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The Cinematic American Dream: The Life and Films of Miloš Forman

in Current Issue/Views

by Michaela Medveďová

Every time the United States attempts to make a rank of their best motion picture in the history of the silver screen, apart from classics such as Casablanca (1942), The Godfather (1972), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), or Forrest Gump (1994), there is another movie they always consider for one of the top positions – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). The groundbreaking film was not directed by an American, but by a Czech who fully represented the notion of the American dream. His name was Miloš Forman and even though last month, he passed away at the age of 86, his impressive, decades-long presence in the American cinematographic world deservedly earned him the status of a legend.


Forman the Man

The man who was later to become one of the most successful directors in the world of cinema was born in 1932 in Čáslav in the Czech Republic. He lost both of his parents in concentration camps during World War II, which left him to live with his uncle and aunt, and later with another family. Forman claimed that at that time, he “soon realized that the thing which really helps you in your life is not to cause trouble at all and to convince the others to become fond of you very quickly¹” and that he grew up to be “a diplomat more than anything else”.

Miloš Forman during Master Class workshop talks, Zff2012, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

He received a good education in a boarding school in Poděbrady which received many donations because it had been established for war orphans. One of his classmates was the future Czech president Václav Havel. However, after the Communist takeover in 1948, Forman was accused of making “fun of the communist party” and he was forced to complete his education in Prague.


His first contact with the theatrical world was through his older brother who was a painter in an acting company. That was when he was intrigued by the post of a director. Once, backstage, Forman said that he witnessed “an aging man [who] burst into the dressing room”. His “jacket was crumpled and he was balding, and yet all the beautiful women couldn’t take their eyes off him. He was apparently slightly drunk, but they were smiling at him and flirting, simply they were ready to do anything to make him fall for them. I would love this, that’s what I thought then”. Later in Prague, Forman even formed an amateur group and directed a production.


Luckily for the world of the film, he was not accepted into Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Arts – and so as not to have to attend military service, he tried for Film Faculty of the Academy of Arts instead and commenced his studies in screenwriting. He later said that it provided him with “a chance to survive the Stalinist fury of the 1950s”. Throughout the fifties, he worked in Czechoslovak Television, and gained experience as assistant director on various films. He also married his first wife Jana Brejchová.


Forman’s success as a filmmaker began in the 1960s. After his first feature film Černý Petr (Black Peter) (1963), he gained two Academy Award nominations for the Best Foreign Language Film for his films that have since become Czech classics – Lásky jedné plavovásky (Loves of a Blonde) (1965) and Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball) (1967). During this period, Forman fathered twin boys with his second wife Věra Křesadlová.


In 1967, Forman was allowed to leave Czechoslovakia and shoot his first American film. As the US was too restless, with the anti-Vietnam protests going on, he went to France instead and was there when the news of the August invasion into the Czech Republic reached him. His wife and children joined him in France but his wife decided to return to their homeland with their sons. Miloš Forman decided to go further westwards.


Upon arriving to the United States, Forman resided in New York in the Greenwich Village where he “never refused anyone who wanted to come in”. One of the visitors, playwright John Guare, said that “on entering the house he always felt he had left America and arrived in avant-garde Bohemia – the land, where only what you read and what you drink really mattered”. It was thus in New York where Forman waited for his cinematographic success, and did it arrive.


Forman the Director


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
While it is said that the third time is the charm, for Miloš Forman, it was most definitely the fourth. After he came to the United States, he grabbed the attention of the film world with his American debut Taking Off (1971), a comedy which awarded him six BAFTA nominations and the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, even though it was a commercial failure. A short film I Miss Sonia Heine (1971) and a segment in a documentary about the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich, Visions of Eight (1973) followed. However, it was in 1975 that Forman directed the film that would establish him as one of the legends of cinema.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), is the adaptation of a Ken Kesey novel of the same name. Running a little over two hours, the film accomplishes to set an unnerving yet endearing atmosphere thanks to its being set in a psychiatric hospital which is loaded with interesting supporting characters. However, what truly elevates the film is the brilliant opposition of the two main characters – the lively McMurphy who starts an active mutiny against the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. Because of a strong screenplay and the great performances given by both Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, their conflict escalates towards a very emotional resolution. Forman managed to pay tribute to humanity in the face of inhumane conditions, and the resounding legacy of this film is the notion of importance of personal freedom.


