A master of ironic comedy and sumptuous period dramas, film director Milos Forman (born 1932) has won two Academy Awards for directing the year's best pictures in 1975 and 1984. His works show a humanist empathy for people as victims of cruel systems over which they have little control.
Milos Forman was born on February 18, 1932 in Caslav, Czechoslovakia. His father, Rudolf, was a Jewish professor of education, while his mother, Ann Svabova, was a Protestant. Forman's parents introduced him to the cinema when he was a young boy, and he fell in love with American classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the westerns of John Ford. Forman was orphaned at the age of nine, when his parents died in Nazi concentration camps. His older brother Pavel, hunted by the Nazi secret police, took a job designing stage sets for a theater troupe that staged operettas. His brother took Forman backstage. "It was a revelation to me and I decided there and then that the theater, this other world, would be my life," he later recalled.
In 1951, Forman enrolled at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague. That same year, he married actress Jana Brejchova. The marriage ended in divorce five years later, at the time Forman graduated from the Academy.
For several years, Forman worked in mixed-media "magic lantern" theater productions in Prague. His first film work was as a screenwriter for the film Automobil in 1956. He also worked as an assistant director on several films and was a writer and director for Czech television. In every medium, he had to wrestle with the Communist government's restrictions on art.
Forman's Czech films were fresher and less constrained than most Eastern European films of the era. Heavily influenced by Italian neo-realists, Forman liked stories of ordinary people and often used non-professional actors and improvised dialogue.
Three of Forman's movies were released in the West in the 1960s, displaying to the world his sardonic wit. They owed much stylistically to silent American comedies. Chaplin, Forman has said, was a big influence. His 1963 feature film, Black Peter, is the story of a disillusioned store detective. Next came Loves of a Blonde, an unorthodox romantic comedy, followed by The Firemen's Ball, a deft satire about a ceremony for a retiring fire chief which is interrupted by a beauty contest, a marching band, a raffle, a copulating couple, and an actual fire. Misunderstanding the humor, 40,000 Czech firemen walked off their jobs after the release of The Firemen's Ball, and Forman had to publicly apologize. Besides being a disarming comedy, the film was a satire on Stalinist excesses of the 1950s, with the firemen's bosses serving as a metaphor for the Czech government.
Though his work was at first attacked by Stalinist critics, it was soon embraced by the more liberal faction of the Communist Party that held power at the time in Czechoslovakia. Success at the box office in his own country and recognition at international film festivals made Forman the leader of a Czech cinematic "New Wave" that coincided with the radically humanist films coming out of other European countries.
Political events soon interfered with Forman's career and family. In 1964, he married singer Vera Kresadlova, and they had two children, Petr and Matej. Forman was scouting locations in Paris when Soviet troops rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1967. Forman decided to stay in the West, leaving behind his wife and two young sons. He was concerned about being imprisoned if he returned to his home. Vaclav Havel, later president of the Czech Republic and a close friend, became his hero for staying, resisting the invaders, and going to jail. The Soviet-backed regime which took power immediately banned The Firemen's Ball.
Triumphed in Hollywood
Forman came to Hollywood with a solid reputation but little command of the English language and few marketable ideas. He was unable to interest producers in a fanciful project that would have starred Jimmy Durante as a wealthy bear hunter in Czechoslovakia, or in an adaptation of Franz Kafka's scathing political satire, Amerika. In 1969, Forman made his first American film, Taking Off, which he co-wrote with playwright John Guare and others. Based on a newspaper story, Taking Off was a subversive comic examination of the generation gap through the eyes of a conservative couple whose hippie daughter had run away to Greenwich Village. His only American film based on his own original idea, it was a critical success, but did poorly at the box office. Forman had trouble getting funding for other projects. In 1972, he directed one-eighth of an ensemble film about the Olympics called Visions of Eight, his segment focusing on decathalon athletes.
Forman spent the rest of his career working on literary or theatrical adaptations. In 1975, he came seemingly out of nowhere to direct a major success with a Bo Goldman screenplay adapted from a 1962 Ken Kesey novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The film, which took great liberties with the Kesey story, was a huge commercial hit and swept the top five Academy Awards—best picture, director, screenplay, actor, and actress. That had been done only once before, with Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, in 1935. Oscars went to Jack Nicholson for his role as irrepressible con artist Randall P. McMurphy who works scams at a mental hospital and to Louise Fletcher for her performance as the stern nurse who battles against him. Like much of Forman's work, the movie is a portrait of an individual struggling against the system. Filmed at the Oregon State Hospital, it contained many segments with a quasi-documentary look.
Forman became a U.S. citizen in 1975. He was given a full professorship and made director of the film division at Columbia University in New York City.
