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The Instant Expert's Guide to: Miloš Forman

All mentioned films in article
Not released
Not released

Six decades have passed since Miloš Forman helped launch the Czech New Wave. So, Cinema Paradiso devotes the latest of its Instant Expert guides to the political exile who found a home in New York and became a two-time Oscar winner.

A still from Amadeus (1984) With Tom Hulce And Christine Ebersole
A still from Amadeus (1984) With Tom Hulce And Christine Ebersole

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Amadeus (1984), the first and only biopic of a classical composer to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was the ninth of the dozen features that Miloš Forman directed after he had made his mark with a documentary double bill that had helped transform film-making in his native Czechoslovakia. Each Forman feature was markedly different from the others, but they were united by a passion for freedom that marked Forman the outsider, subversive, and survivor as a lifelong rebel with a cause.

War Child

Jan Tomáš Forman was born on 18 February 1932 in the town of Cáslav in Central Bohemia. He was over a decade younger than his brothers, Blahoslav and Pavel, who dubbed him Miloš. Father Rudolf was a teacher trainer, who spent the summer helping wife Anna run a small hotel at Rut on the shores of Mácha's Lake in the Sudetenland.

When he was six, Miloš's parents took him to see Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). This excited him so much that he carried a set of souvenir soaps around in a box for several months. However, it was his second excursion to the cinema that made the deepest impression. Initially, he had been underwhelmed by the prospect of seeing a silent version of Bedrich Smetana's opera, The Bartered Bride. As he later wrote about what was probably Oldrich Kmínek's 1922 adaptation rather than Max Urban's from 1912: 'It was as though I had offended my fairy godmother and she had decided that I'd get my first taste of art from an opera in which there was nothing to hear - just a lot of flamboyant gestures with no meaning.'

A still from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
A still from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

He soon changed his tune, however. As he later recalled: 'I was very excited, seeing the curtain going up and the big screen and these images flickering on it, and then I see this company of dancers and singers opening their mouths like fishes, with no sound coming out. It was right before the Nazi tanks rolled in. And because this was the most popular opera, very Czech, for the people in the theatre, The Bartered Bride was a manifestation of patriotism. Everybody in the country knows the first song, and suddenly the whole audience started to sing to this silent movie. It was magic. It was surreal, but it was magic. I was hooked.'

One wonders where Forman might have ended up if he had attended a screening of Max Ophüls's 1932 sound version, with Czech diva Jarmila Novotná in the role of Marenka, or the 1933 rendition that had been directed by Jaroslav Kvapil, Svatopluk Innemann, and Emil Pollert. 'This was something that was so powerful in its absurdity,' Forman reflected years later, 'that it probably provoked in me some idea that this is the most powerful thing which could happen, to show these flickering images and it can lead people to this expression, to this kind of attitude towards music. Music is very powerful, sometimes it is more powerful than words, because it goes directly to your emotions, it is not filtered through your intellect, when you have to listen and understand the dialogue. It goes straight to your heart.'

The German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 meant that Forman didn't get to see another film for seven years, as no one wanted to waste their money on Nazi propaganda. Family and friends offered the Formans a chance to flee to Sweden and Britain, but, as Protestants, they felt they had nothing to fear by staying. Shortly after Miloš's seventh birthday, however, he was withdrawn from a class at school for a short chat on the corridor with his father. Rudolf entrusted him with a note for his mother, who sobbed on reading it. But Miloš had not realised that the men in black leather coats leading his father away were members of the Gestapo.

For three months, Anna and Miloš went to the local railway station in the hope that Rudolf had been released from Kolín Prison. Low on funds, however, they were forced to leave Cáslav for Rut. As the Sudetenland had been ceded to the Third Reich in 1938, all the Czech schools had been closed down and Miloš was told to sit at the back of the class and try to follow the lessons in German. Eventually, severe bullying prompted Anna to return to Cáslav, but it proved a fatal decision.

On 7 August 1942, while Miloš was in bed with a fever, Anna was arrested by the Gestapo. Neighbours looked after him until he could go to his Uncle Boleslav in Náchod in Northern Bohemia. He later found out a shopkeeper had given the names of 12 female customers after being reprimanded for not reporting the discovery of some anti-Nazi leaflets on his shelves. All but one of the suspects had been released when the grocer hanged himself, but Anna was detained because the case officer was a Sudeten German who had resented the fact she had been his boss when he had worked as a nightwatchman at the lakeside hotel. Miloš got to see his mother one last time in a Prague prison before she perished at Auschwitz on 1 March 1943.

A still from City Lights (1931)
A still from City Lights (1931)

Despite being a communications officer with the Pribina resistance group, Rudolf was still alive. But, despite being discharged after his trial in Prague, he fell victim to the same Sudeten zealot, who refused to process his release papers and sent Rudolf to the camp at Theresienstadt. He was later moved to Auschwitz before being sent to the Mittelbau-Dora wing of Buchenwald, where he died of scarlet fever in May 1944. In his 1994 memoir, Turnaround, Forman reveals that their persecutor (whom he never names) wound up on the Russian front, where he hoped that dreadful things had befallen him.

In fact, Forman had been extremely fortunate to survive the war. Shortly after the release of his first feature, he had been informed by a woman who had known Anna in Auschwitz that Rudolf was not his biological father. As she was much younger than her husband, Anna had had an affair with Otto Kohn, a Jewish architect who had moved to Ecuador in 1939, with his other son, who would become the renowned Princeton mathematician Joseph J. Kohn. By never revealing her secret during her lifetime, Anna had saved her youngest, half-Jewish son's life.

