“Humour was not important just for me, humour was important for this nation for centuries, to survive.”
Today the world woke to some tragic news, the great Czech film director, screenwriter, actor, and professor, Milos Forman had passed away at the age of 86. The Oscar winner came to the United States in the late 1960s as a rebellious young filmmaker whose ideas were rejected by the communist film authorities who had invaded his country in 1968. Before leaving Czechoslovakia, Forman had made the instrumental Black Peter (1964), followed by Loves of a Blonde (1965) which was a popular success in its home country. The film was shown at some major film festivals, where it was well-received, securing a number of nominations and awards. Critical response was largely positive, although some reviewers were less enthusiastic than others. Loves of a Blonde is now considered one of the most significant examples of a film movement called the Czech New Wave.
The Fireman’s Ball (1967) was Forman’s first color film. It is one of the best–known movies of Czechoslovak New Wave. And has been seen by both movie scholars and the then-authorities in Czechoslovakia as a biting satire on East European Communism. This resulted in it being banned for many years in Forman’s home country. Despite this, it was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
In 1967 Forman received permission to travel to the United States to make his first American film for Paramount Pictures. Forman rented a house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, New York with Ivan Passer (who had decided to emigrate immediately after the occupation). Forman adored New York and is quoted as saying “It’s probably the only city which reality looks better than on the postcards.”
In 1971, Forman shot Taking Off, which follows an average couple in the suburbs of New York City who, when their teenage daughter runs away from home, link up with other parents of vanished children and learn something of youth culture. The film won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Taking Off is often considered as a bridge between Forman’s Czech and American productions, and shares many common themes and formal techniques with his previous Czech films. However, despite it’s critical praise, (Vincent Canby stating that it “is not a major movie experience, but it is— a good deal of the time — a charming one.”) the film failed at the box office.
Forman had to start from scratch. He moved into the Chelsea Hotel; supposedly he had only one dollar a day to live on, which he spent on one can of chili con carne and one bottle of beer. Despite this, he never considered returning back to Czechoslovakia. From a young age, Forman had managed to overcome great tragedy, both his parents died in Nazi concentration camps and Milos was brought up by two uncles and family friends. Rudolf Forman was arrested for distributing banned books and died in the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp in 1944, and Forman’s mother died in Auschwitz in 1943. Forman has stated that he did not fully understand what had happened to them until he saw footage of the concentration camps when he was 16. He discovered later that Rudolf was not actually his real father, and that his biological father was in fact a Jewish architect, Otto Kohn, who had survived the Holocaust.
Despite the failure of Taking Off, in 1974 Forman was given a second chance to make an “American” film. Actor Michael Douglas and independent producer Saul Zaentz sent him an offer to direct a film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Later, Forman learned that Michael’s father Kirk Douglas had already sent the same offer to him in the 1960’s. It was probably confiscated by the secret police, because it never got to Forman.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one of Forman’s most well known films. It follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who pretends to be insane in order to avoid prison. However, McMurphy soon learns that the institution is the worst prison he could have chosen, especially when he makes an enemy of the sadistic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The film tells the tragedy of a conflict between an individual and a totalitarian regime. It won Oscars in the five big categories: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. One of only three films in history to do so, along with It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs, and firmly established Forman’s reputation.
The success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest allowed Forman to direct the long-planned film Hair (a rock musical) in 1979, based on the Broadway musical. The film follows the story of naive boy from the American Midwest named Claude Hooper Bukowski who has been shaped by his family’s patriotism. Under the influence of a group of hippies led by the charming George Berger, Claude starts to doubt his motivation for joining the Vietnam War. Forman used this historical background to communicate a more personal topic: the conflict between an individual and society that claims adjusting and obedience. At the same time, the movie is a satirical interpretation of a prudish American family and conservative society. When discussing Hair, Forman commented that “I had lived so long under Communism, that for me anybody who fought against Communism was a hero. America was a hero for fighting the Communists in Vietnam. But “Hair” the musical was an act of freedom for me as well. Freedom trumped everything. I was amazed at how free this country was, that it could look at itself in the mirror and see its own dark side.”
