Milos Forman, who died at the age of 86 on April 14, 2018, after a brief illness, directed some of the most memorable dramas of his time, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Amadeus. But perhaps the greatest drama he experienced was his own life.
Hollywood Reporter said, “Forman had a unique sensitivity to American themes, which he prismed through a sly, satiric sensibility. His films generally appealed to sophisticated audiences, though he could reach the mainstream with his savvy flourishes.”
Born in central Bohemia’s Čáslav on February 18, 1932, to his mother, Anna, who managed a hotel, and father Rudolf, who worked as a teacher, Jan Tomáš (Miloš) Forman was brought up by relatives in eastern Bohemia’s Náchod after he lost his parents to the tragedy of war.
According to Forman’s website, Jan Forman was a member of a resistance group fighting the Nazi occupation and was arrested by the Gestapo when Milos was eight years old. Forman’s mother was also arrested. “This came about when a local grocery store owner named Havranek was arrested for not informing German officials about anti-Nazi leaflets that appeared in his store. When Havranek was interrogated he mentioned the names of twelve women (including Mrs. Formanova). All of these women were arrested.”
Both of his parents died in concentration camps.
After the war, Forman attended boarding school, his classmates including Vaclav Havel, and he became interested in theater and film. He worked as a filmmaker until the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968 after the country’s Prague Spring, an effort to establish “communism with a human face.” Forman left Europe for the United States. For the rest of his life, he was a vocal opponent of communism.
In 1964, when he was still in Europe, Forman had been approached by a woman who was with his mother in Auschwitz. She told him that Forman was actually the son of a Jewish architect with whom his mother had an affair. Later Forman made contact with his biological father, who had survived World War II.
His first American film success was in 1975 with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel about a man who fakes insanity to avoid going to prison but is eventually lobotomized. He said in later interviews he got the job because he was in the producers’ “price range.” Variety said about Cuckoo’s Nest that Forman “brought a balance and objectivity to the film, which could easily have descended into histrionics. The critically lauded and immensely popular film starring the fast-rising Jack Nicholson struck a nerve in 1975, and on Academy Awards night it became the first film since 1934’s It Happened One Night to sweep the top five Oscar prizes: best picture, director, actress, actor and screenplay (adapted).”
Forman’s other most lauded film was Amadeus, which was not a biopic of Mozart but an unflinching look at the jealousies and mysteries and agonies of artistic creation. That film won eight Academy Awards and rave reviews.
In an interview, Forman said, “I was used to seeing the Russian and Czech films about composers, 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 theater waiting to fall asleep, and suddenly I see this wonderful drama, which would be wonderful even if it was not Mozart and [Antonio] Salieri. … I was glued to the seat to the very end. And right there after the show, I met for the first time Peter Shaffer, and I told him that if he would ever consider making a movie, I would be very interested.”
Forman’s other films include Hair, Valmont, The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Ragtime, Man on the Moon, and Goya’s Ghosts. According to Variety, “Forman collaborated with Vaclav Havel on the adaptation of a novel about the Munich Agreement, through which Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia’s Sudentenland in 1938, but the project did not come to fruition. He also had in development as a directing project the story of Charles Ponzi, the early 20th-century fraudster who lends his name to the Ponzi scheme.”
Forman served as a professor of film and co-chair of the film division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York City. He also wrote an autobiography, Turnaround, which was published in 1994.
Nancy Bilyeau, the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, has written a trilogy of novels set in the court of Henry VIII: ‘The Crown,’ ‘The Chalice,’ and ‘The Tapestry.’ The books are for sale in the U.S., the U.K., and seven other countries. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com.