Milos Forman, the celebrated Czech filmmaker, actor, scenarist and teacher, passed away on Saturday, April 14, 2018, at Danbury Hospital, near his home in Warren, Connecticut. He was 86.
His twelve feature films were nominated for 33 Academy Awards. Three of these were for Best Director, two of which received the prize: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984).
Forman’s tone could be ironic, metaphoric, and allegorical, but his humane observations and subversive touch were the true key to his success. Two of his earliest productions received Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Film, a significant mark of international recognition that, along with various prizes at a number of major film festivals, made him a worldwide star and a leading figure of his native land’s new, burgeoning film scene.
The Czech New Wave was made of the second generation of graduates from the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Art: Forman, Ivan Passer, Jiri Menzel, Vera Chytilova, all made their debuts in 1963, eventually combining with both older and younger colleagues in the period 1963-1969 to make up the new face of Czech cinema. It was a period of extraordinary creative diversity, in which filmmakers, through their work, challenged such ingrained notions as the market and dogmatic ideology.
Milos Forman was the best known of these artists, and became the only director of the group to transfer his artistic vision and style to the American film industry.
Tomas Jan ‘Milos’ Forman was born on February 18, 1932, in Caslav, a town about fifty miles east of Prague. His father, Rudolf Forman, was a teacher, and his mother, Anna Svalova, ran a summer hotel on a lake in northern Bohemia. His parents were both Protestants.
After the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Germany in WWII, the Gestapo arrested both parents and falsely accused them of being members of an anti-Nazi movement. Both were sent to prison, his mother dying in Auschwitz in 1943 and his father in Buchenwald in 1944. Thus, it was left to Forman’s grandfather, with the help of other relatives, to raise Milos and his two brothers.
(Many years later, in 1964, a woman who had been a confidant of his mother at Auschwitz through many years of pain visited Milos, informing him that his actual father had been a Jewish architect with whom Anna had had an affair.)
In 1945, after the war, Milos was sent to a boarding school for war orphans in the town of Podebrady Attending this school ended up having an impact on his career, as a few of the classmates that he met there were just as artistically inclined as he was, like Ivan Passer, who later became his co scriptwriter for the films in his Czech period, Vaclav Havel, a liberal writer who later became president of the Czech Republic, and Milan Kundera, the novelist. By age 18, Forman was already directing and performing in classic satirical Czech plays of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In 1950, Forman was accepted at the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (FAMU) as a screenwriter, after having been forbidden to enter as a director by the authorities due his activities in music, his taste for decadent subject matter and his rebellious attitude towards communism. Enrolling in the university also enabled him to avoid military service.
After graduating from the University in 1954, he began his career in film and television. He directed his first film, Audition – Talent Competition – (the above video clip), with a 16 mm Pentaflex movie camera he bought with his savings. This semi-documentary, medium length film was about the discovery of a talented girl who came to audition at the Prague Semafor Theatre. Ivan Passer co-wrote the script, the first entry in his regular collaboration with the filmmaker.
Forman’s first feature film was Black Peter (Peter and Paula), shot in 1963. It was the story of a young store clerk in love with a high school student, his problem adjusting to adult life and his difficult relationship with his father. He cast non-professionals, who improvised some of their dialogue, and shot on location in Kolin in central Bohemia. His approach to direction displayed the influence of the Italian Neo-realists and the French New Wave.
Black Peter was released in April 1964 and was selected by Czech film critics as the Best Picture of 1963. It won the Golden Sail Award at the Locarno International Festival and garnered further awards in Italy, Germany, Britain and Portugal.
Forman said, “All the most important and immediate conflicts in life, are between different, equally well-intentional people’s conception of what the best is.” This thesis reflects the generation gap that became one of the predominant themes in Forman’s work, starting with Black Peter and continuing throughout his career. That same year, he shot If It Weren’t for Music, another medium-length effort. These two films were vivid indications of a talented new director who was coming into his own on his way towards capturing a place in the world of cinema.
