Milos Forman passed away yesterday in Danbury, Connecticut. He was 83 years old.
When the news of Forman’s passing first broke, many commentators focused on the fact that, over the course of his career, Forman accomplished something that few other directors have. Forman not only directed two movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture but he also won two directing Oscars. On the surface level, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus may have looked like two very different films but both of them dealt with a nonconformist and the people who sought to destroy him. Time and again, that was a theme to which Forman would return.
Even before Forman won his first Oscar, he had established himself as an important director. As a young man, Forman survived the two greatest evils of the 20th Century, Nazism and Communism. Both his mother and the man who he originally believed to be his father died in concentration camps during World War II. After the war ended, Forman would discover that his real father was Otto Kohn, a Jewish architect who was also a survivor of the Holocaust.
Forman started his film career working in the Czech Republic, which at that time was communist-controlled and known as Czechoslovakia. Forman was one of the leading directors of the Czech New Wave, making films that took a satirical look at life under the communist regime. It was during this time when he received his first two Oscar nominations, both for Best Foreign Language Film. In 1968, Forman was fortunate enough to be in Paris when the Russians decided to invade Prague and put an end to all that subversive individual freedom. While the new Czech goverment kept itself busy by banning all of his films, Forman moved to the United States.
Forman’s first film in the States was a satire called Taking Off, which failed at the box office but has since developed a cult following. Despite the box office failure of Taking Off, Forman was hired to direct 1975’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, a film in which an authoritarian institution reacts to a nonconformist by ripping out part of his brain. Not only did this film win the Academy Awards for picture and director but it also won awards for actor, actress, and screenplay. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the first film to win the big five awards since It Happened One Night.
Forman continued to make films about nonconformists. Hair was a film adaptation of the famous hippie musical. Ragtime looked at early 20th century America through the eyes of a proud black man who refused to bow under the prejudice of the time. Amadeus portrayed Mozart as a rock star and Salieri as a man who declared war on God, all the while trying to please a culturally illiterate ruler. Later films like Valmont, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and The Man In The Moon were a bit more uneven but all of them featured moments that celebrated the right of the individual to refuse to go along with the crowd.
A master director of actors, Forman directed Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, and F. Murray Abraham to Oscar wins while Brad Dourif, Howard Rollins, Eizabeth McGovern, Tom Hulce, and Woody Harrelson were all nominated for performances that they gave in Forman films.
Milos Forman may be gone but his films will live on.