The Unruly Genius of Milos Forman

The late director “could present hedonism and abandon and rebellion and madness without ever losing sight of the big picture”


Milos Forman understood something fundamental about freedom. Here was a man who had lost his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, who then made films in Communist Czechoslovakia, only to come to the U.S. during a period of unparalleled turbulence and opportunity. The contradictions and paradoxes of a free society were immediately laid bare for him. Who else could have tackled such beloved-by-the-counterculture efforts as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hair (1979) even as he supported the Vietnam War? “I lived so long under Communism that for me, anybody who fought Communism was a hero,” Forman told me some years ago. “America was a hero for fighting the Communists in Vietnam. But Hair the musical was to me an act of freedom 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.” Watch his movies today — any of his movies, really — and you’ll see an artist contending with the sheer terrifying messiness of a world where people refuse to be held down. Freedom, in Milos Forman’s films, is precious, to be sure — but it’s also ever-changing and chaotic.

It can be ill-advised to make stylistic or thematic generalizations about a filmmaker whose work stretches over so many decades and cultures. Especially since Forman, who died April 14 at the age of 86, gave up one kind of cinematic movement, the Czechoslovak New Wave, for another, the New American Cinema of the 1970s, before fully embracing the studio mainstream. He certainly helmed a number of diverse movies, though he would eventually become known for period projects — even if the period in question was just the 1970s and ’80s, as depicted in The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and his Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon (1999). But throughout all these films, you can see his fondness for glimpses of human reality — whether it be in quick cutaways to faces in a crowd, or stolen reactions of principal players. One of my favorite throwaway bits in any movie is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of the two prosecution lawyers in The People vs. Larry Flynt beaming and chortling with victorious glee as Woody Harrelson’s Flynt, attempting to defend himself and completely botching it, is gagged with duct tape in front of the court. In moments like these, you can tell that the man who made the Czech classic The Firemen’s Ball is still there, lurking somewhere behind the camera, his eye for the cross section of humanity and absurdism still intact.

The Firemen’s Ball (1967), which was once officially “banned for eternity” in Czechoslovakia, is a picture built entirely out of such “unrepeatable moments,” as Forman called them. The film has no real protagonist: A group of firemen arrange a big, crowded banquet at which to present an award to their former chief. The banquet, among other things, will come complete with a beauty contest. Dressed in the garb of officialdom, the firemen go around trying to find girls to participate in the contest. But the girls are unruly, the crowd is unruly, and hell, even the firemen themselves are unruly. The food and the gifts keep disappearing, and accusations of thievery are hurled to and fro; meanwhile, people keep trying to game the system so their daughters will win the pageant. Amid the madness — filmed with a documentary-style spontaneity, thanks to a cast of nonprofessionals, which included real firemen — an irreverent and comically bitter vision of bureaucracy and authoritarianism emerges. Humans want to be free, and will seize the first chance they get to be free; in Forman’s world, anyone who seeks to control others’ behavior is bound to fail, often spectacularly.

That same spirit of entropy can be found in Forman’s first American effort, the lovely Taking Off (1971)in which Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin play the parents of a teenage girl who has run away from home. Very little of the film winds up being about their search. Instead, they find themselves drawn into a bizarre, glitzy organization for the parents of runaways, which seems to exist more to extend the grown-ups’ social circles than to actually find any kids. There, they are introduced to marijuana, and the film’s final act consists largely of an extended, baked strip poker game, during which the parents don’t even realize that their daughter has come home and is in her room. (This isn’t the first time she’s come back, either; earlier in the film, she had returned…and promptly disappeared again after dad got drunk.) The film embodies the anarchic spirit of its characters, not just through its beautifully staged moments of hedonistic abandon, but also through fast, fragmented cutaways to auditions and musical performances — in which ordinary people (as well as some professional artists, such as Carly Simon and Tina Turner) perform fragments from an impossibly wide variety of songs and genres. The effect is that of a big, bustling world, speaking and singing through many voices. Taking Off feels like a movie made by a man who is both delighted and terrified by the mad, cacophonous country he’s come to.

In that sense, it’s easy to see what attracted Forman to the film that would define the first part of his Hollywood career, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — for what better subject for a man so fascinated with people’s inherent desire to be free than a movie set inside a mental asylum? “Friends came to me before I started 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,’ ” Forman once recalled. “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.’ ”

Similarly, it’s only a hop, skip, and a jump to The People vs. Larry Flynt, a biopic about the notorious Hustler publisher whose First Amendment battles to print smut and mean jokes about Jerry Falwell became watersheds for American free speech. A cause célèbre when it was released more than two decades ago, at a time when the ferocity of the so-called PC wars and culture wars had reached fever pitch, that film’s vitality and resonance have proven to be pretty much eternally self-regenerating in a country that relentlessly lionizes freedom but is forever at odds about what freedom actually means.

That is perhaps the most poignant aspect of Larry Flynt, and what makes it a true Milos Forman film. Flynt might be a force for disruptiveness — like the young women who refused to get in line in The Firemen’s Ball — but he’s also a victim of it. He may win his legal victories, but the film doesn’t present a world that bends to such orderly notions of legality. When Flynt is shot and paralyzed by a mysterious gunman, he and his associates wonder who might have done the deed. The CIA, the KKK, the mob, the extreme religious right — they name just about everybody. He’s never safe; he flees to Los Angeles, where he lives under armed guard. But that can’t keep him from losing his wife (Courtney Love) to addiction — a habit she forms while administering painkillers to him. In gaining the right to publish whatever he wants, Flynt loses just about every other freedom he has, mainly because other people refuse to live by the rules — just as he once refused to.

As a director, Forman could present hedonism and abandon and rebellion and madness without ever losing sight of the big picture — conveying both the boisterousness and the fear, the liberation and the unpredictability of a world imagined without rules. In his masterpiece, Amadeus (1985), F. Murray Abraham’s Antonio Salieri and Tom Hulce’s Mozart engage in a kind of dialectic between the proper, orderly, and traditional on the one hand, and chaotic, divine inspiration on the other. The musical visionary Mozart — in this film’s retelling presented as a vulgar, childlike bon vivant — is a force for chaos and great beauty, while the tightly wound, scheming nobleman Salieri, at once Mozart’s greatest admirer and his secret nemesis, carries the power of the institution, money, and empire behind him. But the music that’s created is something apart from either man. Even Mozart himself doesn’t entirely understand where his art comes from, and it brings him more agony than joy, not to mention an early, agonizing death. There is a paradox in this: Music both frees him and consumes, ruins, and destroys him. The cost of our liberated souls is a pauper’s grave.