We at the Watchers were saddened to hear of the passing of film director Milos Forman, who passed away on 13th April 2018 at the age of 86.
He was born Jan Tomáš Forman in 1932 in Čáslav in what is now the Czech Republic. During the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, Forman's mother and the man he believed to be his father were arrested and sent to concentration camps where they both died. Forman was raised by his uncles and family friends, but as an adult found out that his biological father was a Jewish architect. Forman went on to study screenwriting at the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague.
His first film in the US was Taking Off (1971), a comedy-drama about parents who discover their love of life again when their daughter runs away from home. Despite a critical panning and poor box-office receipts (Forman said he ended up owing Universal Pictures $500 because of it), Taking Off was nominated for six BAFTAs, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay (which Forman co-wrote). Forman was nominated for the Palme d'Or and the film won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival. Forman then contributed to the 1973 documentary Visions Of Eight, about the 1972 Munich Olympics. But the film that was about to send him into the stratosphere was just around the corner.
That film was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975), a film adaptation of Ken Kesey's 1962 cult novel about the battle of wills between a criminal and the steely head nurse who runs the mental institution in which he has been committed. Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, the film won six BAFTAs, six Golden Globes (winning every award it was nominated for), and five Oscars, becoming only the second film in Oscar history to win 'The Big Five' (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). This was the first of Forman's three nominations for the Best Director Oscar.
Forman's next two films were a film adaptation of the cult 1960s Broadway musical Hair (1979) and Ragtime (1981), an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's epic novel about the life of an uipper-class white family in early 1900s New York. Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Supporting Actor for Howard E. Rollins Jr and Best Supporting Actress for Elizabeth McGovern), and was the last film for James Cagney, who came out of a twenty-year retirement to play Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo. Incidentally, Forman was not the original choice to direct Ragtime, however; he replaced Robert Altman in the role.
In 1984, Forman directed Amadeus. Based on Peter Shaffer's play of the same name, about the rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary Antonio Salieri, the film starred Tom Hulce as Mozart and F. Murray Abraham as Salieri. Filmed in Prague, Forman shot scenes in the Count Nostitz Theatre where Don Giovanni and La Clemeza di Tito had debuted in the 1700s. Nominated for eleven Oscars, the film won eight, including Best Picture, Best Director for Forman (his second nomination) and Best Actor for Abraham. Whilst Hulce was also nominated for Best Actor for his broad, larger-than-life performance as the title character, it is Abraham's brooding, jealous turn as Salieri that truly impresses. It won four Golden Globes, four BAFTAs, and Forman won his second Directors' Guild Award too. Forman would later go on to say he was surprised at the success of the film, finding the response of the audience to be 'overwhelming'.
After Amadeus, Forman's next project was Valmont (1989), starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly. Based on the 1782 French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Valmont invariably suffered by comparison to Dangerous Liaisons (1988), a film released less than a year earlier and also based on the same novel. He was first choice of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas and producer Irving Winkler to direct Basic Instinct (1992), and he was interested in doing so, but the production company had instead made a deal with Paul Verhoeven to direct instead. Similarly, Michael Crichton picked Forman to direct Disclosure (1994) but he subsequently left the project due to 'creative differences'
Forman went from French literature to American pornography with his next film, The People Vs Larry Flynt (1996). A biopic of the outspoken publisher of Hustler Magazine, the film starred Woody Harrelson, Edward Norton, and Courtney Love. Harrelson was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for his role as Flynt, while Forman received his third Best Director nomination (but lost to Anthony Minghella for The English Patient), He did, however, win the Golden Globe for Best Director. His next film was another biopic of an eccentric American cultural figure. Man On The Moon (1999) tells the story of the life and career of comedian Andy Kaufman, best known for his appearances on Taxi and Saturday Night Live. While the film wasn't a commercial success- and had a mixed critical reaction- Jim Carrey's performance as Kaufman was highly praised and he won a Best Actor Golden Globe. Forman's final English-language film was Goya's Ghosts (2006), a biopic of Spanish painter Francisco Goya, starring Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, with Natalie Portman, Javier Bardem, Randy Quaid and Michael Lonsdale in supporting roles.
As well as his incredible body of film work, Forman is a renowned academic, and was the professor emeritus of Columbia University's film division (having also worked as its co-chair with his former teacher František Daniel), He also occasionally worked as an actor, appearing in Heartburn (1986), New Year's Day (1989) and as Father Havel in Keeping The Faith (2000). There is also a cinema in his hometown of Čáslav which is named after him.
A double Best Director Oscar winner, a theatre director, screenwriter, actor, and academic, Milos Forman was a man of many talents and a towering figure in the landscape of cinema. He will be missed. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this time.