Despite its status of an icon, there was at least one person whom the film did not captivate – Kesey himself. Despite being involved in the filmmaking process from the start, he soon left the production dissatisfied and even sued one of the producers as he was unhappy with how his book was being adapted. He never saw the complete film, although allegedly he later saw a bit of it while switching channels on TV. However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not share his views and awarded the film 5 Oscars, making it only the second (currently out of three) ever film to ever receive “The Big Five” – Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. And thus, Forman, not even a decade after coming to the US, received his first Oscar.    

Hair (1979)

The 2011 production of the musical Hair by A.P.P.L.A.U.S., Moss, Norway, GisleHaa, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

While this hippie musical was not Forman’s first American film, it was one of the earliest projects that had caught his interest. While he was staying in New York during his first stay in the United States, he saw the preview of the musical Hair (1968), which had debuted off-Broadway in 1967). The musical intrigued him to such a point that he wanted to move the story to the big screen; however, he did not gain the rights to do so at that time, and only managed to adapt the musical more than a decade later. The musical, both the film and the Broadway version, depicts some of the most important issues and aspects of the American society that Forman was able to observe at the time he first arrived to the United States – the hippie culture, the dread of the Vietnam War, and the anti-war protests and resistance against conscription. 


As the movies of Miloš Forman – and his own personal background – indicate, the importance of individual freedom came to be a very important notion in his career as a director. One thus does not wonder why it was this musical that caught his attention in particular. However, he did not adapt the musical without any alterations – in fact, the movie version shifts the original story of the musical in a fairly different direction. The screenplay changes the personality and background of the main character, Claude, turning him from a hippie to a New York newcomer who has signed up for the war. The most important alteration involves the ending which changes the fates of several original characters from the musical. The film also omits ten songs from a far richer original soundtrack comprised of total of 32 songs.


However, these changes did not seem to force the reviewers to downgrade their ratings – at the present time, Hair scores an impressive 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. One can argue that the shift of the ending and of the individual characters may have even reinforced the intended social message about the need for standing up for personal beliefs and freedoms, and of course, the destructive nature of wars. Forman did not manage to bring the story to cinemas during the Vietnam War; however, there is no harm in the delay as it reminds the next generation of such notions. Admittedly, even though the songs are nicely choreographed and the movie as a whole offers some breathtaking colorful visuals, it is not the musical numbers that come to mind when the film musical Hair is mentioned, and it is often overshadowed by other movie musicals. As far as the soundtrack of the film is concerned, there remains one other thing to be regretted – according to Forman, one of the people who auditioned for a role was “a sinewy young man” with a “guitar with him”. As he only came because of his agent, the man did not even play for the director, and then left. Forman recalled that “his name was Bruce Springsteen”.

Amadeus (1984) 
Forman was not the only Czech element which is associated with this musical masterpiece. Amadeus was shot almost entirely in the Czech Republic which was found to be a great replacement for Vienna of the 18th century – such a great one that only four sets needed to be built for the production. While there were reactions against the inaccuracy of the historical facts and relationships presented by the film, it did not stop the film from getting recognition for its cinematic value. When American Film Institute, in 1998, unveiled their pick for the best 100 American films ever made, Amadeus ranked 53rd. – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest placed 20th.

The statue of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna, Austria, misterfarmer, Pixabay.com, CC BY 4.0.

It seems that in Amadeus, Forman fully reused the winning formula of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – an adapted screenplay (it was originally a 1979 play by Peter Schaffer who also produced the screenplay) transformed into an emotionally strong story with an intriguing pair of characters in its center. The structure of the film prevents it from becoming one of the over-the-top, lengthy biopics – rather than focusing on Mozart himself and delivering a linear biography of his unfortunately short life, it chooses Antonio Salieri, an Italian composer and Mozart’s contemporary, to be the narrator. The film thus revolves around the two musicians and their supposed rivalry based on an inevitable contrast between reasonable hard work and unparalleled, yet reckless genius.