Now an orphan, Miloš went to live with Uncle Boleslav and Aunt Anna above their grocery business. He loved the sights, sounds, and smells of the shop, which would inform the action of his debut feature. But money was tight and Miloš was soon sent back to Cáslav, where he stayed with the Hluchys family in the grounds of the gasworks. Here, he learned to muck in, avoid trouble, and make himself liked, lessons he later claimed would serve him well on film sets, where he was always a diplomat rather than a martinet.

Out of the Frying Pan

Twelve years older than his sibling, artist Pavel Forman had spent the war on the move after the Nazis had taken exception to some of his paintings. In 1944, he came to Náchod to collect Miloš, who spent the last months of the conflict touring with the East Bohemian Operetta, which had engaged Pavel as a set designer. Adoring life backstage, Forman would later joke that the often-drunk director had shaped his future by instantly becoming a role model.

Aware that his brother needed to complete his education, Pavel used his contacts to get Miloš a place at the King Jirí boarding school for orphans in Podebrady. As it was flush with charitable donations, however, the institution was able to recruit the best teachers and it quickly became the chosen school of the Czechoslovakian elite. Among Forman's classmates were future film-makers Ivan Passer and Jerzy Skolimowski, as well as playwright, dissident, and president-in-waiting, Václav Havel.

Settling into his new surroundings in the former royal palace, Forman joined the drama group based in the castle smithy. In addition to building sets and sewing costumes, he also acted in Gogol's Marriage and Molière's The Miser. But, having been impressed by the naturalism of his fellow amateurs, he was disappointed by the staginess of diva Vlasta Fabiánová when she performed at the Smithy Theatre and would later studiously avoid operatic emotions and grandiose gestures in his own work.

A still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
A still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Forman also started going to the pictures and became a devotee of Charlie Chaplin. At 16. however, he also saw footage of the death camps and realised what his parents must have endured. Adding to his sense of demoralisation, the Communists took power in February 1948 and dismantled the country's proud democratic institutions and imposed Stalinism on every aspect of life. An unexpected benefit of the cultural crackdown was that proscribed artists and writers were permitted to teach and Forman found himself discovering French literature from Milan Kundera (whose The Unbearable Lightness of Being was filmed by Philip Kaufman in 1988) when he received a place on the screenwriting course at the newly formed FAMU film academy after his application for the prestigious Czechoslovak Academy of Dramatic Arts had foundered on an audition request to dramatise the struggle for world peace.

Dismayed that he was going to be denied a career in the theatre after his 1950 staging of the musical The Ballad in Rags had been feted, Forman took time to settle at FAMU. Detesting the brand of socialist realism that had been approved by the Kremlin, he took solace in classics like Chaplin's City Lights (1931), Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), and Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du paradis (1945). These would remain among his Top 10 favourites, alongside George Stevens's Giant (1956), Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), Federico Fellini's Amarcord, George Lucas's American Graffiti (both 1973), Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), and Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980). But one film stood out above them all, Vittorio De Sica's Miracle in Milan (1950).

He later told the Directors Guild of America: 'The biggest influence on all of us at the school at that time was Italian neorealism, because it put real people on the screen. We were able to see those films, and some of them were even allowed to be distributed for the public because they're critical of capitalist society and sympathetic to the working classes. But then one day we were shown at the school a film by Vittorio De Sica which we were told was not approved for distribution...Even today, I can remember faces of extras in that movie better than I can remember the stars of hundreds of films I've seen since then. It's so real, so true, so alive, and yet it's a fairy tale. Why was it banned for the public? Because at the end, the poor homeless people are on their brooms flying to a world that is more just than this one, and some of the Czech censors noticed that they were flying west. That's a no-no, because the salvation of mankind can only come from the east, from the Soviet Union.'

After six years at FAMU, Forman graduated in 1956. He had started acting while still a student, playing a factory worker in Jaroslav Mach's comedy, A Woman As Good As Her Word (1953), and an officer in Václav Krška's drama, Silvery Wind (1954). Forman also contributed to the script and assisted veteran director Martin Fric on Leave It to Me (1955) before Alfréd Radok was so impressed by his second unit efforts on the comedy, Old Man Motor Car (1956), that he hired him for the Laterna Magika multimedia project. When this ingenious blend of still photography, film, and live performance was invited to the 1958 World's Fair, Forman spent six months in Brussels putting on non-verbal playlets for the multi-lingual audiences.

Interestingly, this event yielded the first ever Best Films of All Time list. Cinema Paradiso users can rent all of the titles in this pioneering Top 10 and not only compare them with Forman's own, but also the Sight and Sound polls that have taken up its mantle since 1962. In ascending order, the pictures are Alexander Dovzhenko's Earth (1930), Citizen Kane, Vsevolod Pudovkin's Mother (1926), D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916), Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), Jean Renoir's La Grande illusion (1937), Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), and Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). And no, your eyes aren't deceiving you. There really were only three talkies on the list after 31 years of sound cinema!

Fired by the state after returning to Prague, Forman served as assistant director on Ivo Novák's Puppies (1958) - which he also scripted and on which he met first wife Jana Brejchová - and Pavel Blumenfeld's There Beyond the Forest (1962). The same year saw him dancing in a bar scene in Vera Chytilová's FAMU graduation film, Ceiling, which was shown alongside her debut outing, A Bagful of Fleas (both 1962), which is available from Cinema Paradiso on a Second Run disc with Something Different (1963).

Forman also began collaborating with novelist Josef Škvorecký on The Band Won It, an adaptation of the latter's short story, 'Eine kleine Jazzmusik'. Set during the Nazi occupation, the story follows the fortunes of a student jazz band. Although the suits at Barrandov Studios demanded changes to the script, the project was given the green light. But, just before shooting was to commence, the Communist hierarchy withdrew permission after being criticised in Škvorecký's new book, The Cowards. Zuzana Zemanová finally made Eine kleine Jazzmusik as a TV-movie in 1996.

