Friday, May 12

The Directors: Milos Forman

He was a director of early Czech New Wave comedies who came to American films in the early 70s and directed an impressive but small collection of them about rebels, eccentrics and unlovable celebrities.  Due to his upbringing, he found the subject matter he wanted to explore in most of his films... the outsider who resists giving in to those who want to control his life.  He has enjoyed themes of liberty and free speech. After arriving on American shores he rather quickly won two Oscars for best direction. He seemed to have much to say so one wonders why he has worked so little as a movie director.

Milos (pronounced Mee-lowsh) Forman (roll that r) was born in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1932.  He lived outside of Prague with his professor father while his mother ran a summer hotel.  Both of his parents, who were Protestants, were killed in concentration camps after being accused of aiding in the underground resistance.  (He later learned that a Jewish architect, who survived the holocaust, was his biological father.)  He lived with a series of family members and enrolled in a prestigious boarding school.

By the early 1950s he was enrolled in the newly-founded Film Institute at the University of Prague.  It was here that he formed his visual style for filmmaking, taking up directing, writing and anything else that would help him reach his goals.  He was itching to get started telling the stories his way.  He wanted to inspire audiences to question their own societal and moral assumptions and conclusions.  

He married his second wife, a Czech movie star, and had twin sons, while cutting his teeth making documentaries.  His first film, Black Peter (1964), an autobiographical account of a teenager in a small Czech town, won him a series of awards and international recognition.  The following year The Loves of a Blonde was released to even more acclaim.  It starred his sister-in-law as a young woman who wanted to experience a grander life.  Forman employed seasoned Czech actors along with non-pros, giving his film great chemistry with different styles of acting.

Again utilizing a cast of primarily non-actors, he made a satire on smalltown politics, The Fireman's Ball (1967), playing havoc with his nation's firefighting bureaucracy.  While the film has long been regarded as one of the principal products of the Czech New Wave (and received an Oscar nomination as best foreign film), it was banned in his home country for many years for poking fun at communism. 

When Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968, Forman was in Paris negotiating the production of his first American film, Taking Off (1971).  Claiming he was out of the country illegal, his Czech film studio fired him and he emigrated to the U.S.  The film was a look at the youth movements of the 1960s and while critically-acclaimed, no one went to see it.  Forman was hurt but undeterred.

Next came the film for which Milos Forman is most famous, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).  Despite a rocky start, it firmly established his American reputation.  It is a cogent adaptation of Ken Kesey's powerful novel of an irrepressible spirit who cons his way from a prison work farm into a mental institution for the soft time it promises.  A sadistic head nurse will have a little something to say about that.

Cuckoo with Jack Nicholson

The film speaks to Forman's fascination with the human spirit and how it can persevere even under the most horrific circumstances. Not only would he win an Oscar for best direction, but the screenplay would win, so, too, would Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher for acting along with the film itself. Those five Oscar wins were of historical significance because it had only happened once before... way back in 1934 for It Happened One Night.  And it has only happened once since... in 1991 for Silence of the Lambs. This same year Forman became an American citizen.

Not only did he not work at movie directing all that often, but he had lengthy lapses in between film releases.  In some cases that is because other projects fell through but he was often involved with other interests, including family.  It took him four years to return to directing and he did so with my favorite of all his works, 
Hair (1979).  

With Treat Williams in Central Park filming Hair

Hair stands up better today than when it was first released because it now shines as ancient history.  At the time, sensational as I found it to be, it was considered by many to be released just a little too late to be of any great interest.  

Hair concerned 1960s New York City and Ragtime (1981) went back to early turn-of-the-century New York.  It is a handsomely-mounted salute to E. L. Doctorow's brilliant historical fantasy that weaves together two completely different stories.  One is the fictional Coalhouse Walker, a black jazz musician, who has been mistreated by a group of firemen and is seeking justice.  It also spins tales about the real-life chorus girl and model, Evelyn Nesbitt, whose multi-millionaire husband Harry Thaw murdered her lover, architect Stanford White.  I found it engrossing at every turn with a gorgeous period feel, sensational musical score and great acting.  It brought veteran actor James Cagney, after a 20-year absence, back to the screen for his final film.  Despite eight Oscar nominations and good sales, the critics have always regarded it as one of Forman's lesser works.

He found joy in working with legendary James Cagney

I, on the other hand, never took a shine to Amadeus (1984). Forman was likely into a good space because he returned to Czechoslovakia where most of it was filmed. It is a fictional look into an at-odds relationship between two composers, Mozart and Salieri. The heart of the film is the way both artists fight to be remembered.
Speaking of heart, I didn't think it had much and that's precisely why it didn't rattle my chains.  I didn't care.  I also thought Tom Hulce was second-string and F. Murray Abraham just did nothing for me, despite his Oscar win.  The film would also win and Forman would nab his second Oscar.  Gee, I loved Ragtime and not Amadeus.  Go figure...

I liked Valmont (1989) well enough but it's a film that seems at odds with most of the films that attracted Forman.  The peculiar thing about it is that it was done a year earlier under the title Dangerous Liaisons and with a bit more of a starry cast.

After a seven-year break, Forman came back with his dirty little movie, The People v.s. Larry Flynt (1996).  It was the first of back-to-back films about two peculiar American figures.  At one level, it seems curious that someone of Forman's background would be interested in telling the tale of the sleazy publisher of Hustler magazine.  On the other hand, it allowed Forman another biographical depiction of an idealized person trying to navigate in a world that is lacking understanding.  It contains Woody Harrelson's best work... and that's saying something.  It is also the first of two consecutive films where Courtney Love is Forman's leading lady. Now there's a coup.

Three years later he made Man on the Moon, a sympathetic if not affectionate look at the short life of controversial comic Andy Kaufman.  It may also seem at first glance an unusual subject matter for Forman, but, of course, it, too, has all the elements that the director always wanted to explore.  It contains one of Jim Carrey's best performances. Forman has said how much he thought of Carrey and when the director married for the third time this year and had another set of twin sons, he named them Jim and Andy. 

Goya's Ghosts (2006) is Forman's last film of any note.  He also co-wrote the film starring Javier Bardem and Natalie Portman that deals with the Spanish painter's muse being arrested as a heretic.  I confess that I turned off my television viewing of it about a third of the way because I found it bloated, full of itself and not at all possessing the director's usual panache. 

It seems a shame that he hasn't worked more.  I find great favor with three of his films and even more with his directing style and his usual themes.  For such a slight body of work, it certainly is a tribute to him that he won two Oscars.  And for one not only foreign-born but who didn't come to the States until adulthood, he certainly tapped into vivid portrayals of American history. 

He has spent most of his career fighting against censorship and copyright laws in the U.S.  He has also made a significant mark in academia, having taught for years at Columbia University in its film studies program.

Next posting:
A good 70s film

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