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AMADUMDUM II

 
What is it about movie makers that they insist on fabrication when the truth is so much better? Like Miloš Forman’s Amadumdum, Bernard Rose’s Immortal Beloved concocts scenarios that, one, never happened, and, two, are far less dramatically satisfying than what might have happened. Mozart’s death wasn’t an act of conspiracy instigated by Salieri, nor was he at Mozart’s deathbed, as Foreman allows, and Beethoven’s love letter to his “immortal beloved”—discovered after his death—wasn’t written to his sister-in-law, as Rose contends, but almost certainly to Antonie Brentano, the wife of a Frankfurt merchant who was also one of Ludwig’s benefactors. And the nephew Beethoven fought ferociously for—and won in real life a bitter, rigged custody battle against his sister-in-law—was not, as the movie posits, his bastard son. In our “Gotcha!” age of loving how we expose the famous and powerful in lie after lie, in our frenzy to reveal every imaginable foible everyone else is guilty of, why are movie makers—and movie companies that finance their projects—still rushing ass-first into destroying their own credibility through contemptible falsification? Immortal Beloved is, as a matter of personal taste, a more tolerable piece of entertainment than Amadumdum, and it has Gary Oldman making us want to believe he’s Ludwig in a series of sketches from the master’s bio that congeal, excepting the affair, into a plausible portrait. As we watch the movie unfold, we’re captivated by Oldman and Isabella Rossellini—they take a very quick hold of us—and we’re amazed that much that’s historically accurate, even if altered because of time constraints, is meshing so fluidly with the hackneyed device of flashbacks. Then comes the imbecilic sister-in-law stuff. There’s no actor on the big screen more puzzling and mesmerizing for movie lovers than Oldman; a puny physical creature, without movie star looks, without melodious voice, he’s so charismatic that he can almost leave us breathless with what are incomprehensible persuasions. Haven’t the foggiest idea why, in Romeo is Bleeding, he becomes a sex symbol. Or why, in Immortal Beloved, baptizing a new, rare kind of piano and he puts his head down on its cover so that he can feel the vibrations of his “Moonlight,” we’re so caught up; it’s some kind of indefinable movie magic. Not being able to explain it doesn’t mean we can’t feel it: we know deep within ourselves the feelings the surreptitious watchers, listening to him play, are flushed by. Factually, Beethoven might not have been nearly as deaf as once thought—we’re finding out he probably could hear the extremes of frequencies well into his life—and though the “Moonlight” scene as Oldman plays it might be an exaggeration, it’s a just magnification because it validates for the audience the realness of the composer’s handicap and how he could have compensated for it. While making this movie, and Romeo is Bleeding, Oldman was in his drinking mode, and there’s definitely a drinker’s edge in these performances, just as we’ve seen the drinker in some of William Hurt’s work—particularly Body Heat and Children of a Lesser God. This brink permits Oldman’s explosions to be firecrackers—outbursts of booze-induced venom and instability, elements needed to confirm Beethoven’s infamous irascible fits, his flares of temper, his apparent inability to have lasting relationships. If Rose’s arrogance blows respect for history and challenges historians and critics to fault his “facts,” he likewise blows his own notions of romanticism by putting actress Johanna Ter Steege in the role of the sister-in-law who, though competent (and we can see where her movie son, Europa Europa’s Marco Hofschneider, gets his lips from), is all wrong for the emotions Beethoven vented in his mysterious mash note. Rose has the very actress worthy of the movie’s title and yet he uses her half-in and half-out of type: Isabella starts out a sensuous countess and ends up a gypsy. If Oldman and Rossellini were more interested in taking the money and less interested in the pooh-poohing of accuracy, they could have still taken the money and make the absolute demand to their idiot director that she play the object of his love, and had they, the audience could have had the compensation that Rose’s falsities didn’t betray the conventions of the musical biography that he flaunts. But if in the 80s audiences were too eager to accept Foreman’s expensive perpetuation of myth, a rather quiet backlash occurred with Immortal Beloved: the lovers of classical didn’t line up to watch Rose make fools of them. Rose deserved the scorn and the box office fate that greeted him. (He would, though, show much more respect for fiction in his 1997 Anna Karenina starring Sophie Marceau, who’d likely have triumphed had she not been trapped by Roy Bryson’s bad hair dayz.)

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