While in Belgium, Forman had befriended members of the Semafor Theatre and hit upon the idea about making a documentary about Jirí Suchý and Jirí Šlitr's company. Having acquired a Grundig tape recorder on his travels, he asked Passer to introduce him to cinematographer Miroslav Ondrícek so he could learn how to operate his new East German 16mm Pentaflex camera. 'We went out together to shoot some film, just for fun,' Forman later recalled. 'How people turn around and ogle the girls…and this was where it really all began.' Over the next 30 years, Ondrícek would be director of photography on all but two of Forman's films.

A still from Audition / Talent Competition (1963)
A still from Audition / Talent Competition (1963)

The focus in Audition (1963) falls on some singers trying to make an impression on the Semafor's leading stars. A pedicurist has bunked off work to take her chance, while another woman gets stage fright after being told during rehearsals that her voice is too low. Forman and Passer padded the action with a fictional segment involving a make-up artist and Vera Kresadlová, who would become Forman's second wife and the mother of twin sons, Petr and Matej, before they separated in 1969.

While the Šebor-Bor production team liked the footage, particularly the amusing, if poignant montage sequence, they were concerned it was too short at 48 minutes to play in theatres. So, they commissioned a second segment, which was entitled, If There Were No Music (aka If Only They Ain't Had Them Bands). This opens with shots of Czech teens trying to look cool on their motorbikes before it centres on the rehearsals for the annual amateur brass band competition in Kolín. Struggling to maintain his composure, the conductor (Jan Vostrcil) takes out his frustration on a bored musician (Vladimir Pucholt), who is on the receiving end of the stinging rejoinder, 'Better not to play at all than to play falsely.' This phrase sums up Forman's entire approach to acting and Pucholt and Vostrcil would return in his first features. Indeed, the latter would also grace Passer's Intimate Lighting (1965), which is also available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. As is Štefan Uher's The Sun in a Net (1962), which launched what came to be known as the Czech Film Miracle and Forman was very much in its vanguard.

Prague Spring in the Step

A still from Black Peter (1964)
A still from Black Peter (1964)

Although Forman had been influenced by neo-realism, the documentaries produced by such British neophytes as Tony Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, and John Schlesinger under the Free Cinema banner has also left their mark. Among the group was Karel Reisz, a Czech exile who had fled to London with his parents as a 12 year-old in 1939. He co-directed Momma Don't Allow (1955) with Richardson and produced Anderson's Every Day Except Christmas (1957) before going solo with We Are the Lambeth Boys (1959), all of which can be had from Cinema Paradiso on the 2006 BFI collection, Free Cinema (1952-1963) . The energy of these shorts is evident in Audition and Forman would similarly channel it into his debut feature, Black Peter (1964).

Once again opting for social rather than socialist realism, Forman teamed with Passer and Jaroslav Papoušek to produce a tightly structured scenario (based on the latter's novel) that allowed the often non-professional actors to improvise in order to capture everyday speech and behaviour. On set, Forman felt it was his job to 'pull them through the dramatic arch of the scene and draw out the emotional contours of the situation'. He succeeded triumphantly with this study of juvenile ennui and rebellion, which captured the shifting mood in 60s Czechoslovakia.

Frustrated at having to work as a supermarket security guard when he would much rather be lounging by the pool, 16 year-old Peter (Ladislav Jakim) lets shoplifters off because he can't be bothered to apprehend them. His father (Jan Vostrcil) lectures him on the dignity of labour and the need to take responsibility. But Peter is more interested in goofing around with his trainee bricklayer pal, Cenda (Vladimir Pucholt), and keeping an eye on his flirtatious girlfriend, Pavla (Pavla Martínková).

Photographed on the streets by Jan Nemecek, this study of clashing generational mores had a pseudo-documentary feel that was completely new in Czech cinema. Peter's mother was played by Bozena Matuskova, whose house was used for the family home, while Jan Vostrcil only agreed to appear if the film had a brass band scene. But the authorities were wary of the bold style and non-conformist attitudes that helped the film beat Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963) and Michelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) to the Golden Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.

A still from A Blonde in Love (1965)
A still from A Blonde in Love (1965)

The dance sequence ranks among the film's highlights and another stands out in A Blonde in Love (aka Loves of a Blonde, 1965), which was inspired by an encounter Forman had with a young woman who had been stood up by her beau. Set in small town in which, owing to an administrative error, women outnumber men by 16:1, this intimately observed satire centres on 18 year-old Andula (Hana Brejchová), a shoe factory employee who falls for Milda (Vladimir Pucholt), a visiting pianist from Prague whose parents disapprove of their union. Deftly capturing the awkwardness of first love and the snobbery that exists within a supposedly classless society, this bittersweet drama was a huge domestic hit before its tour of the festival circuit culminated in an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.

Visiting the shoot in Zruc nad Sázavou, Lindsay Anderson was so impressed that he asked Ondrícek (who had painted the sets black and white so they would register better on camera) to photograph The White Bus (1966), If…. (1968), and O Lucky Man! (1973). Anderson noted that the film was 'Full of superb and delicate poetic things: the reminiscence of Free Cinema is extraordinary: the drinkers, the National Anthem - but with of course a great "something more".' Ken Loach was also an admirer. 'It made a great impression on me when it first came out,' he wrote, 'its shrewd perceptiveness, irony, warmth. It allowed characters time to reveal themselves. You weren't manipulated like US films, but it was also pleasantly free of the stylistic devices typical of the French films.'