One cannot blame the Academy for nominating both F. Murray Abraham (Salieri) and Tom Hulce (Mozart) for the Actor in a Leading Role award, and one can envy them even less for having to judge this contest of once-in-a-career performances for both of them. Forever doomed to be unbearably jealous, and yet at the same time inevitably admiring of his rival, F. Murray Abraham added incredible depth to the film and rightfully took home the award. However, it was Tom Hulce who brought the legendary Mozart to life in an unparalleled way – his joyful portrayal, and above all else his maniacal laugh will stay with the audience of Amadeus long after the credits. And yet, it is not about them. Mozart’s music flows from the movie in such a manner that even those who dislike classical tunes will listen in awe. The crown jewel of the film – the scene where ill Mozart dictates his Requiem to baffled Salieri while the actual piece gradually gains magnitude in the background – is where it all comes together. The characters and their music leave our history, and enter the film one.

 

It was a landslide victory for Amadeus at the corresponding Academy Awards – it took home 8 Oscars including those for Best Picture and Best Director. It is no wonder that when Laurence Olivier was to present the Best Picture category, he forgot to mention the five nominees, and instead proceeded straightly to simply announcing: “Amadeus!” The dominance of the movie was such that when Maurice Jarre, accepting his Oscar for Best Original Score for A Passage to India (1984) – a category where Amadeus was not even nominated – he famously said: “I was lucky Mozart was not eligible this year”.

The People vs Larry Flynt (1996)
Despite the fact that both One Flew and Amadeus inspired some criticism – the former by the author of the original novel, the latter by discontented historians – none of Forman’s films caused a bigger controversy than The People Vs Larry Flynt (1996). It is based on the life and courtroom struggles of Larry Flynt, a nightclub owner who, in 1974, turned a newsletter promoting his business into a successful pornographic magazine Hustler which was frequently sued for its explicit material and defamation. While much of the film focuses on Flynt’s fight for the freedom of speech based on the First Amendment, not everyone enjoyed the portrayal of the pornographic mogul’s unlikely heroism.

The brothers Larry and Jimmy Flynt during a trial in 1977. DrLevingston2, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

 
After the premiere of the film, Gloria Steinem, in her opinion piece for New York Times, criticized the movie for a glorifying portrayal of Flynt who, in his magazine, degraded women. She writes that “Hustler is depicted as tacky at worst, and maybe even honest for showing full nudity. What’s left out are the magazine’s images of women being beaten, tortured and raped, women subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery”. She uses the examples of “a woman being gang-raped on a pool table” or “a naked woman in handcuffs who is shaved, raped, and apparently killed by guards in a concentration-camp-like setting”. Despite the film depicting Flynt as an advocate for the First Amendment, Steinem writes that “other feminists and I have been attacked in Hustler for using our First Amendment rights to protest pornography. In my case, that meant calling me dangerous and putting my picture on a ‘Most Wanted’ poster”.


In its run through the American cinemas, the movie only earned 20 million dollars in the US. It also lost at the Oscars despite being nominated for Best Director and Best Actor in a Leading Role (Woody Harrelson). Forman defended the movie, saying that if he “had put the worst images in, the studios would never have made the film” and that he “made this film out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution, which allows this country to rise to its best when provoked by the worst”. He also claimed that if the movie was only about Larry Flynt, he would not direct it – for him, it was more about the importance of freedom of speech embodied in the First Amendment.

Larry Flynt in 2009 in his famous gold wheelchair, © Glenn Francis, www.PacificProDigital.com, Wikipedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

His approach to the life story of Flynt is clearly reflected in the movie; however, it is not as well executed as it could be. The first half of the movie which is concerned more about Larry’s childhood and beginnings as a businessman is told in such a high speed that the time jumps between the individual scenes actually cause confusion in the story, and the whole movie comes across as unpleasantly episodic. The tempo changes completely in the second part of the movie which is largely focused on Flynt’s courtroom fights. The film ends with the depiction of the Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell Supreme Court Case which decided that public figures could not recover “damages for the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress” for caricatures or parodies which ”could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved”. Flynt’s crusade for the freedom of speech and his right to publish pornography is highlighted by long monologues about American freedom which, at some points, may sound overly patriotic but they are executed impressively by both Edward Norton (who plays Flynt’s lawyer Alan Isaacman whose real final Supreme Court speech was copied in the movie) and the very charming Woody Harrelson in one of his best performances.


Harrelson’s brilliant and rich performance may actually be to blame for the fact that for some, the movie comes across as glorifying the real Larry Flynt. The film seemed to have strived for reality – Flynt himself (who actually appears in the movie in the role of a judge) was, according to Forman, involved in the production and provided factual commentary for the screenplay. When asked whether he minded the fact that he did not come out as a hero in several scenes in the movie, Flynt allegedly responded to the director: “Of course I do! Yes, I do mind, but what can I do about it when it´s true?”

