Hall was equally heady.

San Francisco's Great American Music Hall
The hall was decked out in rich rococo finery that could easily have served as a grand banquet set in the film. Two very long, elaborately candelabra-lit tables were laden with an enormous amount and variety of food. Servers dressed in the livery of late 18th century Vienna carved meat and fowl to order – for hours.  A string ensemble provided live music, the works of Mozart, of course. All the stars of Amadeus were there, and local stars as well, rock ‘n’ rollers and rock impresarios, most of them partying hard.

Early on, as I climbed the hall's broad staircase, I ran into Saul Zaentz coming down. “How did you like it?” he asked with an expectant smile. I gushed about the ravishing production design, musical staging and especially F. Murray Abraham’s performance in the role of Antonio Salieri. Saul was beaming by the time we went our separate ways.

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
As the party shifted into high gear, with champagne openly flowing and white powder covertly blowing, I noticed one major player who wasn’t playing. In a dark corner, standing by himself, quietly observing, was F. Murray Abraham. I kept an eye on him for a little while. He stayed put and – amazingly - was left alone. He seemed to want to be left alone but I thought he might enjoy an early review and so made my way to his corner, introduced myself and congratulated him on his performance as the pitiless and pitiful Salieri. He was gracious, and we exchanged a few words, his in that resonant and unmistakable baritone.

A few months later it was Oscar night and I watched as Amadeus collected eight Academy Awards, including another Best Picture for Saul and Best Director for Milos Forman…and a Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham.

~

Saul Zaentz would go on to make more films and win more Oscars. A little over 10 years later The English Patient (1996) would win nine Oscars, including Saul’s third for Best Picture. The New York Times would hail him as “the last of the great independent producers.” He passed away in 2014 at age 92.

~

The San Francisco Symphony continues its annual film series with movie-in-concert screenings of Amadeus on Friday, April 6 and Saturday, April 7 at 8pm, and on Monday, April 16 at 7:30 pm. These concerts present the film on a vast HD screen with its score performed live in-sync by the symphony orchestra. The performances will also feature the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, reprising its role in the film’s original soundtrack. Click here for more information.


4 comments:

  1. What a fascinating and great post! It was really nice of your former employer to send you the invite. Such a great opportunity.

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    1. I could go on about what a great company Fantasy was to work for. I liked Saul and all the partners immensely. One of them, attorney Al Bendich, had been defense attorney for Lenny Bruce as well as Allen Ginsberg. One day I'll blog about the place in more detail. I'll always remember the morning after John Lennon was shot when I came to work and saw that the entrance to the building was draped in black.

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  2. What a great story, Eve! I had no idea that you hobnobbed with the rich and famous :) When AMADEUS was released, I wasn't especially interested in seeing it, but had a professional obligation as the part-time film critic for a small newspaper. I quite enjoyed it and--like you--thought that F. Murray Abraham's performance was magical. Of course, I didn't get to tell him so!

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    1. I've never been a regular hobnobber, but every so often...:) It's always nice to be able to tell someone in person when you've really admired their work. At the time, though, and unlike you, I didn't have the platform to put it in writing and make it public.

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