Yet the picture was almost cancelled, as the head of Barrandov Studios thought the script was dull. He was persuaded to continue by the paucity of the budget and the enthusiasm of a couple of underlings. Having cast his former sister-in-law in the lead, as well as Ondrícek's uncle-in-law and a lathe operator as Milda's parents (Josef Šebánek and Milada Ježková), Forman was thrilled by the international response, reflecting in 2004: 'When we started to make our films, they were really Czech films about Czech society and Czech little people - and who cares about Czech little people? So it was satisfying to have people in other countries respond.'

In 1966, Jirí Suchý and Jirí Šlitr asked Forman to direct a TV version of their Semafor Theatre musical comedy, A Well Paid Walk. Suchý and Eva Pilarová star as a couple who are about to get divorced when an aunt bequeaths £1 million to their first born. As they have no children, they decide to forget their problems and conceive (although the wife does consider a fling with the unsuspecting postman). However, Šlitr's grasping lawyer sets about splitting up the couple, only for the aunt (Hana Hegerová) to pay an unexpected visit from her home in Liverpool. Although released on disc in the Czech Republic in 2009, this monochrome jazz opera has been little seen, despite ably capturing the spirit of its times, which are discussed in greater detail in the Cinema Paradiso article, Top 10 Czech Films.

A still from The Fireman's Ball (1967)
A still from The Fireman's Ball (1967)

Making the list is Forman's The Fireman's Ball (1967), which was inspired by an event that he, Passer, and Papoušek had witnessed while lodging in the Krkonoše Mountains in an effort to overcome the writers' block they were experiencing on a screenplay about an army deserter holing up in the Lucerna Palace in Prague. The small Bohemian town of Vrchlabí thus became the setting for Forman's first colour feature, with several local firemen playing themselves in a biting satire that not only mocks the pomposity and venality of state officialdom, but also exposes the corruption and incompetence of the authoritarian system.

The ball is being held to make a presentation to the head of the voluntary fire service who doesn't know he's dying of cancer. However, the raffle prizes that have been donated keep disappearing, while the young women who have been recruited for a beauty contest lock themselves in a side room. Capping off a chaotic night, the drunken firemen fail to extinguish a house fire and a hurried meeting is held to try and salvage the brigade's reputation.

As the picture had been made during the Prague Spring that had been initiated by First Secretary Alexander Dubcek, Forman and his co-writers felt able to take liberties in poking fun at Communist control. Consequently, the film was a popular success in his homeland. But Italian producer Carlo Ponti took against it for ridiculing the common people and demanded the return of his $80,000 investment, leaving Forman with the prospect of spending a decade behind bars for 'economic damage to the state'. In desperation, he travelled to France to ask Claude Lelouch to make good on an offer to distribute any of Forman's work. However, he was in Morocco and Forman was only bailed out when Claude Berri agreed to buy the foreign rights with François Truffaut, who had just featured firefighters of a very different kind in his adaptation of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1966).

Forman would repay the favour to Berri by donating the story for his 1975 crime comedy, Male of the Century. Meanwhile, Truffaut invited him to Cannes in the spring of 1968. However, it was decided to cancel the festival in support of the May Days protests in Paris. The resulting non-event is recalled in Emmanuel Laurent's documentary, Two in the Wave (2010). But the political posturing puzzled Forman, who later confessed: 'This was the most absurd day for me, because here I was at the festival with the film-makers who I not only admired but respected. And suddenly I see these same film-makers trying to put up a flag which all the young intellectuals in Communist countries were trying to tear down!'

He soon found himself in more trouble back in Czechoslovakia, as 40,000 firefighters resigned in protest at the film. Forman was forced to apologise, but his situation took another dangerous turn when the USSR sent in the tanks to replace Dubcek with a party loyalist. In the wake of the clampdown, The Firemen's Ball was 'banned forever', along with Jan Nemec's The Party and the Guests (1965) and Evald Schorm's Pastor's End, and Vojtech Jasný's All My Good Countrymen (both 1968). Not unreasonably, Forman reckoned his career in Czechoslovakia was over.

Taking Off For the Cuckoo's Nest

In the spring of 1968, Forman and Josef Škvorecký had decided to take advantage of the political thaw to adapt the latter's outlawed novel, The Cowards. From the outset, however, the authorities made it clear that any screenplay would be denied shooting permission, with the Secretary of the Cultural Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party personally informing the director that, while he saw nothing wrong with the book, he was unwilling to tell the president that he had erred in banning it.

Years later, Forman explained, 'I lived in a society where people who called for censorship won. I know what a devastating effect it has on life - not only on the artist but on everybody.' He was luckier than most, however, as his trio of Czech features had attracted attention in Hollywood and he was invited to Paris to discuss making his English-language debut. While he was there, helping Jean-Claude Carrière with the script for his comic short, Nail Clippers. Warsaw Pact forces were dispatched to restore order in Prague and left Forman with a decision to make.

He claimed that he was fired by the studio for being out of the country illegally and had no option but to seek asylum in the United States. But Ivan Passer told a different version of events, as he remembered that they had actively defected after being smuggled across the Austrian border. Either way, the pair were now exiles and Forman could not be blamed for opining in 1969, 'Take it from any side you want, reality is always so much more interesting than anything we can think up.'

He had reason to be grateful to the New York Film Festival for screening The Fireman's Ball, as it led to the Oscar nomination that made him sufficiently bankable for Paramount to back Taking Off (1971). John Klein was hired to give the screenplay a more authentic American feel, but the front office disliked the result. Consequently, Forman had to buy the project for $140,000 and sell it to Universal Studios, who gave him a modest budget of $810,000.

