Critic's Notebook: Milos Forman, the Artful Contrarian

Milos Forman - H 2016
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Milos Forman - H 2016

Forman's best films pulsed with rebelliousness, but the director knew to cloak his resistance in humor and subtlety.

Among the numerous foreign-born directors who came to America to make films in the 1960s and early 1970s, the ones who really made it big here were Milos Forman and Roman Polanski. A major reason these two tough, tenacious guys succeeded in Hollywood when others didn't wasn't just because of their talent — it was because they had to.

Born 18 months apart in Czechoslovakia and Poland, respectively, both lost their mothers in the death camps but managed by stealth, as pre-teens, to slip through the Nazis' net. Both learned their craft at outstanding film schools in their home countries in the 1950s and enjoyed breakthrough international success with artful and sexy early features that were both nominated for best foreign film Oscars, Polanski with Knife in the Water in 1963 and Forman with Loves of a Blonde two years later.

Decades on, both won Oscars for big films they made in English in their respective native countries, Forman with Amadeus and Polanski with The Pianist.

With Forman, who died Saturday at 86, there was, in most of his best films, the dynamic of resistance edging toward rebellion. At the same time, however, the outbursts and contrarianism in his work always had a softer, humanistic feel absent the melodrama that more conventional or hard-charging dramatists normally employ. The roots of this more organic approach, which fused documentary and satiric influences, are to be found in his early Czech films, especially in his final homegrown feature, The Firemen's Ball, in which the amusing fiasco of a small-town volunteer fire-fighting unit's attempt to stage a ball is clearly presented as an allegory for the shortcomings of the communist government, which, after the film had been in release for three weeks, banned it “forever.”

Put another way, the impulses toward resistance and rebellion are present in much of Forman's work, but the fist is normally enclosed in a velvet glove; the contrarianism is insistent, but it's cloaked in wry humor and lacks the usual obviousness. Such was the stealth, indirection and deniability required to at least sometimes get away with quasi-subversive commentary in the strict, censorious climate in which he grew up and came of creative age.

From such a fertile artistic soul, there are fewer Forman films than there ought to be — just a dozen in the 54 years since his first feature. The project I most regret his not having made is Hell Camp, a romance set in the world of sumo wrestling, which was canceled just before filming due to objections from Japanese officialdom.

Although it did nothing commercially, the director's first American feature, Taking Off, a tickling delight about a middle-class couple whose daughter ventures off into New York hippiedom in 1971, revealed a thorough readiness to embrace American (albeit not Hollywood) mores and humor. One highlight: a bunch of proper middle-aged New Yorkers in formal wear being introduced to marijuana smoking so they can know what their children are up to.

With this one flop behind him, it's remarkable that Forman got to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but he turned what could have been an overly theatrical enterprise (it had been a play, after all, with Kirk Douglas, who always wanted to star in the film) into a perfectly cast and astutely judged production. The director's own comments are highly revealing: “For me the Communist Party was Nurse Ratched. And everything that is described in the story of that book I lived. So to me it's a Czech movie. It's a documentary.”

The results were less felicitous with his film version of the 1960s counterculture musical Hair, which, by 1979, looked like a shopworn period piece with two or three good tunes. Considerably more interesting but still, in the end, a misfire was the ambitious adaptation of Ragtime, the injudicious cutting of which surely didn't help.

But then there was another triumph, with Amadeus, an awfully good play that was maximized onscreen by the director's obvious enthusiasm, tremendous locations and sets, brilliant music, charging energy that matched Mozart's own and a complex view of the story's tragedy. One can still quarrel with Tom Hulce's overweening obnoxiousness as the precocious genius, but Forman's point with such casting is clear enough with his inspired selection of F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Jeffrey Jones as the Emperor.

Over the course of his remaining 34 years, Forman curiously made only four films. The first of these, the middling Valmont, seemed rather pointless in that the same story had just been told onscreen in the perfectly good Dangerous Liaisons the year before. The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon were both unexpected and observant biographical tales of major iconoclastic eccentrics, pornographic publisher Flynt and eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman, while his final film, Goya's Ghost, a dozen years ago, about the great painter's struggle between art and commerce (a problem that never seemed like a significant issue in Forman's career), was seen by virtually no one.

It's not always easy to analyze why some artists remain productive and culturally connected through their entire careers while others pass out of the spotlight. But for two decades, Forman shared the upper echelon of international filmmakers with a precious few others with distinctive works that no one else would have made remotely the same way.