Movie Article

Of False Notes and a Nut

Backlash against Beethoven and King George III -- Historical experts take issue with "Immortal Beloved" and "The Madness of King George"

Immortal Beloved and The Madness of King George, two tales of historic giants with horrific afflictions, may turn into art-house hits. But just how historically accurate are they? Bernard Rose's Beethoven biopic in particular has some scholars howling. ''Abjectly ridiculous!'' snarls Steven White, who's completing a biography of Gustav Mahler. ''The whole movie is based on a lie! That he willed everything to his 'immortal beloved,' that's a bunch of baloney!''

Beethoven did pen a letter mysteriously addressed to such a beloved, but Rose notes that nobody really knows who it was, including the writer-director's detractors. (The usual suspect is Viennese aristocrat Antonie Brentano, who's not in the movie.) ''How can you conclusively prove who an unnamed letter was written to 150 years ago?'' he asks. ''They showed three juries the Rodney King tape, and none of them could [agree]!''

White and other scholars also complain that when Beethoven puts his ear to a piano and plays the ''Moonlight Sonata,'' Rose depicts him as being profoundly deaf too early, circa 1801. ''I don't!'' protests Rose. ''He's putting his head there to amplify the sound he can hear.'' But the film may err in a sonically different way: ''He's in a small room with a [late 18th-century] fortepiano,'' sniffs White, ''and the soundtrack has obviously got some nine-foot Steinway resounding in an empty Carnegie Hall or someplace.'' (To hear Beethoven on original period instruments, try Archiv's new CD Beethoven the Revolutionary.)

Rose admits that his aural rendering of what Beethoven heard while going deaf ''is all conjecture, frankly,'' based on the composer's description of his symptoms and created by sonic fiddling. ''When he's gone stone deaf [some experts say he never quite did] and he walks on stage,'' explains Rose, ''all you hear is whispering in Hungarian, [played] backwards.''

The Madness of King George, with its scenes of straitjacketing and torture by medical quacks, is, claims director Nicholas Hytner, ''pretty accurate — quite a lot of the ravings are taken from reports written at the time. Porphyria [the metabolic disease the movie says George III had] can cause uncontrollable talking — he talked for 48 hours at a time — and it does cause blue urine,'' the film's seemingly most fanciful touch. ''Our medical adviser gave us this boxful of [fake] urine samples made up by color, according to how long the urine has been exposed to light.''

Hytner contrived a happy ending by concluding the movie before George entered his deaf, blind, and demented last decade, but he notes that the royals' porphyria problems are hereditary and may not be gone. ''But if anybody in the immediate royal family was suffering from it today,'' says Hytner, ''you can be sure we wouldn't know about it. They'd be shut away.''

Originally posted Jan 20, 1995 Published in issue #258 Jan 20, 1995 Order article reprints
Advertisement

From Our Partners