In some ways, this was a reworking of Audition and Carly Simon, Jessica Harper, and Kathy Bates can be seen among the wannabe singers. But the action was also inspired by newspaper reports of the murder of a young girl near to where Forman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière were living in Greenwich Village while studying American counterculture. Lily Carlin and Buck Henry play the parents searching for missing 15 year-old daughter, Linnea Hancock, with Henry helping Forman both get across his ideas on improvisation and understand what the actors were actually saying. Translation issues also helped Forman convince the studio to bring Miroslav Ondrícek to New York and, as a result, the picture has a freewheeling Czech New Wave vibe about it.

At Cannes, it shared the Special Jury Prize with Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun (1971) before going on to draw six BAFTA nominations, including Best Film and Best Director. But the reviews were mixed, with John Simon going so far as to write, 'I declare Taking Off an anti-human film: mean, arrogant, and thoroughly destructive.' A disappointing box-office return left Forman owing the studio $500 and he spent much of the next year holed up at the famous Chelsea Hotel, an experience he would later recall in Abel Ferrara's documentary, Chelsea on the Rocks (2008).

While promoting the film in Belgrade, Forman and Henry were persuaded to participate in a Dadaist experiment by director Karpo Godina. Along with Tinto Brass, Puriša Ðordevic, Dušan Makavejev,

Paul Morrissey, Bogdan Tirnanic, and Frederick Wiseman, the pair shot a three-minute vignette in an attic that had to include the phrase that gave the project its title, I Miss Sonja Henie. Taking their inspiration from Trumbo's film, Forman and Henry concocted a saucy striptease scenario with a phallic punchline. The short has rarely been seen since, but it concluded with a clip of the Norwegian Olympic skater-turned-film star in H. Bruce Humberstone's Sun Valley Serenade (1941), which is available on high-quality disc from Cinema Paradiso.

Speaking of the Five Rings, the summer of 1972 saw Forman return to Europe to make 'The Decathlon', a segment of Visions of Eight (1973), the official record of the Munich Olympic Games that would be overshadowed by a terrorist tragedy that would be recalled in Kevin Macdonald's One Day in September (1999) and Steven Spielberg's Munich (2005). However, feature offers were so thin on the ground that Forman agreed to direct a Broadway production of Carrière's The Little Black Book. It ran for seven nights before closing. Shortly afterwards, the US Immigration Service was tipped off about a complaint lodged against Forman with the Directors Guild of America. This threatened to prevent him from working, but Buck Henry joined forces with the likes of Paddy Chayefsky, Mike Nichols, and Sidney Lumet to plead his case.

A still from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) With Jack Nicholson
A still from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) With Jack Nicholson

Nevertheless, Forman struggled to make a living, as an adaptation of Thomas Berger's Vital Parts failed to find a backer. Thus, when producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz approached him to adapt Ken Kesey's cult novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he had no hesitation in accepting. 'Of course I said yes,' he remembered. 'I loved the novel from the start and thought it would make a wonderful movie. This showed me that it's much more comfortable to slip into a state of acute depression in America than back home.'

Ironically, having played Randle P. McMurphy on stage, Douglas's father had tried to involve Forman in a big-screen version a few years earlier. As he recalled: 'The funny thing is that I had discussed Cuckoo's Nest with Kirk Douglas years before in Prague, when he was on a goodwill tour of the Iron Curtain countries. He'd seen Loves of a Blonde, and he asked if he could send me this book he had optioned but nobody wanted to make. I was in seventh heaven. Book never came. Kirk really sent it, but the censors and the customs officials confiscated it, and they didn't tell him and they didn't tell me. So I began to think he was just a guy who spins a young filmmaker's head around and then forgets about him the moment he leaves the room. And when we met again years later, he said to me, "You son of a gun, I sent you that book and you didn't even have the courtesy to answer me."'

Not everyone was convinced Forman was right for the project, though. 'Friends came to me before I started,' he recalled, 'and said, "Don't touch it, you'll kill your career because it's such an American subject, you can't do it well. You'll hurt yourself." And I said, "What are you talking about? It's a Czech movie. For you it's a piece of American literature; for me it's real life. I lived it. The Communist Party was my Big Nurse. I know exactly what this is about."'

He had no illusions, however, that Zaentz and Douglas had chosen him because they couldn't afford anyone else. But he was unable to collaborate again with Miroslav Ondrícek, as the Czechoslovak authorities refused to let him work with 'a traitor to socialism'. But, as he revealed in Mark Wexler's Tell Them Who You Are (2004), Forman found perfectionist cinematographer Haskell Wexler a tough taskmaster and the shoot had to be completed by Bill Butler and William A. Fraker after the pair fell out.

Forman got along better with Jack Nicholson, who had been cast as the rebellious McMurphy after Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, James Caan, and Burt Reynolds had all spurned the role. Anne Bancroft, Jeanne Moreau, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Colleen Dewhurst, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, and Shelley Duvall similarly opted not to play Nurse Ratched, the totalitarian head nurse who keeps her patients sedated at an Oregon prison psychiatric unit. Their loss was initially Lily Tomlin's gain. But she quit a week before shooting to join Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) and Forman turned to Louise Fletcher, whom he had rejected several times during a six-month audition process. She and Nicholson won the Academy Awards for Best Actress and Actor, as Cuckoo's Nest became the first film since Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) to take the Big Five Oscars.

The Hollywood Reporter was so impressed by Forman's direction that it opined, 'he could probably wring Academy Award performances from a stone'. But the studios also noted how he had generated worldwide earnings of $300 million from a $3 million budget, as this scathing satire became the decade's seventh most profitable picture. Ken Kesey, however, hated the screenplay so much that he refused to watch the film and even sued the producers for misrepresenting his work.

