25 September 2018

Milos Forman, a top quality Czech-American director.

Jan Tomas Forman was born in 1932 in Caslav, now part of the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation, Forman's Protestant mother Anna Švábová died in Ausch­witz in 1943. As a member of the Protestant anti-Nazi Underground, Milos’ putative father Professor Rudolf Forman was arrested for distributing banned books; he died while being int­errogated by the Gestapo in a concentration camp in 1944. Forman had no idea what had happened to his parents.

During the rest of his childhood, Forman was raised by relatives.

Aged 18, Forman joined the newly founded Prague film school Famu and began directing documentaries for Czech television. He was a mover and shaker in Prague’s theatres and cinemas in the 1950s and early 60s. Forman’s films, and others of the Czech new wave, intro­duced to the cinema portrayals of working-class life eg A Blonde in Love (1965), not of soc­ialist realism. The more liberal faction of the Communist party, then in ascendancy, appropriated these movies as expressions of the new concept in modern films.

Forman felt forced to flee Czechosl­ovakia only when Soviet troops in­vaded in 1968. Milos, who had by then directed a few succ­essful movies in Europe, had been offered a contract in Hollywood and decided to emigrate to America. He believed that had he stayed, he would become a target of the secret service agents.

The New American was determined to represent his country in the USA, ­inspired by his late parents, who had been part of a patriotic anti-Nazi resistance group. Only later did he ­realise he shared a strong feeling of aff­ection for his homeland with his dead parents.

In the meantime, Milos’ older artist brother, Pavel Forman, imm­ig­rated to Brisbane after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslov­ak­ia. Milos later discov­ered that his biological father was in fact a Jewish architect, Otto Kohn, ironically a survivor of the Holocaust. After WW2 ended, Otto Kohn moved to the USA where he became a domestic architect.
Milos Forman director and Saul Zaentz producer, 
at the Oscars in 1985 for Amadeus
photo credit: Sky News

His reputation as a Czech filmmaker provided him with new opportun­ities in Hollywood, ­although he had to struggle to get his ideas accepted by Hollywood stud­ios. His first American film, a comedy called Taking Off (1971), was well received by the critics but failed with the general cinema-going population; he was unable to direct another feature film for five years.

Michael Douglas had to rescue Forman’s career by appoint­ing him dir­ector of his newest film, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1975). On its release the film, based on Ken Kesey’s novel about a misfit (Jack Nicholson) who led mental institution inmates in a revolt against authority.­ Fortunately Forman ensured that the story did not become as hysterical as it might have. Anyhow, the critics loved the film, allowing it to become only the second in history to win the five most significant Oscar awards (best picture, actor and actress, director and screenplay). Forman might have seen the story as a metaphor for the conformist society from which he had escaped, but Ken Kesey certainly had never seen it that way.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Novel written by Ken Kesey, 1962
Film directed by Nilos Forman, 1975

A decade later Forman travelled to Prague to shoot the film Amadeus in 1984, the first time the director had returned to his homeland since the Prague Spring of 1968. A fictional biography of Mozart, the film used unknown theatre actors to play Wolfgang Amad­eus Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri. Forman created a captiv­ating adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play, backed up by Mozart’s own music. As well as being financially succ­ess­­ful, the film did extremely well at the Oscars, for the director, best picture, best actor and screenplay. 

Almost as an aside, Saul Zaentz received the Best Picture Oscar for three films, two of them directed by Milos Forman —One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). His third was for The English Patient (1996), directed by Anthony Minghella, another of my all-time favourite films.

Forman didn’t direct again until two satirical works came out. The first was The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), a successful comedy about “First Amendment arguments” provoked by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. While reviews were strong, espec­ial­ly the actor Woody Harrelson, the film did only moderately well financially. However it must have been good - Forman received another director nomination that year. The second film was Man on the Moon (1999).

My new husband in 1970 was Czech; his mother ensured we saw Czech films as soon as they came out. But the only film gossip back then was a the Czech version of a novel looking at the 1938 Munich Agreement. Written by Georges-Marc Benamou, the film The Ghost of Munich was to tell the story of the Munich conference when the UK and France gave the Nazis the freedom to annex some of Czechoslovakia. The film was to be directed by Milos Forman and written by Václav Havel, but alas the project eventually failed.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was our favourite, then Amadeus. Foreman became was one of best foreign film makers to reach the top in Hollywood, and in our household. 

In April 2018 Milos Forman died aged 86. 


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Forman's example is cause for speculation of the effects of adversity. Sometimes it defeats people, while other times it brings out the best in them. Similarly, sometimes people don't want to revisit scenes of unpleasantness, while others recognize a bond that may or may not be independent of what had occurred there. Interesting that WWII and later events led to the careers of many interesting Czechoslovakian film directors; cheers to those small film societies that brought these thought-inspiring international films to places like Ohio.
P.S. One unfortunate result of Amadeus is that it led to the idea of Salieri as an incompetent composer, when if fact his works are quite delightful.

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very good. Thank you for sharing!
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Joseph said...

I am so glad you mentioned Vaclav Havel. Although most people only learned his name when he became president of United Czechoslovakia (from 1989) and then the first president of the Czech Republic (from 1993), he had long been an important playwright. Czech culture was amazing.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Hels - for a really good post ... which told me a great deal. Those films were special - and I haven't seen them all - so some references here - thanks. I knew Havel was a great leader ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


I had that exact thought when looking at Edvard Munch. Loss of a young mother and young sister, remote and mentally unstable father, terrible diseases etc. Or Frida Kahlo. Sometimes the result is a tragic young adult who drinks him/herself into an early death and sometimes the result can be an adult who uses the pain to grow and create. If it were me, I would quickly cave in to the pain and the alcoholism :(

Re the inaccurate presentation of Salieri. It only matters if you knew his true talents before seeing the film. 99% of film goers wouldn't have known anything about that composer and saw him only as a character with whom Mozart would be contrasted. So my moral still stands - don't see a film on a topic that has long fascinated you. It will save you disappointment.

Hels said...


thank you. But I still cannot tell from your comment whether you enjoyed Milos Forman's films or not.

Hels said...


Czechs culture was indeed amazing. Just amongst composers, I was familiar with Smetana, Janáček, Dvořák, Haas and Krejčí. Playwrights, poets and novelists were even more well known locally, but we had to wait until their works were translated into English.

But you are right - Havel was famous in my mind for being a political activist, long term gaoled martyr and finally a statesman.

Hels said...


I am not sure I would have seen most of Forman's films either, had my mother in law not been so proudly Czech. Until I met my new husband's family back in 1970, my idea of high culture was Russian (from my own family), British (from school), French and German (from uni).