“Milos Forman, the anti-authoritarian director who left his native Czechoslovakia for creative freedom in the U.S. and captured Oscars for the masterpieces One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, has died.” Duane Byrge for the Hollywood Reporter: “Forman first attracted international attention with such features as Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965)—an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film—and The Firemen’s Ball (1967), which put him in hot water with the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. . . . One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, dealt with life inside an Oregon mental institution. Starring Jack Nicholson as an insurgent patient, it was a sensation at the Oscars, winning five major categories (picture, director, actor, actress and adapted screenplay). Amadeus (1984), starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, raked in eleven Oscar noms and eight wins, including those for best picture and director.”
“In the context of Czechoslovak cinema in the early 1960s, Milos Forman’s first films (Black Peter and Talent Competition) amounted to a revolution,” writes Josef Skvorecky for Film Reference. “Influenced by Czech novelists who revolted against the establishment's aesthetic dogmas in the late 1950s rather than by Western cinema (though the mark of late neorealism, in particular Ermanno Olmi, is visible), Forman introduced to the cinema after 1948 (the year of the Communist coup) portrayals of working-class life untainted by the formulae of socialist realism.”
“When Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1966, it was an immediate sensation,” wrote Dave Kehr for Criterion in 2002. “Usually, when a film achieves instant acceptance, that means there is something wrong with it—that it is too obvious, too sentimental, or too eager to please. None of this is true of Loves of a Blonde, which remains an amazing balancing act of subtle social satire and adolescent romantic longing, of blank despair and irrepressible hope.”
Also for writing for Criterion in 2002, J. Hoberman: “The last, best, and funniest movie Milos Forman would make in his native Czechoslovakia, The Firemen’s Ball is a deceptively simple miniature. This seventy-three-minute movie, its premise scarcely more than an anecdote, finds an entire universe in the benefit gala staged by a group of inept, officious, mildly corrupt—in short, intensely human—volunteer firefighters. . . . The movie’s droll naturalism occasionally flirts with cuteness, but its deadpan comedy is darkened by an unwaveringly clear-eyed view of human stupidity and deception.”
“Forman was in Paris in August 1968 when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia,” write Richard Natale and Carmel Dagan for Variety. “Soon thereafter he moved to New York, joining another celebrated Czech director, Ivan Passer, who had penned Loves of a Blonde with Forman and others. Forman’s first U.S. film, Taking Off , was similar in approach and style to his earlier work, and while it was praised by critics, it did little to establish him as an American director.” Then came Cuckoo’s Nest, followed four years later by Hair (1979), but “the episodic piece seemed passe onscreen, and Forman’s simple approach was ill-suited for the musical material. He did better with 1981’s Ragtime, a mostly successful adaptation of E. L. Doctorow’s bestseller centered on intersecting lives in the early twentieth century.”
“The People vs. Larry Flynt pressed the limits of tolerance for an antihero with its sympathetic portrait of the Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt,” writes Michael Cieply for the New York Times. “Released by Columbia Pictures in 1996, it was a box-office bust . . . In 1999, Man on the Moon, Mr. Forman’s complex portrait of the comic Andy Kaufman and his alter-ego Tony Clifton, did only a little better for Universal Pictures. . . . Mr. Forman’s next film, Goya’s Ghosts , for Samuel Goldwyn Films, was an intricate examination of persecution in Spain in the era of religious persecution and Napoleonic conquest.”
Milos Forman was eighty-six.
Updates: “The divine inspiration of madness—its ambiguity, its creativity, its higher sanity, and the cover and legitimacy it gives to protest against oppression and bullies of all stripes—these were the ideas which energised Milos Foeman in his remarkable work,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “He was the Czech new wave émigré who brought the spirit of anti-Soviet rebellion to Hollywood and made its sly comic strategies and humanist passion flower in dozens of different ways.”
Variety’s Elsa Keslassy gathers tributes from former Cannes president Gilles Jacob, Antonio Banderas, Edgar Wright, and Larry Karaszewski, who co-wrote The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon with Scott Alexander.
In 2002, Forman told Tasha Robinson at the A.V. Club that “individuals fighting or rebelling against the status quo, the establishment, is good for drama. And also I feel admiration for rebels, because I lived twice in my life in totalitarian society, where most of the people feel like rebelling but don’t dare to. And I am a coward, because I didn’t dare to rebel there and go to prison for that. That’s, I guess, why I admire the rebels and make films about them.”
“In 1994, he published his autobiography, Turnaround, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in his career,” writes Peter Sobczynski, having walked us through the oeuvre at RogerEbert.com.
At IndieWire, Eric Kohn writes about “the masterful black comedies he made in the first stage of his career” and Michael Nordine gathers tributes from Jim Carrey, Danny DeVito, Ron Howard, Mia Farrow, Ava DuVernay, James Mangold, M. Night Shyamalan, Joe Dante, and Larry Flynt.
Updates, 4/15: “Born in Čáslav, near Prague, Forman was eight when his father, Rudolf Forman, a professor, and mother, Anna Švábová, a hotelier, died in Nazi concentration camps,” writes Ronald Bergan for the Guardian:
He was brought up by two uncles and friends of his parents, and it was much later that he discovered that his biological father was a Jewish architect, Otto Kohn.