Hair Today, Prague Tomorrow

A still from Hair (1979)
A still from Hair (1979)

Unfortunately for Forman, Gerome Ragni and James Rado were no more appreciative of his adaptation of their smash 1967 Broadway musical, Hair. Written with composer Galt MacDermot, this celebration of hippie culture caught the mood of the Summer of Love and the wave of anti-Vietnam War feeling that was sweeping America. By the time Forman's film was released in 1979, however, the moment had long passed, although the delay was partially caused by contractual issues pertaining to the show's stage run.

Forman had become a naturalised citizen in 1977 and he was prepared to bide his time before making his picture. As he later explained: 'I had lived so long under Communism, that for me anybody who fought against Communism was a hero. America was a hero for fighting the Communists in Vietnam. But Hair the musical was an act of freedom for me 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.' But audiences in post-Watergate America were tired of such introspection and had little patience with the story of Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), the patriot who discovers an alternative lifestyle while hanging out in Central Park.

Snapshots taken at the Bethesda Fountain where Forman had found Linnea Hancock proved useful when it came to casting, although Madonna and Bruce Springsteen failed to make the cut. Twyla Tharp's choreography was energetically photographed by Miroslav Ondrícek to convey the vibrancy of the mid-60s onrush of youthful rebellion and this helped make the film a significant hit in Czechoslovakia, where audiences recognised the message of resistance, despite the government sanctioning its release after mistaking it for an assault on American values.

A still from Ragtime (1981)
A still from Ragtime (1981)

Despite earning a César nomination and confirming his status among the New Hollywood film-makers revered by Ted Demme and Richard Lagravenese in A Decade Under the Influence (2003), Forman felt he had to prove himself all over again with his next project. Adapted from a 1975 historical novel by E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime (1981) was inherited from Robert Altman, as Forman recognised aspects of the Gilded Age storyline centred on Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard Rollins), an African American pianist who ignores police advice and seeks justice after his car is damaged by some firemen.

'I had some knowledge of Walker's dilemma from Prague,' Forman later claimed. 'In the everyday life of Communist Czechoslovakia, you constantly found yourself before ignorant, powerful people who didn't mind casually humiliating others. You risked your livelihood and maybe your life by defying them.' But, despite it earning eight Oscar and seven Golden Globe nominations, Forman wound up being unhappy with the picture (which was mostly filmed at Shepperton Studios), as producer Dino De Laurentiis felt the first cut was too long and removed the entire subplot involving feminist activist Emma Goldman, who was played by Maureen Stapleton. Forman did, however, get to direct the last screen performance of James Cagney, who had not acted since Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961). Despite being 81, Cagney insisted on playing Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, who had actually been 32 at the time the action is set.

Even before he started making Ragtime, Forman knew what his next assignment would be. In 1979, he had attended a play about composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri with low expectations. 'I was used to seeing the Russian and Czech films about composers,' he revealed, 'and they were the most boring films. Communists love to make films about composers, because composers compose music and don't talk subversive things. And I am sitting in the theatre waiting to fall asleep, and suddenly I see this wonderful drama, which would be wonderful even if it was not Mozart and Salieri...I was glued to the seat to the very end.'

As soon as the curtain fell, Forman went backstage to tell playwright Peter Shaffer that he would be keen to direct if he ever decided to make a film of Amadeus. Simon Callow, who had played Mozart in the original National Theatre production, had to be content with the supporting role of Emanuel Schikander, while Mark Hamill was left to rue his association with Luke Skywalker, as Forman felt the Star Wars (1977) connection would deflect from his biopic's gravitas. Tom Hulce (who spent four hours a day practicing the piano) was cast alongside F. Murray Abraham, while Elizabeth Berridge stepped in as Costanze the day before shooting after Meg Tilly tore a ligament in her leg.

'It's a wonderful story,' Forman enthused, 'and I think there's a little bit of Mozart in all of us - and quite a bit of Salieri in all of us.' What made the experience so special, however, was that he was able to return to Prague for the production, as not only could it stand in for 18th-century Vienna, but the Count Nostitz Theatre had housed the premiere of Don Giovanni on 29 October 1787. Although the security forces kept a close eye on proceedings (with some working as extras), Forman was allowed to work without interference, on the proviso he made no attempt to contact leading dissidents. 'The people considered it a victory for me,' he confided in 2002, 'that the authorities had to bow to the almighty dollar and let the traitor back.'

He also had the satisfaction of landing a haul of eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Indeed, the film landed 40 major prizes, with the embittered Abraham invariably pipping the giggling Hulce for Best Actor. Some of the reviews complained about historical inaccuracies, but Amadeus went on to gross over $90 million, while also spawning a bestselling soundtrack album.

A Long Fade

Jubilant after his second Oscar success, Forman appeared in the Ken Burns documentary, The Statue of Liberty (1985), which can be found on Ken Burns' America (1997). Despite having suffered from stage fright as an amateur theatrical, he also took a supporting role as Dmitri, the husband of Betty the Washington gossip (Catherine O'Hara) in Heartburn (1986), Nora Ephron's fictionalised account of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, which starred Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. Three years later, Forman accepted the role of Lazlo, the caretaker at the New York apartment that hosts the uneasy get together in Henry Jaglom's dramedy, New Year's Day.

'Every director should try it,' Forman recommended in 2007. 'just to know how it feels. Get in front of the camera, and you see it's not at all so easy.' Little did he know at the time, but his directorial career had already ended, although he had felt in the mid-1980s that he had probably peaked with Amadeus. 'Everything I did in my life,' he told one interviewer, 'I did because I wanted to win. The will to win belongs to my essential motivational powers. However, winning is quite exhausting so the next thing, which always comes to my mind, is this: Fine, I have won, but that's not it. Next time it's going to be even harder.' And so it proved.

