Director Milos Forman fought oppression. In the clip above, he’s talking to Charlie Rose in 1997 about his movie The People vs. Larry Flynt, released the previous year. He’s asked why make a movie about a man who published a magazine with such objectionable content and Forman’s reply is simple – and utterly relevant today. He made the movie because Flynt is not only a symbol of pornography but also freedom of expression, after fighting for it all the way to the Supreme Court. In Forman’s view, freedom of the press is the cornerstone of democracy; not elections, because they can be manipulated, but freedom of the press. Sadly, we lost this great filmmaker two days ago at the age of 86.
No wonder that Forman hated oppression of any kind. Born in Czechoslovakia, his parents were murdered by the Nazis and young Milos grew up with relatives. After studying screenwriting, Forman became a filmmaker and started making comedies, several of which became well known internationally as part of the so-called Czechoslovak New Wave. Loves of a Blonde (1965) was Oscar-nominated and so was The Firemen’s Ball (1967). The latter film satirized communism to the degree that it was banned in Czechoslovakia. That probably made his decision to move to the United States easier; it also happened at the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion of his country.
Forman’s first American film was Taking Off (1971), but it was his next that became a huge success (and classic). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) was memorable, among many other things for its anti-authoritarianism, and it remains a touching, well-acted masterpiece. The clip above is a scene where the patients challenge Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Forman won an Oscar for directing the movie, which also became one of those rare films to win all “Big Five” (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay).
Milos Forman followed that success with an adaptation of a Broadway hit, “Hair”, in 1979. The movie, starring Treat Williams, was liked by audiences, and another example of revolt, this time from the hippie generation.
After the lavish Ragtime (1981), Forman made his second American masterpiece, Amadeus (1984). Mozart was the rebel here, and as Forman showed in both Hair and Ragtime he knew how to work with the best in the business (cinematographers, production designers, costume designers, etc.) to create a visually stunning experience. The film won him his second Oscar as Best Director, and it also won Best Picture.
Of his last four films, Valmont (1989), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), Man on the Moon (1999) and Goya’s Ghosts (2007), there’s no question that the Flynt movie is the one to catch.
Milos Forman is certainly a great loss, regardless if you know him primarily for his classic American movies or his more cinematically groundbreaking Czech fare. After news broke of his death, many in Hollywood expressed grief. What touched me the most was an Instagram post by Courtney Love, a fellow rebel who was in The People vs. Larry Flynt:
Milos, you were my first role model for what a real man was. Against all odds, and a horrified studio, you plucked me from an audition and used your own money to get me bonded and insured, based on my word that I would not do drugs (I did not) Doing a good film is fun but Milos made it a joy. I was so free, so blessed, and so supported. I discovered what being treated like a princess was for the first time. He was always gentle and always brought out my best. I was surrounded by love on both of my films with him, and other than Kurt and Frances, they remain the highest points in my life. Playing for 100k people is awesome but it’s nothing compared to being directed by this tender man, who had also seen such hardship growing up – his mother died in Auschwitz and his father rumored to have been killed by the KGB. He was once jailed for going to an Ella Fitzgerald concert along with his best friend, the young playwright (and future Czech President) Václav Havel. He was a genuine auteur and not a baby when it came to casting – zero compromise. I recall on the set of Man on the Moon I was sent into his trailer as he dined over his steak (medium rare), his wine (always Pétrus), and cigar (illegal Cuban) to argue casting Chicago. He wanted me and Bebe Neuwirth and he wasn’t budging. I was fighting for a huge popstar and he looked at me with his twinkling, crinkling, tender eyes with a flash of irony – and maybe pissiness – and said, “You tell ME about CASTING, Miss Courtney Love?” I shut my trap then and there. Milos accepted me and my demons. He introduced me to my extended family – Edward, Woody, Danny and the wonderful Jim Carrey. We have lost a cinema giant, my heart goes out to his beautiful and loving wife Martina, their children Jim and Andy, and the rest of his family. To all of us who he put on the map and to all of us who watch Amadeus or Cuckoo’s Nest over and over and over – the joy that man gave was unparalleled only by the joyous way he chose to the joyous way he chose to live his life. Milos, I’ve told you a million times, but I’ve never loved a human being the way love and admire you. Purely, joyously and devastated, Your Courtney