“Comparison is the thief of joy.” —Teddy Roosevelt
If you work in an office long enough, you’ll have this experience: a new hire comes in and immediately does the job better than you. Better than you can ever do.
How do you deal with the threat to your career and your self-worth? “Amadeus” is a unique film that shows exactly what not to do.
In the beginning, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is a success by any measure. He is the toast of Vienna. He conducts his own music at the royal Opera House. He is Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s personal tutor.
Salieri has only one enemy: his bizarre, foolish ego.
When phenom Wolfgang Mozart (Tom Hulce) arrives at court, it shouldn’t matter. There is room in 18th Century Vienna for two great composers.
But Salieri’s worldview is shattered. It isn’t just that he can’t stand being second best; he is furious at God for granting divine talent to a boorish German nincompoop.
Salieri tosses his crucifix into the fire and vows to destroy Wolfgang Mozart.
Director Milos Forman made some unusual decisions that really paid off. The first was having everyone speak in an American accent. Having the characters speak with German and Italian accents would have been a logical choice. But it would have robbed the film of its immediacy and humanity.
The second was casting Jeffrey Jones (the principal from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) as Leopold II. Jones has a sophisticated take on the real Hapsburg monarch. Jones’s Leopold is totally average in intelligence and talent. But he’s tolerant, pragmatic, and decisive.
Leopold has the serene confidence that you’d expect from the scion of Europe’s greatest family, ruling over an Empire that has lasted a thousand years.
Milos Forman’s third surprising decision was to present Wolfgang Mozart as every bit as miserable and frustrated as Antonio Salieri. Unique genius is a burden, not a blessing.
Can you imagine knowing that you are the best but being surrounded by mediocre people who are incapable of appreciating your magnificence?
There is a perfect scene where Leopold climbs on stage to congratulate Mozart on his fine new opera. The Emperor has one calm observation. “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. There are simply too many notes, that’s all.”
Mozart is petulant and enraged. He storms off. He can’t comprehend that the Emperor is partly correct. Perhaps the opera is perfect … for an elite musical mind. But it is not fully enjoyable or understandable to the average theatergoer.
That’s why Mozart is fond of Salieri – his arch-nemesis. Salieri is the only man in Vienna who is educated enough to fully comprehend Mozart’s genius. It is lonely and maddening to be brilliant.
The lesson of “Amadeus” is simple but profound. Antonio Salieri could have been friends with Wolfgang Mozart. And it would have made both of their lives better.
Instead of appreciating all the splendid things he had, Salieri wallowed in anger and self-pity over the one thing he didn’t have: Mozart’s sublime natural talent. Comparison is the thief of joy.