Even in his early thirties, Miloš Forman gave off an air of formidable gravitas and authority. Burly, dimple-jawed, speaking in measured tones with that gravelly voice that never changed, he represented all that was most durable in the Czechoslovak New Wave of the sixties. That is when I first met him, in May of 1966. His second feature, Loves of a Blonde, opened at the diminutive Paris-Pullman cinema in London’s South Kensington. We journalists were crammed into a tiny business office at the back of the theater for an after-screening drink, and Forman stood there like an unassuming prince, his friend and coscreenwriter Ivan Passer beside him. Across the subsequent decades our paths would cross many times, in various countries from Switzerland to the U.S., and it was Forman who persuaded me to distribute in the UK the English-language edition of Josef Škvorecký’s compelling book about the Czechoslovak New Wave, All the Bright Young Men and Women.
The Poles had dominated the art-house scene more than any other Eastern European nation during the late fifties and early sixties, but by 1965 the Czechs had taken over, cocking a snook at the Communist bureaucrats who managed their film affairs, and doing so, moreover, with a sense of irony. So many talents emerged—Věra Chytilová, Evald Schorm, Jan Nĕmec, Jiří Weiss, Karel Kachyňa, Karel Zeman, Otakar Vávra, Juraj Herz, Jiří Menzel, Ivan Passer, Elmar Klos and Jan Kadár . . .
But only the versatile Forman endured through four more decades as an auteur of exceptional stature. Like a chameleon, he could adapt to different cultures and different climates. He made a mere dozen or so feature films, but even his shorts were idiosyncratic and amusing (for example, his segment of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games documentary Visions of Eight). Forman was in Paris when Russian tanks rolled into Prague to stifle the Prague Spring in August 1968. Let go by his studio in the grim, authoritarian period that ensued, he moved to the United States. He filmed there, in France, in Spain, and of course eventually back in the Czech Republic for his most lauded work, Amadeus. Who would have thought that the films of such a dyed-in-the-wool European could capture no fewer than eight Academy Awards. (Not forgetting that both Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball received nominations as best foreign language film.)
After joining FAMU, the freshly founded and soon famous Czech film school, in 1950, Forman had spent several years making documentaries for the national television network. He collaborated on screenplays, and also served as director of the Laterna Magika Theater. He told me in 2002 that from 1956, after Khruschev came to power and denounced the dictatorship of Josef Stalin, “suddenly the political situation loosened up a little bit, and that created an absolutely ideal situation. We were allowed to make our films the way we wanted, and we were the bosses.” Nonetheless he waited, with some circumspection, until his early thirties to shoot his first film; and with the featurettes The Audition and If Only They Ain’t Had Them Bands in 1963, Forman immediately showed his flair for observing ordinary mortals in much the same compassionate vein as Ermanno Olmi was doing in Italy.
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The Oscar-winning actor—whose one-hundredth birthday we’re celebrating on the Criterion Channel—embodied a mess of contradictions that have long been obscured by her reputation for unbending rectitude.
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