In many of his films, Forman displayed an affinity for music. In 1965, he had adapted a jazz opera, The Well-Paid Stroll, for Czech television. In 1979, Forman filmed a long-anticipated film adaptation of the quintessential youth counter-culture musical Hair. However, he missed the opportunity to cast a young singer named Madonna, who was on the cusp of stardom, and the film seemed sadly anachronistic to most critics and many viewers.
Forman's next project was a film of E.L. Doctorow's historical novel, Ragtime, a handsomely mounted, wide-ranging examination of events of early 20th century America. Released in 1981, it garnered mixed reviews. David Thomson, author of A Biographical Dictionary of Film, called it "an underrated film, true to Doctorow, complex and challenging, a movie about a time and its ideas."
Ragtime was the first of three period pieces which Forman would direct in the 1980s. He returned to top form in 1984 with Amadeus, a moody, bracing biography of the composer Mozart, adapted by Peter Shaffer from his own stage play. It won eight Oscars, including best director and picture and a best actor award for F. Murray Abraham, who played Mozart's oily nemesis, Salieri. Filmed in Prague, the film is a lavish, lustrous, assured and mature but eccentric work. At 52, with two awards for best director in a ten-year period, Forman seemed to be at the pinnacle of his career. Few at the time would have imagined he would direct only two more feature films in the remainder of the century.
A Slow Pace
Despite his success, Forman seemed content to work sparingly and slowly. As a film student, he had read the sexually charged historical novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos and had always wanted to film it. However, he was beat by director Stephen Fears, who signed big-name stars for his 1988 release Dangerous Liaisons. A year later, Forman's version of the story, entitled Valmont,/] was released, with a much less famous cast. Some felt it was better than the Fears film, which was generally regarded as cold. Most critics and audiences, however, were not impressed. While complaining that it was not very erotic, Playboy's Bruce Williamson called Valmont a "spectacularly filmed, sumptuously costumed, visual feast." Critic Stuart Klawans derided the film as the equivalent of "Wet T-Shirt Night at Lou's Ancien Regime," saying Forman "removed the danger from the liaisons, leaving the viewer with a long, lavish snooze of a picture."
In his post-Amadeus days, Forman seemed more interested in his academic duties at Columbia than in making movies. He appeared as an actor in several films, including a small role in Heartburn in 1986, a cameo as a janitor in New Year's Day in 1989, and a part in Disclosure, a film he was originally enlisted to direct. He also penned a memoir, Turnaround, released in 1994.
Forman mounted a comeback of sorts with the controversial 1996 film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. The film makes an unorthodox hero out of a pornographic magazine publisher who wages a long battle over his free-speech rights. Forman's sympathy toward his crude, annoying protagonist (played by Woody Harrelson) is obvious and probably can be traced to his early struggles against Communist censors. Newsweek 's Jonathan Alter said The People vs. Larry Flynt was "proof that raunchy entertainment can be highly educational" and called it "a socially important film" that illustrates the complexities of free speech rights. Film critic Stanley Kauffmann complained that Forman softened the rough edges of the story even while bringing out the best in his unusual cast.
Shot in Memphis, Tennessee, the film uses many Memphis citizens, both professionals and non-actors, including a local judge, D'Army Bailey, who plays a judge. Flynt himself plays another judge. Equally idiosyncratic was Forman's decision to use rock star Courtney Love to play Flint's wife, Althea Leasure. The studio wanted a rising young star such as Mira Sorvino to play Mrs. Flynt, but Forman wanted a fresher face. He tested Love and two others and sent the tests to Vaclav Havel and a few other close friends. Havel said he liked Love the best, and Forman agreed. Her performance was well-received.
Forman generally has been considered an actors' director. His films, while richly realized and warmly humane, are not generally regarded as highly innovative. Some critics say he does not have a coherent style. Kauffmann contends that "one can't speak of a Forman film, only a film by Forman." But no one could dispute that Forman's successes were prodigious ones, and all his films are richly staged.
Further Reading on Milos Forman
Barson, Michael, The Illustrated Who's Who of Hollywood Directors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995.
Brewer's Cinema, Market House Books, 1995.
Contemporary Authors, edited by Hal May, Gale Research, 1983.
Katz, Ephraim, The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1994.
The St. James Film Directors Enclyclopedia, edited by Andrew Sarris, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film, third edition, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Entertainment Weekly, March 4, 1994.
Memphis Business Journal, January 13, 1997.
Nation, December 11, 1989.
New Republic, January 20, 1997.
Newsweek, December 23, 1996.
People, December 16, 1996.
Playboy, February 1990.
UNESCO Courier, July-August, 1995.
Vanity Fair, February 1994.