His next film, Loves of a Blonde (A Blonde in Love) from 1965, was about a shoe factory girl who falls for a visiting musician, only to meet with suspicion from his family when she attempts to forge a romantic relationship with him. The humorous details and brilliant direction captured the full attention of both national and international critics, as well as major film festivals around the world. The film won the jury prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival and was chosen to open the New York Film Festival, subsequently being shown in a New York theatre for 22 weeks. In addition, Loves of a Blond was nominated for the 1966 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
Loves of a Blonde perhaps stands as the exemplar of Czech New Wave Cinema. Georges Sadoul, the French film historian, wrote: “It depends on an instinctive sense of timing and a constant vision of life and people.”
According to Peter Hames, the author of The Czechoslovak New Wave, “the impermanence of young love, the confusion and despair of middle age, and the gulf between the generations” are a constant theme in Forman’s films.
Having conveyed his analysis and view of Czech family life in his first two feature films, he turned to an ironic and metaphorical criticism of public life in his third film, The Firemen’s Ball, a tragicomic allegorical piece made in 1967 with a budget of only 65 thousand dollars. The story takes place in a small provincial town, where the arrangements for the volunteer firemen’s annual ball go wrong at every turn.
Forman said: “I always have to observe the ground and the people before I make a film. When I was preparing The Firemen’s Ball in Czechoslovakia, I spent three weeks with a group of firemen in the Krkonose [a mountain range near the Polish border], eating with them, drinking with them each evening. I almost became an alcoholic.”
The Firemen’s Ball was shot in color in a typical local location in a hall in the mountain town of Vrchlabi, with nonprofessional actors.
Following Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball was also nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and was selected to compete at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival, however, the festival was canceled due to the events of May 1968 in France.
Having aimed his satire at an Eastern European communist system, Forman found himself being assailed by an angry government and targeted by the authorities in Prague, who complained that his film made fun of good communist workers. His films were simultaneously attacked by Stalinist reviewers from the far left and praised by liberals in the Communist Party.
Forman said: “I wasn’t trying to convey any special message or allegory. I wanted to make a comedy knowing that if I were to be real, if I were to be true, the film would automatically reveal an allegorical sensibility. That’s a problem with all governments, with all committees, including firemen’s committees.”
Antonin Novonty, the president of Czechoslovakia, had a private screening of The Firemen’s Ball, and the political subtext made him so angry that he banned the film for twenty years. In January of 1968, Novonty was forced to resign as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist party, and the liberal Alexander Dubcek became, on January 5, 1968, the first Slovak to hold the nation’s highest position. Dubcek and other reformers implemented various reforms under the notion of “socialism with a human face”: striking was legalized, censorship was abolished on June 26 of that year, and a day later, many newspapers published Ludvik Vaculik’s 2000-word proclamation, supporting reform and demonstration. This period was called the Prague Spring.
But Russia was not at all happy with these developments, and on August 20 and 21 of 1968, 200,000 troops from Warsaw Pact countries entered the country with tanks. The Freedom Spring crashed.
Carlo Ponti, the Italian producer of The Firemen’s Ball who partly financed the film, sued to recover his capital and called the film anti-humanitarian. The French filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Claude Berri raised enough money to rescue the movie from destruction and Forman from a possible jail sentence and bankruptcy.
Forman was in Paris and in the middle of negotiating his next film with Hollywood when the Freedom Spring ended. He decided to escape the dictatorship of communism and live in self-exile instead of returning home to join his wife and two sons. Ivan Passer, Ian Kadar, and other filmmakers and artists also went into exile around the same time.
By the end of his first period of filmmaking in Czechoslovakia, Forman’s style and vision were firmly in place, his need for experimentation gone. He would spend many months working on his scripts before shooting began. Everything was scripted and prepared to the last detail, and improvisation was reduced when working with nonprofessional actors. Forman’s precise selection of camera angles and the use of close-ups as cinematic punctuation in his first three feature films had been instrumental in the development of his method of directing.