Man on the Moon (1999)
“Hello, I am Andy and I would like to thank you for coming to my movie.” These words, said in a funny accent by a man in a checked suit and a turtleneck, open a biopic Man on the Moon about Andy Kaufman, an American entertainer whose memorable career was cut very short by illness. As historical or biographical movies are often criticized for not being true to the original person or the events in their life, the movie chooses to prevent such criticism in an original way – letting the performer himself declare that everything that was important in his life was somewhat changed, and that the movie was stupid. Despite this warning, however, there were still some that were left dissatisfied – not with inaccuracy of the facts but with the film not being true to Kaufman’s personality and abilities.

Jim Carrey who portrayed the entertainer Andy Kaufman in Man on the Moon, Bigotes de Gato, Flickr.com, CC BY-SA 4.0.

They were not the only ones who did not consider the movie to be very good. Man on the Moon was a commercial flop, earning only 47 million dollars at an 82-million-dollar budget. Critics were also not swayed in the movie’s favor, as only 63% of the reviews were positive on Rotten Tomatoes. However, there was something positive that almost every review had in common – that Jim Carrey, starring as Kaufman in the leading role, was simply excellent. His impersonations of the entertainer were spot-on, and while it seems to be debatable whether it was the true Andy Kaufman, at least a certain version of him appeared in the movie, and all thanks to the captivating Carrey. After his string of purely comic performances in The Mask (1994), Dumb and Dumber (1994), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) which established him as a comedian with probably the most flexible face ever, Man on the Moon was his second opportunity after the haunting Truman Show  (1998) to show that his talents also included the ability to successfully take on a serious role. As Andy Kaufman, he showed it all in a perfect combination which awarded him his second consecutive Golden Globe.


Man on the Moon, named after an R.E.M. tribute song to Kaufman himself, takes the viewers through various phases and professional occupations of the entertainer’s life. It culminates in a bittersweet ending where the people at Andy’s funeral are directed to join in a song by a video of himself, creating a balanced scene full of both sadness and joy. Even though it was sorted into Comedy/Musical categories at the Golden Globes, it did not take away any of the dramatic impact this film has on its viewers. The funny Golden Globes placement (which occurs almost every year) was also addressed by Carrey in his acceptance speech  when he said he was “a little shocked that it was in the Comedy or Musical category” but he joked that he is prepared to go “right to Broadway”. He also thanked Forman for being “supportive of all the nonsense”. And even though the director did not get any direct critical acclaim for this particular work of his, it seems to have had quite an impact – his twin sons from his third marriage to Martina Zbořilová were named Jim and Andy.


Forman the Actor


While the whole cinematic world recognizes Miloš Forman as an Oscar-winning director, fewer people are aware that he, in fact, occasionally also stepped out in front of the camera a let himself be directed by someone else. Over the course of the years, he had several minor roles, both in Czech films prior to emigrating and in foreign productions after it.  However, he also starred as the sleeping devil in a recent Czech fairytale Peklo s princeznou (2009) (It Is Hell with the Princess)  by the director Miloslav Šmidmajer. When asked why he chose to take the role, Forman said: “I have known Miloslav for years.  He is nice and he knows his job. So why not do it?”


One of Forman’s most notable appearance as an actor was the role of Father Havel in a romantic comedy Keeping the Faith (2000), the directorial debut of Edward Norton. Forman took the role because of his friendship with Norton whom he previously directed in The People vs Larry Flynt. In the charming film about the influence of religion on human lives and an unlikely love triangle between a priest, rabbi, and their mutual childhood friend, Forman’s Father Havel serves as a source of wisdom for the love-struck young priest (played by Norton himself). Confessing that he too struggled with celibacy, he delivers one of the most memorable quotes of the movie: “If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it’s the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it’s a choice that you keep making again and again and again.”

 

In his filmmaking career, Miloš Forman directed just over a dozen feature films; this relatively low number seemed to have been enough to have established him as one of the most important directors of the second half of the 20th century. While his later films achieved neither fame nor critical acclaim equal to that he received for Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which both brought him an Academy Award for Best Director, his overall cinematographic presence undoubtedly left a mark and highlighted the Czech Republic on the map of world cinema.


1 All the citations used in this section of the article come from Miloš Forman’s official website.

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