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Peter Travers: How Milos Forman Injected Warmth and Mischief Into Stellar Films

“He liked you to treat him with the same directness with which he approached life,” Travers writes

milos forman

Peter Travers remembers how director Milos Forman injected his warmth and mischief into an incomparable body of work.

Ernesto S. Ruscio / Getty

Hearing the news of the death of master filmmaker Milos Forman, images flooded in. Not of his movies; at least not right away. I remembered Milos, at his Connecticut farmhouse eight years ago poking at me with his cigar. Any threat in the motion dissipated instantly by the warm, mischievous glint in his eye. 

I was there to talk of his career; of all those Oscars he won for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus and the success of his early Czech films (Loves of a Blonde, The Firemen’s Ball) that brought him to America. Milos was having none of it. A naturalized U.S. citizen since 1977, Milos, in accent and attitude, never lost touch with his homeland. He pronounced his name Mee-losh Forre-mahn. He liked you to treat him with the same directness with which he approached life. That Czech rumble in his voice could cut through bullshit like a laser. “Success — ha,” he tells me, poking away. “Where was success when the audiences don’t come for Valmont, for The People vs. Larry Flynt, for Man in the Moon, for Goya’s Ghosts?he said, referencing the last four features on his resume. “I work for the fun; for the collaboration; for things that matter.”

“Fun” is the last word that comes to mind when Milos recounts the details of his life. Born in Caslav, Czechoslovakia in 1932, young Milos watched his Protestant parents taken off to Nazi concentration camps, where they died for allegedly participating in the underground resistance. Later, Milos learned his biological father was a Jewish architect with whom his mother had an affair. “Melodrama,” Milos said with wry grin.

It was more than that. Even as a young filmmaker in Prague at the start of the Czech New Wave, Milos found comedy a useful way to express his rebellious impulses. 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball is, on the surface, about a minor social event in a small town. But its satirical subtext is aimed at the tyranny of East European Communism, which got the film banned at home. Milos’s first American film, Taking Off, was a box-office flop in 1971, and the director struggled to find work in his adopted country.

“What comes through most strongly in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is the empathy Milos feels for the outsider, the nonconformist.”

Then, in 1975, came One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a film about the tragic-heroic Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) stuck in a mental institution fighting oppression embodied by the dictatorial Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). “That was my story, too,” said Milos of the Oscar-winning landmark that won gold trophies for Nicholson (“the perfect actor”), Fletcher and Milos himself as Best Director. “That’s me fighting against people who tell me, ’No, you can’t do that.’ Communist party was my Big Nurse.” What comes through most strongly in Cuckoo’s Nest is the empathy Milos feels for the outsider, the nonconformist. “Hollywood was surprised my next film was the musical Hair,” said the director. “But what musical is more nonconformist than Hair?”

And so the director who once declared, “Faces, that’s what I care about — human behavior” moved further into adaptation. “I wanted story, structure,” Milos said about his film adaptations of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Peter Shaffer’s theatrical bonfire Amadeus. The latter film — “which no one wanted to finance,” adds Milos — also won a Best Picture Oscar and another Best Director prize for Milos. We talked about the scene in which composer Salieri (Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham) listens in horror to the music played by Mozart (Tom Hulce), whose genius he now knows he can never approach. “OK, you’re right,” Milos said with a laugh. “I’m still all about faces, no dialogue, human connection.” As for the ephemera of awards and box-office gold, Milos is grateful but dismissive. “It’s something I can’t control,” he said.

He also can’t control the criticism his films receive. “Some people don’t like that I make a film about Larry Flynt, a pornographer they think deserves no credit for fighting censorship,” he said. “I do.” Milos said that Man on the Moon, about the late comedy avant-gardist Andy Kaufman, “touches me most personally.” He named his twin sons with his third wife Martina Zborilova Andrew (for Kaufman) and James (for Jim Carrey, the actor who played Kaufman and his alter ego Tony Clifton). “Many people don’t understand Andy,” Milos said, shaking his head. “Many people don’t understand me.” But what “fun” — a favorite word for Milos — to achieve a deeper understanding of his art by using the legacy of his films.

I hadn’t seen Milos since our meeting at his farm, yet the most indelible image I have of him is the first one decades ago when we first met. I was just starting out writing about movies and Milos was doing publicity for Ragtime. He was in the company of the film’s great star James Cagney, whom the director had persuaded to come out of a 20-year retirement to play one last role as the New York Police Commissioner. Cagney, then 81, was physically frail and used a wheelchair. But for a short photo shoot, barely two minutes, the proud actor stood next to his friend and neighbor Milos. Photo session completed, Milos helped Cagney back into his chair, covering his legs with a blanket. The look the two men shared is indelible, without an ounce of pity or fake sentiment. There was Cagney, pleased he could present himself strong to the world; and next to him Milos, flashing a gaze that said he knew his old chum could do it and how much he loved him for it. How much he would always love the fight in him. Two faces. No dialogue. Just a moment of human connection. Pure Milos. And for me, the essence of his soul as a man and an artist. 

In This Article: Peter Travers

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