Forman’s approach to storytelling can also be reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, who specialized in melding the comic and the tragic.
After having settled down in New York, Forman began to work on a script for Paramount about a young dropout, the initial version of which did not meet the studio’s taste. For the next year, he worked on a revision with both the French writer Jean-Claude Carriere and the American John Klein. Again, Paramount passed, but Universal picked up the project. Taking Off was subsequently shot by Miroslav Ondricek in the East Village and Queens, with many young children in the cast who played themselves. Ondricek was a close, longtime friend, who had served as cinematographer on Audition, Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball. A fellow exile, Ondricek would go on to shoot Hair, Ragtime, Amadeus and Valmont for the director, winning Oscars for his dazzling cinematography for both Ragtime and Amadeus.
Forman’s first American film, one made with the same formula and by the same methods as his earlier work, was released in March 1971. The story was about a suburban couple who gradually begin to lose their own inhibitions as they search for their runaway daughter among the hippies. The film almost resembles an anthology of Forman’s previous films. In fact, it is, in some ways, a reimagining of Audition. Taking Off (below video clip) was an attempt to show America to Americans through the eyes of a sensitive foreigner. The film was very well received by critics, with Variety writing: “A very compassionate, very amusing contemporary comedy”. The critic Richard Schickel wrote: “Perhaps only a humane, gentle, and intelligent foreigner can at this time restore to us some perspective about our national life.”
Taking Off was an official US entry at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival, ultimately winning the Jury Prize. But despite the accolades, the film failed at the box office. Forman’s salary for the film was tied to the profits, and consequently, he lost his apartment. Soon after, he moved into the Chelsea Hotel and sank into depression.
Taking Off turned out to be the only one of Forman’s American films to be based on his own original story. The rest of his American productions were all adaptations of one sort or another.
Forman’s 13-minute Decathlon segment for the documentary Vision of Eight (1973) was his contribution to a film about the 1972 Munich Olympics, along with seven other directors. (Among the other segment directors were Arthur Penn and John Schlesinger.) Forman used several cameras simultaneously throughout the shoot so as to be in full control of the way the athletes were captured at their top moments of competition without missing a second of the excitement. The Decathlon segment could serve as a syllabus of the filmmaker’s aesthetics.
Three years later, in 1975, Milos Forman would become an American citizen.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The story of how this outstanding film, which would establish Milos Forman as an icon, eventually got made is fascinating and worth telling.
1962 saw the publishing of Ken Kesey’s first novel, an iconoclastic work about a newly committed mental patient that spoke to the social and political turmoil already bubbling up in the USA at that time. Kesey’s novel was not a bestseller, but it still made the rounds, enough to attract the attention of Kirk Douglas, who bought the stage and screen rights with the idea that he would play the leading role of Randle P. McMurphy. He gave it to Dale Wassermann, who had written the first draft of The Vikings (1958), to write the stage version for Broadway. The play opened on November 14, 1963, in New York. Douglas flew Kesey in from Oregon as his special guest. Unfortunately, the reviews were disastrous, and the show was killed after five months, closing in January 1964.
In 1965, Douglas sent the book to Forman, but by his account, he never heard back about it.
Douglas’s persistent effort to finance the project and bring in one of the major studios was not successful. In 1971, his son Michael, who had appeared in the play version with his father for one night in 1964, took over custody of the book in hopes of fulfilling the project that had eluded his father for so long. Michael brought in Saul Zaentz as a co-producer, with the two of them putting up its two million dollar projected budget, since they still couldn’t get backing from any studios.
The first attempt at the screenplay was made by Kesey himself. But his version was rejected by Michael Douglas, a fact that created a rift between the producer and the author, who vowed that he would never watch the movie as a result. Douglas then asked Lawrence Houben and Bo Goldman to have a go at the story, which was set in 1963 in a mental hospital.
