Miloš Forman, the Openhearted Nonconformist

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.

Loves of a Blonde

Forman, like Polanski and so many others, had lost both parents in the Nazi camps during World War II, yet his early work shook off the burden of war and from the outset boasted a wry sense of humor. One of his first discoveries, Vladimir Pucholt—he appeared in The Audition, Peter and Pavla (1963), and Loves of a Blonde (1965)—brought an antic mournfulness to his roles as the archetypal Forman hero, the youngster bewildered by adult life. Miroslav Ondříček, the young cinematographer of these early films would remain faithful to Forman for many other features, including Amadeus. Their technique in the early films was very much that of cinema vérité, with Ondříček wielding two long-lensed cameras in the streets and dancehalls of northern Bohemia, the brass bands refracting the petty pomp and circumstance of the Communist regime.

Forman’s move to the United States taught him to accelerate the narrative pace of his films so as to reach a wider public. Allying his talent to the satirical writing of John Guare and Jean-Claude Carrière for Taking Off in 1971 enabled Forman to export his quirkish observations from the music halls of Bohemia to the streets of Manhattan, and in Buck Henry he found an actor who reflected the absent-minded and emotionally myopic personalities of Forman’s Czech years. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) reaped an unexpected Oscar harvest. Forman’s subsequent films in the United States did not always hit the bull’s eye, but they were almost invariably on-target. He committed himself wholeheartedly to each new project, but with hindsight I think it’s clear that his soul is most evident in those early Czech comedies. He dwells tenderly on the tribulations of young people trying to survive under a totalitarian regime. He forgives them their clumsy approach to love because they have not yet become petrified in the conformism of their elders. His romantic situations unfurl in a slow-burning, but never ponderous, tempo. Films like The Audition and Loves of a Blonde were light years removed from the somber if technically dazzling work of Andrzej Wajda and the young Andrei Tarkovsky.

Forman always believed that his characters struggled through life at the mercy of a complex, often bizarre system of social codes. Everyone, even a Mozart, even a Goya, let alone a Larry Flynt, comes into conflict with the rigorous conformism of his times. In The Firemen’s Ball (1967), what should be a cheerful occasion crumbles into a kind of poignant farce, as the members of a provincial fire brigade celebrate their annual ball, complete with tombola, booze, and even a beauty queen. The firemen’s “committee” inevitably evokes the Politburo of the period, and the stealing of prizes from the tombola display reflects the pilfering that Forman said was endemic in Czechoslovakia under Communism.

The Firemen’s Ball aroused the consternation and anger of party officials in Prague, but Jan Němec smuggled a print out of the country just as the liberal Alexander Dubček was assuming power, and Forman submitted the film to Cannes. When the festival collapsed under the weight of protests in the context of May ’68, Forman told me that “this was the most absurd day for me, because here I was at the festival with the filmmakers who I not only admired but respected. And suddenly I see these same filmmakers trying to put up a flag which all the young intellectuals in Communist countries were trying to tear down!” Perplexed, Forman agreed to withdraw his film from the competition.

On the set of The Firemen’s Ball

The themes adumbrated in Forman’s early work would recur in almost all his major-league movies of the next forty years. Youth in the battle to stave off conformity (Taking Off, Hair, The People vs. Larry Flynt); the bitterness and confusion of old age (Amadeus, Goya’s Ghosts); the creative outsider in a puritanical society (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ragtime); artistic and public rivalry (Man on the Moon, Amadeus).

When I interviewed him in 2002, he reflected that “You are always under pressure in the film business. In the Communist countries you were not under commercial pressure, but you were under strong ideological pressure. Here in the United States you are not under ideological pressure at all, but you are under commercial pressure. To be honest, I prefer commercial pressure, because then I am at the mercy of the taste of some audience. Under ideological pressure, I am at the mercy of one or two idiots!”

Only a filmmaker of exceptionally generous spirit could have approached personalities as disparate as Mozart, the Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and comedian Andy Kaufman with such relaxed sympathy and bonhomie. Patient as Job when required, he auditioned more than 1,000 applicants for the cast of Hair (1979).

Our final conversation took place at the Zürich Film Festival of 2010. Then in the evening of his career, he could reminisce about his work with every kind of performer: “Actors are very fragile instruments. So my philosophy is, the less I talk to the actor, the less I confuse their head!” Fine cigars were one of his few concessions to the luxury that his success could have afforded him, and to the end of his life he remained gracious and tolerant. Forman never warmed to intellectual circles, and he eschewed the glamorous brand of hero or heroine. His characters comprised the good and the not-so-bad, the plump and the slender, the shy and the vulgar, and they flourished in Forman’s benign pursuit of everyday truth.