Milos Forman, 1932–2018
The Oscar-winning director who loved rebels
Milos Forman defied categorization. The director made 10 films during his four-decade career, each vastly different from the others. There was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, his Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about revolt and repression in a psychiatric hospital, and Amadeus, a lush biopic of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which won Forman his second Oscar for best director. Yet Forman’s movies all shared a common theme: that of a rebel struggling to break free. Having grown up in Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia, Forman felt an affinity with those who stood up to tyranny. “I lived in a society where people who called for censorship won,” he said. “You develop this admiration for people who have the courage to buck the system.”
Born in the town of Caslav, outside Prague, Forman became “an orphan at age 10” after both of his parents were killed in Nazi death camps, said the Los Angeles Times. Raised by relatives, he drifted from boarding school to the Prague Film Academy. There, he helped found the Czech New Wave, a group of filmmakers who chronicled “the grim realities of life behind the Iron Curtain.” His early movies won international plaudits—1965’s Loves of a Blonde and 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball were nominated for foreign-language Oscars. But after the Soviets crushed the brief period of liberalization known as the “Prague Spring” in 1968, his work was banned and he moved to the U.S. Forman’s first Hollywood film, the comedy Taking Off, “did so poorly” that he “wound up owing the studio $500,” said The New York Times. He fell into a depression, which lifted only when he was approached to helm Cuckoo’s Nest. The 1975 film was a nightmare to shoot—its star, Jack Nicholson, stopped talking to Forman—but became a critical and commercial hit.
Forman’s next two films—Hair and Ragtime—“received lukewarm reviews,” said The Washington Post. But 1984’s Amadeus, starring Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as his bitter rival, Antonio Salieri, was a “tour de force.” Forman shot the movie in Prague; the Czechoslovak authorities, he said with pride, “had to bow to the almighty dollar and let the traitor back.” He earned his third Oscar nomination with 1996’s The People vs. Larry Flynt, a bawdy ode to the First Amendment. “Probably because I am a coward,” said Forman, “instead of rebelling, I make films about people who rebel.”