Houben eventually introduced Douglas to Forman. Forman flew to Los Angeles and, after reading the script, told them his thoughts page by page, outlining what he would do, in sharp contrast to the other directors who had been approached, none of whom had expressed any particular enthusiasm. Forman was hired immediately, and by his own account, his “price was in their range.”
Forman, writing an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times (‘Obama the Socialist? Not Even Close’) on July 10, 2012, wrote: “To me it was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not.”
The casting was not easy. Kirk Douglas, despite his longtime desire to play the part, was not cast, due to his age. James Caan turned it down, while Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were regarded as backups. Finally, Hal Ashby, who had been considered earlier for director, suggested Jack Nicholson. It was the first time in his career that Forman wanted to cast a star and work with stars.
The casting of Nurse Ratched also took a different path when Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, and Elliot Bernstein all turned down the role. Forman re-discovered Louise Fletcher while watching Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974). Fletcher agreed to play Nurse Ratched, working over a period of 11 weeks for a fee of ten thousand dollars.
While waiting six months for Nicholson to be free, Forman spent almost three months at The Oregon State Hospital studying the inmates, the doctors, the building and the location around the city, Salem, where the film was shot in early 1975. The great cameraman Haskell Wexler was fired at a very early stage of shooting by Michael Douglas. His sense of perfection simply did not line up with Forman’s aesthetic requirements.
United Artists, which had no desire to put so much as a dollar into the film’s production, agreed to distribute it (ultimately making 30 million dollars for their effort). Meanwhile, the initial two million dollar budget had increased to four, but after release, the film was a smash hit at the box office, with sales passing two hundred million dollars.
The film was about an immoralist named McMurphy, who, having been imprisoned for rape, is transferred for observation to a state mental hospital. As indicated, the confrontation between the antiheroic, charismatic McMurphy and the tyrannical, authoritarian Nurse Ratched not only represented the culture wars of the 1970s, but also the communist dictatorship of Forman’s native country during its occupation by Russia and Stalinism.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a poetic, disturbing and outstanding piece of cinematic theatre that was well worth the twelve years it took to materialize. This emotionally powerful work, against all studio assumptions, became an unexpected commercial hit, thanks in large part to the effective adaptation by Lawrence Houben and Bo Goldman and the literal-minded direction of Milos Forman.
For the first time in a Forman film, the tragic irony is broken at the very end, making way for a positive ending, with a positive hero.
The film was as well-received by critics as it was at the box office. Pauline Kael, in The New Yorker, wrote: “Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey’s novel.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, having garnered nine nominations, became the second film out of three in the 90-year history of the Academy Awards to sweep the top five categories at the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Previously, in 1934, It Happened One Night by the legendary Frank Capra, had achieved the same, and later, in 1991, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs became the third.
After receiving his first Best Director award, Forman said: “I spent more time in a mental institution than the others.”
In 1978, Forman had become a full professor in the Columbia University film department. He would later be appointed director of the department, although he brought in Frantisek Daniel to run it. But his interest in film studies did not in any way dampen his desire to continue making films of his own, and his new project ended up coming from a visit he had made to the city in the previous decade.
In 1967, during his visit to New York, Forman watched a performance at the off-Broadway Public Theatre of the musical Hair: An American Tribal Love-rock Musical, about a Vietnam War draftee who takes up with a group of hippies on his way to being inducted into the army. Forman was tremendously impressed. He took the music and its book to Prague to stage it. He ultimately failed to do so, but continued to maintain the dream that Hair might become his first American film. While it wasn’t his first, his dream did eventually become a reality.
Forman had loved musical subjects from his very first film, and this was an opportunity to see that love fulfilled in the most glorious terms. Michael Weller adapted the play into a script, and with a budget of 15 million dollars, the film was made, utilizing excellent choreography by Twyla Tharp and beautiful location footage of New York’s Central Park and Washington DC’s Lincoln Memorial shot by his regular cinematographer Ondricek.