In 1950, aged eighteen, he enrolled in the newly founded Prague film school, Famu, and began directing documentaries for Czech television four years later. In 1963, Forman made two short films, one on a talent contest, and the other on a band competition, which revealed his keen eye for the minutiae of human behavior and a taste for gently mocking simple pleasures. After these shorts, in which he gave documentary material fictional form, his first feature, Peter and Pavla (AKA Black Peter, 1964), gave his fictional material documentary form. By using mostly non-actors, improvised dialogue and filming in the streets, Forman brought a new vitality into Czech cinema.
“With Forman,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, “there was, in most of his best films, the dynamic of resistance edging toward rebellion. At the same time, however, the outbursts and contrarianism in his work always had a softer, humanistic feel absent the melodrama that more conventional or hard-charging dramatists normally employ. . . . It's not always easy to analyze why some artists remain productive and culturally connected through their entire careers while others pass out of the spotlight. But for two decades, Forman shared the upper echelon of international filmmakers with a precious few others with distinctive works that no one else would have made remotely the same way.”
“Artists by nature are rebels,” Forman told Terrence Rafferty in DGA Quarterly in 2008 (via Variety’s Brent Lang). “By nature. The conflict of individuals rebelling against institutions—that’s McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest. And it’s a timeless conflict, a basic conflict. That’s good for drama, good for story. We need institutions. We create them, we pay for them with our taxes, to serve us. So why do we always seem to wind up serving them? I think this was, is, and always will be the most substantial conflict of mankind.”
Updates, 4/16: Courtney Love, who played Althea in The People vs. Larry Flynt and Lynne Margulies in Man on the Moon, has posted a tribute on Instagram: “Milos, I’ve told you a million times, but I’ve never loved a human being the way love and admire you.”
“Who else could have tackled such beloved-by-the-counterculture efforts as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hair (1979) even as he supported the Vietnam War?” asks Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “‘I lived so long under Communism that for me, anybody who fought Communism was a hero,’ Forman told me some years ago. ‘America was a hero for fighting the Communists in Vietnam. But Hair the musical was to me an act of freedom 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.’ Watch his movies today—any of his movies, really—and you’ll see an artist contending with the sheer terrifying messiness of a world where people refuse to be held down. Freedom, in Milos Forman’s films, is precious, to be sure—but it’s also ever-changing and chaotic.”
“Forman was also the king of bad timing,” writes David Cairns. “For every movie that somehow came along at the right time—Cuckoo’s Nest was a sixties novel that depicted a mental hospital decades out of time, but turned out to be a movie just right for the seventies, there would be a Hair (nobody wanted to see a film about hippies in 1979, and it didn’t have a plot—sure, more story than the stage musical, but still, no plot), or Valmont . . . But those are really good films, I’m so glad Forman ignored his own sound financial instincts and made them, out of love. . . . There aren’t enough Milos Forman films. And yet, once you start listing the essential ones, you can’t stop until you’ve named them all.”
Film New Europe notes that “Forman was married to the Czech film star Jana Brejchová from 1958 to 1962. In 1964 he married Vera Kresadlova and had twin sons, Petr and Matej Forman, who have established an reputation for their innovative theatre productions. Forman was married a third time, in 1999, to Martina Zbořilová, with whom he had twin sons Andrew and James, names for Andy Kaufman and Jim Carrey.”
Updates, 4/18: “Valmont deserves reappraisal,” argues Michael Brooke, writing for Sight & Sound. “Forman and [Jean-Claude] Carrière’s screenplay imagined the context of the novel’s letters rather than adapting them directly (as [Christopher Hampton’s for Dangerous Liaisons] had done), resulting in something looser, more sensual, more Formanesque. Forman was sanguine about its commercial failure, not least because it coincided with the collapse of Communism in his homeland.”
Variety’s Owen Gleiberman on Cuckoo’s Nest: “In Nicholson, Forman tapped a performance as fierce and funny and sad and triumphant as the great Jack had ever given, and the director viewed the inmates, in their very insanity, as desperately specific individuals. Most tellingly, he directed Louise Fletcher, as Nurse Ratched, to give a performance that courted villainy, yet if you looked close enough you could see it from her side as well—this woman of infuriating wholesomeness who was doing what she’d been taught (keep order and play by the rules), channeling an oppression she was scarcely aware of.”
Hair, Ragtime, and Amadeus “form a loose trilogy,” suggests Charles Bramesco, arguing at Vulture that “this mid-period affair with music captures Forman’s ecstatic passion with peerless rapture.”
For Rolling Stone, Tim Grierson talks with F. Murray Abraham “about his unlikely path to Amadeus, what he so admired in Forman and why they were never close.”
Film Comment has posted Harriet Polt’s interview with Forman from its Fall 1970 issue, conducted just “as Forman was preparing to make Taking Off, his first American film.”
Update, 4/20: “The influence of the Czech New Wave—and in particular the work of Milos Forman and his cinematographer—on the radical British cinema of the 1960s can hardly be overstated,” writes Robert Barry at the Quietus. “Born in Prague and trained at the famous FAMU film School and Barrandov Studios, Miroslav Ondříček worked with Forman from his very first feature, Konkurs (Audition) and they continued to work together through all of Forman’s greatest American-made films, Taking Off, Ragtime, right up to 1989’s Valmont. In 1965, Lindsay Anderson had travelled to Prague to watch Forman and Ondříček shoot Loves of a Blonde. According to [cinematographer Chris] Menges, ‘He fell in love with that way of working. And I really think that he just completely loved Milos Forman. That relationship was a blessing for Lindsay. It gave him a lot of confidence.’”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.