Milan Kundera had introduced Forman to Pierre Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 epistolatory novel Les Liaisons dangereuses when he was a student. It had remained among his favourite books and he had returned to the text after seeing Christopher Hampton's stage version in 1985. Intrigued because 'it wasn't at all the way I remembered the book - I didn't remember the characters as so evil. I went back to the novel and discovered that the play was very faithful; my memory was playing games with me. And then I said to myself, "My memory is better than the book. I want to do this, but I'm going to do it the way I remember it." You know, when you do an adaptation, you have to have your own vision. It's better or it's worse, but it's different.'

A still from Valmont (1989)
A still from Valmont (1989)

Without knowing that Hampton and director Stephen Frears were collaborating on what was to become Dangerous Liaisons (1988), Forman started work on his screenplay for Valmont (1989) with Jean-Claude Carrière. 'We were in the middle of our script already when they announced their version, based on the play,' Forman remembered. 'Of course we immediately learned they were rushing into it very fast. With the concept I had, we all knew I couldn't be faster. We couldn't beat them. So, I was expecting a call from the producers saying, "Sorry, Miloš, we can't take the risk." The call came. They asked me, "Does it really bother you that another film is going to be made?" I said of course not. And I felt like, God, Hollywood is still crazy. That's good.'

Colin Firth (Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont), Annette Bening (Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil), and Meg Tilly (Madame de Tourvel) assumed the roles that had been taken by John Malkovich. Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer and played them well. But the critics had heaped superlatives upon their predecessors and Forman's interpretation suffered as a consequence. It's well worth another look and Cinema Paradiso users can have it delivered to their homes with a single click.

Breaking out on the day of Valmont's premiere, the Velvet Revolution took off some of the curse for Forman, especially as the insurrection was led by his Podebrady classmate, Václav Havel. He was also able to channel his energies into the role of co-chair of the Film Programme at Columbia University's School of the Arts, which he had held since 1978. Shifting the emphasis from practical skills to the discussion of cinematic classics and the centrality of the screenplay, Forman taught a generation of aspiring film-makers, including James Mangold, who started out with noirish outings like Heavy (1995), Cop Land (1997), and Identity (2003) before becoming known for his versatility with such diverse projects as Girl, Interrupted (1999), Kate and Leopold (2001), Walk the Line (2005), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Knight and Day (2010), and Le Mans '66 (2019). What's more, Mangold can also boast blockbusters like The Wolverine (2013), Logan (2017), and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) on his CV.

Back in the early 1990s, Forman served as executive producer on Jeffrey W. Mueller's short, Dreams of Love (1990), which gave 11 year-old Claire Danes her debut as a tormented tweenager. He also reminisced about his youth while narrating Vojtech Jasný's documentary, Why Havel? (1991). Also around this time Forman teamed with Adam Davidson on a screenplay entitled Hell Camp. This comedy had been inspired by a Czech TV documentary that Forman had seen about a Japanese managerial school and he spent months schmoozing the institution to allow him to film there. Four days before the shoot was due to start, however, the national sumo association withdrew its co-operation because Forman refused to make changes to a key subplot. Angry that so many people had lost their jobs, Forman was also frustrated by the amount of time wasted on what could have been an amusing underdog story. He later atoned to Davidson by serving as executive producer his offbeat comedy, Way Past Cool (2000).

Creative differences also caused Forman to walk away from Disclosure (1994), even though he had been personally selected by writer Michael Crichton. Barry Levinson took over the project, leaving Forman to publish his autobiography, Turnaround, and make plans for a remake of Dodsworth, the Sinclair Lewis novel that had been filmed by William Wyler in 1936. Harrison Ford was lined up to take the title role, only for Forman to sustain an injury that forced him to take a prolonged sabbatical.

A still from The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
A still from The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

When he returned, it was at the helm of The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), although he only agreed to direct a biopic of the notorious pornographer after learning that Oliver Stone was behind it. What most intrigued him, however, was the love story between Flint (Woody Harrelson) and his onetime stripper wife, Althea Leasure (Courtney Love), as well as the freedom of speech battle with preacher Jerry Fulwell (Richard Paul) that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Tom Hanks, Michael Douglas, and Bill Murray were considered for the title role, while Patricia Arquette, Mira Sorvino, and Ashley Judd were in the frame to play the tragic Althea.

'Larry Flynt is a devil with angel's wings,' Forman averred in discussing the picture. 'Half the man is just sleaze and smut, but the other half is very noble and admirable.' When feminist icon Gloria Steinem accused Forman and Stone of degrading women, the director responded, 'I don't say you should like what Larry Flynt does. I don't like it either, but I admire the fact that I live in a country where I can make my own decisions. In a country where I can take Hustler and read it as well as throw it away, which I personally consider to be the right thing to do with it.'

Although the reviews were largely positive, the negative publicity harmed the picture, which was snubbed during awards season and grossed a mere $20 million. An upshot, however, was that Edward Norton so enjoyed playing Flint's lawyer that he asked Forman to play Fr Havel, the Czech mentor of Norton's troubled priest in his directorial debut, Keeping the Faith (2000). Moreover, Forman fell in love again and fathered twin boys for the second time when Jim and Andy were born to third wife Martina Zborilová in 1999.

The names were significant, as they related to Jim Carrey and Andy Kaufman, who were pivotal to Forman's next feature, Man on the Moon (1999). Having started out in stand-up, Kaufman became a household name through the sitcom, Taxi (1978-83), and movies like the Marty Feldman comedy, In God We Trust (1980). However, he was notoriously eccentric off and on screen and Forman was keen to explore the subversive nature that led to the creation of his alter egos, wrestler Jerry 'The King' Lawler and abusive lounge singer Tony Clifton.