Released by United Artists, the film received mixed reviews. Forman chalked the lukewarm reaction up mostly to timing, saying: “Too late to be actuality and too soon to be nostalgia.”
Forman made three period films in the eighties, two based on books and one on a popular stage production.
Ragtime (1981) was based on the bestselling historical novel by E.L. Doctorow. Originally slated to be directed by Robert Altman, producer Dino De Laurentiis chose to put Forman in his place. The novel, a gigantic beast with myriad intertwining stories and an abundance of characters (both historical and fictional), depicted New York just after the turn of the century, around 1906, a time of great social change. Forman told Doctorow that his novel was “[t]oo sprawling. It must be focused. I decided we would concentrate on three characters: Coalhouse Walker, his younger brother and Evelyn Nesbit. We would build them up, strengthen their mutual relationship, make it into story.” The adaptation by Forman and Michael Weller was great and gave more life to Walker, a black man who proceeds from protest to terrorism to martyrdom in a quest for personal justice.
Forman convinced his neighbor, 81-year-old superstar James Cagney, to come out of his 20-year retirement and play the feisty New York City police commissioner Waldo, alongside another American icon, Norman Mailer. But Forman had significant difficulty recreating early 20th century America life on the silver screen. The film was shot in New York City, New York State, New Jersey and at Shepperton Studios in UK.
The final cut came in at just under three hours. De Laurentiis pressured Forman to cut it by 20 minutes more, a demand with which Forman was not at all happy.
Ragtime was released by Paramount Pictures on November 20, 1981. Having ended up with a budget of 32 million dollars, the film utterly failed, making only eleven million at the box office. The entire venture turned out to be a financial disaster for the Dino De Laurentiis Production Company.
Despite being one of the major films of the year, it received mostly negative reviews. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote that it “…severely diminishes, flattens and oversimplifies a very complex, revivifying novel,” and according to the Sunday Times: “The book, despite its defects, was funny, radical and angry. The film, despite its virtues, is solemn, liberal and passive.”
Academy members had a different view, and Ragtime ended up being nominated for eight Oscars, although on the big night, it turned out that the nominations would have to be enough. The film failed to take a single category.
Forman later said that he considered the film to be “an amputee.”
With Amadeus, his second film of the eighties, Forman bounced back. In 1984, producer Saul Zaentz, who had a gambled on financing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest almost a decade earlier and had made a fortune as a result, decided to team up with Forman once again, this time to produce a period drama.
The entertaining, fictionalized script by Peter Shaffer, a restructuring of his own massively successful play, was based on speculation about the intense rivalry within the 18th century Viennese Court between Italian composer Antonio Salieri and prodigy Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, during the last ten years leading up to Mozart’s death in 1791. The story is told as an extended flashback, as the elderly Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) reflects upon the internal conflict with which he struggled as he watched the rise and fall of the immensely talented but personally irresponsible Mozart (Tom Hulce).
Forman returned to his native land after 16 years in exile in America, shooting in a wonderfully atmospheric Prague, with all of its fascinating historical elements and musical fables, as a stand-in for Vienna, Austria. Abraham, as the soul-tormented and poisonous Salieri, gave the performance of his life.
Forman’s highly stylized direction once again demonstrated his special skill with musical subjects, a talent that he had been cultivating since Audition in 1957.
Amadeus, a rich, smart and entertaining film with a budget of 18 million, was released by Orion Pictures in September 1984. This time, Forman had a box office hit on his hands; the film took in 52 million dollars and received highly favorable reviews. Stanley Kaufman wrote: “Forman has never directed so well.” But Pauline Kael wrote: “Forman’s insensitivity to what Mozart might have been like is so flagrant,” and David Denby characterized Amadeus as a “middlebrow problem play,” with many splendid facets, but too often static or wooden.
Amadeus was nominated for eleven Academy Awards in 1985, winning a thoroughly respectable eight, including Best Film and Best Director. It was the second Oscar for Forman in almost ten years.
