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Longer 'Amadeus' Back for an Encore

Movies* A director's cut of the 1984 Oscar-winning best picture is being released on DVD with 20 minutes of footage not seen in the original release.

September 24, 2002|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Last spring, when Warner Home Video announced that it was releasing a director's cut of "Amadeus" on DVD (after a limited theatrical run), many observers assumed it was purely a marketing ploy to capitalize on the success of "Apocalypse Now Redux." Not so, according to producer Saul Zaentz and director Milos Forman.

It turns out that when a French distributor approached Zaentz about a theatrical reissue of "Amadeus," the filmmakers thought it was time to revisit their original version, which contained 20 minutes of footage that were trimmed before the film's release.

While not as jarring or as controversial as "Apocalypse Now Redux," the "Amadeus" director's cut (which premieres today on DVD in a two-disc special edition as part of a new vintage and contemporary classics brand) certainly offers a more leisurely pace as well as expanded characterizations of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (played by Tom Hulce) and his ditzy wife Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). There's even a tad more of F. Murray Abraham's jealous and conniving composer, Antonio Salieri, who first plots the murder of his idol, then winds up assisting him with his Requiem Mass on his deathbed.

What is historically significant about this director's cut, however, is that an eight-time Oscar winner is being revised, not some maligned orphan film or fascinating failure. Which means that whatever we think about the merits of this new "Amadeus," it is not the same film that took home the best-picture prize in 1985.

"Back in '84, we sat around with some friends and screened the rough cut of 'Amadeus,' " Zaentz recalls. "It was three hours long, and they suggested that we cut it down for commercial reasons."

Forman concurs that they panicked: "We were already in trouble ... with no stars, classical music and a period drama. We felt that we were testing the audience's patience too long, so we cut anything that didn't push the plot forward."

It's hard to comprehend this kind of insecurity from the same producing-directing team that had scored a best-picture triumph a decade earlier with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (which also comes to DVD this week as part of the same classics brand from Warner Home Video). But nobody anticipated what an impact "Amadeus" would have on viewers back then, least of all Orion, the original distributor, which treated it like an art film.

However, "Amadeus," which Peter Shaffer adapted from his smash London and Broadway play, caught on because it was both fresh and retro. The musical thriller combined old-fashioned Hollywood glam with a contemporary punk sensibility. Hulce portrayed Mozart as if he were the world's first rock star--a vulgar genius whom audiences loved to hate. And Abraham played Salieri as if he were a tired old mainstream rival who wasn't hip enough to stay on the charts. Of course, the film had its share of detractors who detested the vulgar depiction of Mozart and the way the story played fast and loose with history. Yet it was never the intention to make a traditional biopic.

"Milos and I were totally in sync," Zaentz says. "We both agreed that to make this work as a movie, it needed more Mozart and more music. I thought it would be too distracting to cast stars, and Milos agreed with me."

So when it came time to consider the longer version--which now carries an R rating because of nudity on the part of Berridge--Zaentz, Forman and Shaffer huddled in a screening room and gave it another look. "The decision had to be unanimous--and it was," Zaentz says. "With a few minor trims, we went back to the original version we had liked all along."

Included is a more complex and provocative seduction between Salieri and Constanze, which accounts for her hatred of the composer and her melancholy mood the following morning, as well as a humiliating moment in which Mozart must beg for a tutoring job--Hulce's favorite scene, according to the director. There's even a sly scene in which the gleeful Salieri introduces a humbled Mozart to Italian ice cream.

"The scenes between Constanze and Mozart are richer and more emotionally understandable, and we now see a little more of Mozart's decline," Forman adds. "It seems right."

Zaentz isn't sure if they unduly panicked in '84, but he is glad they took the opportunity to provide a new experience that looks and sounds better than ever. All of the tweaking, remixing and remastering were done at the producer's Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley.

" 'Amadeus' is one of these films that everyone felt blessed to be working on," says Tom Christopher, the picture restoration editor who served on the sound crew in '84. "Milos wanted everything you could put into it. Not having seen the film in a long time, what strikes you is how much detail is on screen. It was shocking.

"We found all of the elements and weren't sure if they were stored properly and would print correctly. All the prints we had were faded, and Saul and Milos were very good at remembering the way it was supposed to look. They didn't go for a new look. Fortunately, the negative was shot beautifully and has a rich look. We blended the new pieces in and made sharp, clean masters for the DVD."

At the same time, Zaentz and Forman revisited "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" but resisted adding any new footage to their first collaboration. "I'm not interested in altering any of my other films," Forman says. "This was a special case where we thought it worked better and would now be better appreciated by the audience. In the case of 'Cuckoo's Nest,' there were never any reservations about the final cut, and we stand by it today."

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