As one of five Cuckoo's Nest alumni in the cast, Kaufman's Taxi co-star Danny DeVito agreed to co-produce. But his colleagues weren't so keen on Forman's approach and he only avoided the sack because Carrey threatened to walk if he left. His instincts proved sound, as Carrey won a Golden Globe for his performance, even though the reviews were mixed. Forman explained his thinking in an interview. 'If the movie impressed the audience just as Andy had done,' he said, 'I would be satisfied. He wasn't worried if he made the audience laugh or not. The only aim he had an interest in was forcing them to participate, to arouse emotions. But he didn't pay attention whether the audience clapped, hissed, booed, or worshipped him...As long as there was emotion involved, he didn't care.'

Forman got such a kick out of working with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski that he started developing a biopic of Howard Hughes for Edward Norton. Nothing came of the project, however, and an adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's comic crime caper, Bad News, also went south. Even a collaboration with Jean-Claude Carrière on Sándor Márai's Austro-Hungarian novel, Embers, failed to get made. Sean Connery and Klaus-Maria Brandaeur had signed up to play the military academy classmates from opposite sides of tracks who meet again after four decades. But the Scot fell out with 90 year-old Italian producer Roberto Haggiag and his son and Forman felt obliged to cancel the 2003 shoot, as he couldn't envisage anyone else in the role.

A still from Goya's Ghosts (2006)
A still from Goya's Ghosts (2006)

The year wasn't entirely wasted, though, as Forman appeared in Richard Schickel's documentary, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. He also lent his voice to Paul and Sandra Fierlinger's A Room Nearby (both 2003), an animated study of loneliness in which he recalls losing a beloved pet dog and finding it dead in a pond. Having executive produced Ivan Passer and Sergei Bodrov's Kazakh epic, Nomad: The Warrior (2005), Forman also contributed to Joan Brocker-Marks's Larry Flynt: The Right to Be Left Alone (2007) and there are echoes of the publisher's travails in what turned out to be Forman's final feature. But Goya's Ghosts (2006) is actually a summation of the themes of free expression and the resistance of tyranny that he had been exploring throughout his entire career.

In 1792, with revolution raging across the border in France, Spanish court painter Francisco de Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) is accused by the Inquisition of undermining the monarchy and the Catholic Church by including images of depravity and evil in his paintings. When he escapes punishment, Brother Lorenzo Casamares (Javier Bardem) turns his attention to Goya's young model, Inés Bilbatúa (Natalie Portman). Fifteen years later, Lorenzo proves even more of a threat when Napoleon Bonaparte's army invades Spain.

In addition to the critiques of doctrinal intransigence, this underrated feature also contains allusions to the fate of Forman's parents in Nazi-occupied Bohemia in its depiction of Lorenzo's abuse of power. Yet it also warns of the dangers posed by the fanaticism being whipped up in the United States in the wake of 9/11. As Forman explained: 'Fifty years ago, when I was a student in Prague, I read a book about the Spanish Inquisition, and I couldn't believe what I was reading. I was reading about what was happening in my own country. The same horrors - making people confess to crimes they hadn't committed. At that time and in that place, I couldn't even think about making a film about a subject like that. But the seed was planted. And then in the '80s I was in Madrid with [Saul] Zaentz, promoting Amadeus, and I went to the Prado Museum for the first time. And everything I had read about the Inquisition when I was a student in Prague was there, illustrated by Goya! And I began to think that putting Goya and the Inquisition together would make a movie.'

The past continued to haunt Forman and he enlisted Jean-Claude Carrière and Václav Havel to help him adapt Georges-Marc Benamou's novel about the four-power agreement that had sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia in September 1938. Mathieu Amalric and Gérard Depardieu were set to share the role of French premier Édouard Daladier across three decades, as he reflected upon his role in mediating between Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Neville Chamberlain. The conference has since inspired two markedly different features, Petr Zelenka's Lost in Munich (2015) and Christian Schwochow's Munich: The Edge of War (2021). But one suspects that Forman's might have been particularly trenchant and personal, had Pathé been able to come up with the funding.

Overcoming this disappointment, Forman returned to Prague. He had been thwarted in a 2000 bid to stage Smetana's opera, Dalibor, at the National Theatre. But he had more luck with a 2007 revival of A Well Paid Walk, which featured Jirí Suchý, who is still going strong at the age of 92. Indeed, his cameo as the postman was recorded for the 2009 tele-version, A Walk Worthwhile, which was co-directed and designed by Forman's sons, Petr and Matej. As the proud father noted of the production, 'It is a moralistic fairy tale saying that money spoils people. However, it originated in the sixties, when no one had money. It is therefore even more relevant nowadays.'

Forman kept developing film projects to the end, with the last being a biopic of Italian swindler, Charles Ponzi. He also continued to take occasional roles like Erlebub the clumsy demon in Miloslav Šmídmajer's Hell With a Princess (2009) and Jaromil the doctor loved by Catherine Deneuve in Christophe Honoré's Beloved (2011). He also paid tribute to a fellow new waver in Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's sprawling documentary, Czech Mate: In Search of Jirí Menzel (2018). Miloš Forman died at Danbury Hospital near his home in Warren, Connecticut on 13 April 2018 at the age of 86. Always modest, he refused to intellectualise his work or discuss his aesthetic approach, claiming he was merely a storyteller. He summed up his method in a typical, but telling throwaway: 'We did maybe four takes, and cut the scene from the best moments. When you do it that way, you can get gems, unrepeatable moments. It gives so much real life to the scene. That's what you want to get on film, unrepeatable moments.' Few achieved more.

A still from Czech Mate: In Search of Jirí Menzel (2018)
A still from Czech Mate: In Search of Jirí Menzel (2018)
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