The original PG-rated cut of Amadeus was released in 1984 with a runtime of 161 minutes; Forman subsequently added 20 minutes of restored footage for the release of the Director’s Cut in 2002.
The third and final literary adaption that Forman made in the ‘80s was Valmont. In 1989, Michael Hausman, the executive producer of Amadeus, asked Forman to direct a historical drama based on a novel by the French author Choderlos de Lenclos. The script was adapted by Forman and Jean-Claude Carriere. It was the second time that Carriere, a distinguished French writer and scriptwriter, had collaborated with the filmmaker. The adapted scenario revolves around a bet between two 18-century French aristocrats who conspire in the seduction of a young and virginal bride-to-be.
However, as with Hair, timing was once again not on Forman’s side. Valmont, made with a budget of 33 million dollars, was released by Orion Pictures on November 17, 1989, a year after the release by Warner Brothers of Dangerous Liaisons, a film by Stephen Frears that adapted Christopher Hampton’s play version of the same novel. The earlier film, made for the substantially smaller budget of 14 million, had already enjoyed tremendous critical and commercial success, making 34 million at the box office. Dangerous Liaisons’ cast, which featured, among others, Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, had greater star power, and likely inspired more interest than the still impressive but less high profile teaming of Annette Bening, Meg Tilly and Colin Firth, who, in the title role, had not yet become an international star.
The critical response was mixed. Roger Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times, gave the film three and half out of four stars. Peter Travers wrote a lukewarm review in Rolling Stone magazine, although he did grant that the film was “rapturously beautiful, enticing us into a lush, aristocratic world.”
Valmont was arguably the superior and more playful adaptation, but it was overlooked and neglected owing to its later release date and the fact that its story, following more closely the novel by de Laclos rather than the play by Hampton, was far more steeped in irony and tragedy. As a result, the film essentially crashed at the box office.
In the ‘90s, Forman changed his path again, turning to a series of three biographical films.
The People vs. Larry Flynt, an American biographical drama, was the story of a poor Kentucky boy who grows up to be the successful head of a pornographic empire. Larry Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson, ultimately ends up taking on the system, taking his battle to protect his business, and freedom of speech in general, to the Supreme Court. The case was a real one, emerging after the right wing fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell sued Flynt over a satirical piece in Flynt’s flagship publication, Hustler magazine. Edward Norton played Flynt’s lawyer and Flynt himself made a cameo in the film as a judge.
Upon the film’s release in October 1996, it was attacked by some feminists, who accused the movie of being far too sympathetic to Flynt, a man who had made quite a lot of money off of material that many found not merely sexist, but downright misogynist. But certain aspects of the story that perhaps made Flynt a more sympathetic character were taken directly from reality, including his status as a paraplegic, having been shot in the spine by a white supremacist with a rifle, and the loss of his longtime life and business partner Althea Leasure (played by rocker-turned-actor Courtney Love) to AIDS.
Filmed with a budget of 35 million dollars, The People vs. Larry Flynt grossed a disappointing domestic total of 20 million dollars, although it received generally favorable reviews from the critics, being outright lauded by some. David Ansen, in Newsweek, wrote: “That Forman has found the raucous, satirical side of Larry Flynt’s story doesn’t surprise us; that he has uncovered its pathos, and something that could even be considered its patriotism, is a stunning achievement.”
Forman later told Entertainment Weekly in 1999, “The film just died; that pains me, because I think it was very unjust. The film never committed the crimes for which it was accused. In general, I believe in the arguments supporting what Flynt does. But I’ve never bought a Hustler magazine, and I’m not planning to.”
Forman’s portrayal of the importance of the First Amendment was done in ironic, and sometimes humorous, terms, and the point was generally well-received. The film garnered various awards and prizes. The Academy nominated Harrelson for Best Actor and, for the third time, Forman for Best Director, but neither took home the prize.
