Milos Forman Remembered: A Rebel in His Time, and for the Future

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Milos Forman, who died on April 14 at the age of 86, has left behind some of the most sharply observed portraits of human behavior in cinema.

When I think of Forman’s work, my mind doesn’t necessarily go first to his two Oscar-winning juggernauts — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) or “Amadeus” (1984) — or the Czech films that garnered him worldwide acclaim in the 1960s, such as “Loves of a Blonde” (1965) or “The Firemen’s Ball” (1967). Rather, I think of the opening scene from his lesser-known comedy, “Taking Off” (1971): a series of static shots of young women, one after the other, performing songs for an off-screen producer.

Most of the women are earnest and serious; some seem awkward or shy, dressed in contemporary hippy-ish clothes; their hair is often long and frizzy. Some of these audition singers include Carly Simon, Kathy Bates (credited as Bobo Bates) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Jessica Harper. What is remarkable about these relatively straightforward snippets is that Forman isn’t nudging the audience for what to make of these young people, or their songs. He’s not telling the audience how to react; he’s simply presenting these young people as they are.

Also Read: Milos Forman, ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ Director, Dies at 86

The first 5-10 minutes of this film paints a picture of these flower children of the Woodstock era that feels authentic, admiring and compassionate. And kind. It’s a quality in Forman’s cinema I can see throughout his career.

Forman sprang forth from the extraordinary group of filmmakers known as the Czech New Wave, most of whom were trained at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (including Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Ján Kadár, Jan Němec and Ivan Passer), and, like his cinematic compatriots, Forman’s early films are often political in nature, portraying figures of authority as inept and corrupt. In “The Firemen’s Ball,” the volunteer fire department in a small town decides to organize a ball in honor of their recently retired chairman.

Also Read: Milos Forman Hailed as ‘Champion of Artists’ Rights’ by Directors Guild of America

At the event, the firefighters’ committee decide to host a beauty contest and proceed to procure some of the unsuspecting young women to pose for them. The women appear hesitant, guarded, and a few are even somewhat amused by the ramshackle way they are being put on display by these old men. (Most of the actors were local to the area of Vrchlabí, where it was filmed.) The spunkiest of the young women seems to have an awareness of how ridiculous and sexist this is. She laughs and then runs off halfway through her walk for the judges, triggering a mass exodus by the other contestants, and the scene ends in comedic chaos.

Clearly, the characters who buck the system, like the young woman in “The Firemen’s Ball,” are what hold director’s greatest interest. Forman is fixed on the idea of the outsider as being the true hero of his work: Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, Treat Williams’ George Berger, Howard E. Rollins’ Coalhouse Walker Jr., Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Woody Harrelson’s Larry Flynt and Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman are all individuals that won’t fit into society’s prescribed mold for them.

Also Read: Milos Forman Remembered by Larry Flynt, Judd Apatow and More: ‘Genius of Cinematography’

Forman’s rebels, though clearly stemming from his Czech roots, found fertile ground in America. His two most critically and financially successful films, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (adapted by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman from Ken Kesey’s novel) and “Amadeus” (Peter Shaffer adapting his own stage play), both impeccably produced by Saul Zaentz, together garnered 13 Oscars total, including two for Forman for directing.

At his best, Forman’s greatest work (I would include the woefully underrated musical adaptation of “Hair”) shows both compassion for his characters and wry humor in the predicaments in which these characters find themselves. His work with actors is exemplary, and his filmography is flooded with memorable performances and ensemble work: from Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in “Cuckoo’s Nest” to Rollins, Elizabeth McGovern and James Cagney in “Ragtime” (1981), F. Murray Abraham and Hulce in “Amadeus,” Harrelson and Courtney Love in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), and back to Hana Brejchová in “Loves of a Blonde” and Lynn Carlin, Buck Henry, Georgia Engel and Audra Lindley in “Taking Off,” to name a few.

Cinematically, I’m just so impressed with the way he and his cinematographers captured these actors’ faces and performances. This is filmmaking that is not trying to impress you with flashy editing and swirling cameras (though the camerawork in the opening “Aquarius” number in “Hair,” accompanied by Twyla Tharp’s wonderful choreography, is a wonderful exception), it’s focused on its characters and story.

Possibly because of his lack of flash and cutting-edge technique, there is a danger that Forman’s work may not be immediately appreciated by younger filmmakers — though in this current era where young people are rising up to stand for their beliefs to their schools, their City Halls, and the world at large, Forman’s filmography is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of rebels.

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Milos Forman, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ Director, Celebrated Non-Conformists

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Milos Forman celebrated the non-conformist, lionizing the likes of Randle McMurphy, Larry Flynt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others who just couldn’t be bothered to give a damn about convention. But what made the director’s films great was that he also showed the toll that kind of iconoclasm takes on revolutionaries. It was something that he […]

Milos Forman Hailed as ‘Champion of Artists’ Rights’ by Directors Guild of America

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Milos Forman was an “undeniable source of inspiration,” Directors Guild of America President Thomas Schlamme said on Saturday, following the acclaimed filmmaker’s death at the age of 86.

“Milos was truly one of ours. A filmmaker, artist, and champion of artists’ rights. His contribution to the craft of directing has been an undeniable source of inspiration for generations of filmmakers,” Schlamme said in a statement. “His directorial vision deftly brought together provocative subject matter, stellar performances and haunting images to tell the stories of the universal struggle for free expression and self-determination that informed so much of his work and his life.”

Forman directed classics like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus” — winning an Academy Award for Best Director for both films. He joined the DGA in 1970, shortly after coming to the USA from Czechoslovakia, where the communist regime was cracking down on artists. Forman became the 34th recipient of the DGA’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Achievement in Motion Picture Direction in 2013.

“A member of the DGA’s National Board and a recipient of the DGA’s highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, Milos actively championed artist’s rights throughout his career, speaking multiple times before Congress and world audiences about the importance of creative rights and artists’ protections against the violation of those rights,” continued Schlamme. “He stood up on behalf of his beloved fellow filmmakers time and again, and he believed with all his heart that creativity and artistic freedom could make a difference in the world. Now it’s up to us to prove him right. We will miss him.”

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Milos Forman, ‘Amadeus’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ Director, Dies at 86

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