When I sat down to think about what to write for my first real post at this fledgling blog, it took all of a millisecond to decide that I wanted to write about F. Murray Abraham. Why? Because his performance as Antonio Salieri in 1984's Amadeus may be the finest performance ever put on film.
Abraham has had a lengthy career in film, but mostly bit parts or just downright bad ones...although he has never been bad himself. Whether he's playing a drug trafficker in Scarface, an uncredited detective for all of five minutes in Serpico, or an alien addicted to plastic surgery in Star Trek: Insurrection, he always brings his all.
In 2000's Finding Forrester, he played the part of an arrogant and bitter private school English professor perfectly. Watch the film and see if you don't believe that he must be the world's biggest asshole. Even his brief appearance in Inside Llewyn Davis will leave you feeling both intimidated and disheartened with his quiet and subdued denial of Oscar Isaac's character. Although I have not had the opportunity to see The Name of the Rose, I have no doubt that he is nothing less than frightening as the monk working against Sean Connery.
Wes Anderson used him to great effect in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and I daresay that it is a shame that he was not nominated for an Best Supporting Oscar for his role. As much as Finding Forrester makes you believe he is nothing but a bitter asshole, The Grand Budapest Hotel leaves you feeling that he is the warmest, most authentic person you will ever meet. He and Anderson would be well-served if Abraham were in every Anderson film from here on out. With the purity of Abraham's acting, and the pastel sweetness of all of Anderson's films and roles, it wouldn't be surprising if a future teaming of these two produced another gold statue for Abraham.
For all of those performances, though, it is his Salieri that sticks out. And rightfully so. He won an Oscar for a reason, after all.
What is it about Abraham's performance that makes it his greatest role? Just what I mentioned above: it's about what he can make you believe. In Amadeus, he is not "making believe", he IS Antonio Salieri...as Salieri was written for the play, if not as the real man. The angst and frustration, the heartache, and the extreme admiration that fuels his hate; it seems as though every effort and desire Abraham had were placed in a performance that has paid off for over 30 years.
Even after seeing Amadeus easily 50 times, it never gets old. In fact, it's one of very few films that I could watch every day and not get bored with it. I've read The Odyssey pretty much every year since I was in the ninth grade, so about 25 or 26 times, and I get something different out of it each time I read it. Amadeus is the film version of that book. With each viewing there is another phrase or gesture that adds to my admiration for the film as a whole, and for Abraham in particular.
There is not a weak scene (the Director's Cut aside) throughout the film, and every scene, whether it's the young-ish Salieri or the old, is intense and requires the viewer's full attention. From lamenting his early childhood to informing God that He was about to "get got", there isn't one unbelievable word uttered by Abraham. Go back and watch while he explains his plan against Mozart and God to the priest (just after the scene with Don Giovanni). Surprise is one of those reactions that rarely comes across as authentic on film, but the priest's reaction is perhaps the most real you will ever see, and the reason is because of Abraham's authenticity. He's going against God, and you can almost see that the priest, and the man who played him, Richard Frank, truly believed what Abraham was saying.
The mark of a great actor is that s/he can get you to believe that the person on screen is real, that the emotions are real, not just appreciate or enjoy a performance. Amadeus may be a fabrication and exaggeration of some events surrounding real men, but Abraham's performance makes one believe, and wish, he was channeling the true events of history.