In 1999, Forman directed his second biographical comedy-drama, Man on the Moon, about the self-destructive stand-up comic Andy Kaufman, an American entertainer who achieved stardom on the TV series Taxi, going on to push the boundaries of comedy until his death from cancer in 1984 at age of thirty-five.
The film was shot in Los Angeles in the winter of 1989, and starred Jim Carrey as Kaufman, along with Courtney Love, Paul Giamatti and Kaufman’s former Taxi co-star Danny DeVito. Carrey’s performance as Kaufman is magnificent and memorable. In a sign of the actor’s dedication to his subject, during the shoot, he never came out of character, even when the cameras stopped running, truly a Kaufman-esque gesture.
Released by Universal, the film, while not an outright failure, was not commercially successful (with a large budget of 82 million dollars, Man on the Moon made 48 million at the box office) and received mixed reviews (although all of the critics praised Carrey’s performance, one for which he ended up winning the Golden Globe). Todd McCarthy, the film critic for Variety, wrote: “All the audience is left with is the impression of a thoroughly obnoxious man you’d never want to meet in real life, a hopeless neurotic of little discernible talent other than for making the lives of those around him miserable.”
Forman’s last film was his third biography: Goya’s Ghosts of 2006. Goya’s Ghosts, a Spanish-American co-production, was produced by Saul Zaentz, Forman’s old partner from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. The script was written by Forman and his close friend Jean-Claude Carriere, their third project together.
Goya’s Ghosts is a beautiful historical epic told through the eyes of the master painter of Spain, Francisco Goya. It is set within the political turmoil at the end of the Spanish Inquisition and the beginning of the invasion of Spain by Napoleon’s army, depicting the brutality of war and life in 18th century Spain.
While most European critics did not have a positive view of the film, Roger Ebert praised it. He wrote: “Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts is an extraordinarily beautiful film that plays almost like an excuse to generate its images.”
A common thread can be found through the majority of Forman’s work, one of an individual who rises up, representing a new point of view that is incomprehensible and/or threatening to the established system. His Czech films are clearly different from his later, predominantly American productions. For one thing, removed from the machinery of the Hollywood system, they feel far more personal. But his early work, portraying individuals struggling within a bleak environment and inflexible social order, are clearly akin to his later work addressing more public questions from Western culture regarding such topics as freedom of speech, a struggle that he himself underwent in defending some of his own work. His strength in addressing certain more abstract concepts may explain why his talent for literary and dramatic subjects faltered somewhat when he turned towards more overtly biographical treatments.
Forman’s viewpoint, in both political and satirical terms, was driven in large part by anger, derived from his years as an orphan and the destiny forced upon him by the execution of his parents by the Nazis, and yet it was equally influenced by the fact that, having borne witness to the despotic, Stalinist brand of communism that had taken hold of Czechoslovakia, he institutionally turned against the aesthetic heritage of the soviet, with its own allegorical and metaphoric film language and dynamic pace.
His vision was realistic, anti-ideological, and humanist without being sentimental. His metaphoric language grew out of a dedication to absolute truthfulness in his characters and their behavior. His approach was poetic, ironically humorous and full of detailed observation of character set at a dynamic pace. His method and style, established early on, protected him from cooptation by Hollywood, and he remains a member of a group of only twenty directors who have won two or more Oscars for Best Director during the ninety years of the Academy Awards.
In 1978, I produced a series of two-hour-long programs for Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) for a show called The Seventh View, all about the style and vision of five pantheon directors. Those five were John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir and Milos Forman. The great film critic Andrew Sarris, my teacher and mentor, wrote the text for the first four directors, and Antonin Leihm wrote the episode on Forman.
For that particular program, I had the unique privilege of conducting a very receptive and friendly interview with Forman in his apartment in New York, and, with his permission, my TV crew and I shot a whole day of behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Hair in Central Park. (He and I would meet again later in the early ‘80s when I was in the PhD program at Columbia.) I edited all ten hours of programming in the summer of 1978 in Tehran. I will release this valuable, labor-of-love collection on DVD next year.