Forman’s next monumental was the adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1984 — retelling the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri. The internationally acclaimed film starred Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge and F. Murray Abraham. Although it is worth mentioning Forman’s 1981 film, Ragtime, although the success of Amadeus has somewhat overshadowed it. Roger Ebert called Ragtime “a loving, beautifully mounted, graceful film that creates its characters with great clarity.”
Amadeus is a personal favourite of mine, and the film was was nominated for 53 awards and received 40. This included eight Academy Awards (including Best Picture), four BAFTAs, four Golden Globes, and a Directors Guild of America (DGA) award. James Berardinelli has declared that “It is arguably the best motion picture ever made about the process of creation and the creator.” It is worth mentioning that the budget of the movie was 18 million dollars, making a 55 million dollar profit during the first month after the premiere – even though it was only shown in 100 cinemas.
1989 saw the release of Valmont which was Forman’s adaptation of the famous novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses“ by Choderlos de Laclos. Focuses on the author’s reflection of French high society at the end of 18th century, and also considers the concept of absolute freedom, which can only be achieved through the separation from basic human values, loneliness, or death. The film was released shortly after the premiere of a somewhat more successful adaptation of the same novel, Dangerous Liaisons, filmed by the British director Stephen Frears. And as a result it didn’t connect with audiences. However, since its initial release, Valmont has found an audience as well as critical acclaim. Critics appreciate Forman’s emphasis on the seemingly uninteresting minutia of reality, and also the psychological motivation of his characters.
There was a 7 year gap between Valmont and Forman’s next film, The People vs. Larry Flynt, which chronicles the rise of pornographic magazine publisher and editor Larry Flynt and his subsequent clash with religious institutions and the law. Chronicling 35 years of his life, we discover that Flynt survived an assassination attempt that left him paralyzed from the waist down and wheelchair bound, his wife Althea died from a drug overdose and AIDS, and as a result, Flynt was left alone with his depression and his own personal demons. The film blends two classical American film genres: biography and court drama. For Milos Forman, the pivotal scene of the film is when the Supreme Court decides whether freedom of speech includes the freedom to show a woman’s naked butt or sexual intercourse in a Santa Claus costume. Though not a financial success, the film was lauded by critics, and garnered Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton and director Miloš Forman multiple accolades and award nominations.
1999 (which has just featured in our Rewind pick) saw the release of Man on the Moon featuring Jim Carrey as the controversial comedian Andy Kaufman. He was famous for his unconventional sense of humour, scandals, and endless mystifications. The film follows Kaufman from his first stand-up performances in local clubs, to his role in the sitcom “Taxi” and the shocking wrestling show, and ends with his last joke at his own funeral. Last year saw the release of Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, a documentary which centres on Carrey’s performance as Kaufman in the film, a performance he maintained during much of the film’s production. Milos Forman’s film is a tribute to Kaufman’s humour; it makes you laugh but at the same time leaves you slightly unnerved. When asked about why Forman decided to make a film about Kaufman, he stated that “The reason I started to see his life as a movie was that I simply couldn’t figure out who the real Andy Kaufman was“.
After Man on the Moon, Forman only released two more films, Goya’s Ghosts in 2006 and A Walk Worthwhile in 2009. These films were released on a limited run and had very little commercial success, but Milos’ time was dedicated to the upbringing of his children Andrew and James with his third wife, Martina.
Milos Forman may have passed away but he has left us many wonderful films that will forever live on. He also left us with some profound quotes, one of which I will end this article with, “The worst evil is – and that’s the product of censorship – is the self-censorship, because that twists spines, that destroys my character because I have to think something else and say something else, I have to always control myself.” If we can take away one thing from this quote, it is that you should always speak up as freedom of expression is a human right, not a luxury.