Milos Forman Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Milos Forman 1932-

(Full name Jan Tomas Forman; also spelled Miloš Forman) Czechoslovakian-born American director, screenwriter, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Forman's career through 2000.

During the 1960s Forman was recognized as one of Eastern Europe's most sardonic and accomplished filmmakers. Leaving his homeland of Czechoslovakia after the Soviet Invasion of 1968, Forman relocated to the United States, where he gained notoriety for directing film adaptations of several critically acclaimed literary and theatrical works by such authors as E. L. Doctorow, Ken Kesey, and Peter Shaffer. In 2000, when the American Film Institute compiled its list of the top 100 films of all time, two of Forman's films—One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984)—were ranked as 20 and 53, respectively. His films offer a refined blend of realism and naturalism, often featuring the theme of the common man struggling within an oppressive society.

Biographical Information

Forman was born on February 18, 1932, in Cáslav, Czechoslovakia, to Rudolf, a Jewish professor, and Anna, a Protestant homemaker. During his youth Forman's parents were imprisoned by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps. His mother died in Auschwitz in 1943 and his father died in Buchenwald in 1944. In 1951 Forman enrolled at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague. Upon graduating he worked as a director and screenwriter for Czech television, and as an assistant director of short films. His first full-length films, Cerný Petr (1963; Black Peter), and Lásky jedné plavovlásky (1965; Loves of a Blonde), both received critical honors, including the Grand International Prize from the French Film Academy. His third film, Horí, má panenko (1967; The Firemen's Ball), met with controversy when forty-thousand Czechoslovakian firemen walked off their jobs following the film's release. Forman was forced to make a public apology, explaining that the film was a political allegory and not intended as a slur against the fire department. The Firemen's Ball was eventually banned in Czechoslovakia by the reigning Soviet regime. During the Soviet Invasion of 1968 Forman was scouting film locations in Paris and elected to emigrate to America instead of returning to his home country. His first American film, Taking Off (1971), was neither a popular nor critical success. However, his next film, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, won five Academy Awards from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, including best picture and best director. In 1978 Forman joined the staff at Columbia University as a professor of film and co-chair of the film division of their School of the Arts. Forman was awarded the Academy Award for best director again in 1984 for Amadeus—which won eight Academy Awards overall, including best picture. He was also nominated for the best director award for The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996).

Major Works

Forman's early career as a director and screenwriter in Czechoslovakia was integral to a movement later known as the Czech “New Wave” of theater and arts. Noted for its blend of fiction and realism, the movement included directors who used the government-controlled film industry to explore the problems of living in a totalitarian society. His first feature film, Black Peter, is a partially autobiographical tale about a dispirited young man who works in a department store, arbitrarily reporting on shoplifters. Loves of a Blonde follows the life of an unhappy factory worker named Andula. Her small town has a ratio of sixteen women to every man, forcing Andula to make desperate and awkward attempts at finding romance. She falls in love with a young pianist and relentlessly pursues him, eventually following him to Prague. Despite the controversy surrounding the release of The Firemen's Ball, the film was well received by critics and audiences alike. The story centers around a well meaning but inept fire department that wishes to honor their retiring chief with a gala ceremony. Despite their good intentions, the banquet comically falls apart due to problems with the door raffle, a poorly-planned beauty contest, and a nearby house fire. The film's political allegory links the ineptitude and bickering of the firemen to the oppressive bureaucracy of the Czechoslovakian government. For his first American film, Forman directed and co-wrote Taking Off, which depicts the increasingly permissive American society of the late 1960s as personified by a staid businessman named Larry Tyne and his family. When Larry's daughter Jeannie becomes involved in a Greenwich Village theatre production in New York City, Larry and his wife try to acquaint themselves with their daughter's environment in an attempt to convince her to return home. They attend a meeting of the Society for Parents of Fugitive Children, where they learn how to smoke marijuana, and they venture into “The Village,” where they are appalled by the habitants’ casual attitude towards sex and drugs.

In 1975 Forman directed One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, an adaptation of Ken Kesey's critically acclaimed novel. The film focuses on a battle of wills between R. P. McMurphy, an antisocial but engaging patient in a mental hospital, and Nurse Ratched, the domineering head-nurse who attempts to force McMurphy to conform to an established behavioral pattern. McMurphy inspires the other patients to rebel against Ratched's strict rules and regulations in a variety of ways. After a young patient commits suicide, McMurphy physically attacks Ratched, causing the hospital to lobotomize him. Forman revisited this theme of an individual fighting against the Establishment with his 1979 adaptation of the popular Broadway musical Hair. John Savage, a small-town farmboy, comes to New York City to experience life before being drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. Savage falls in with a group of hippies and radicals living in Central Park who embody the counter-culture of the 1960s. Ragtime (1981), an adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's novel, follows multiple characters and storylines, and is set against the backdrop of the early 1900s. The lead characters include Coalhouse Walker, a proud young African American who single-mindedly pursues restitution for the social injustices he has suffered. The film examines values in transition in turn-of-the-century America and explores the ways the nation coped with post-Civil War racial issues and dealt with the cultural changes brought by the expanding immigrant population. In 1984 Forman directed Amadeus, which was adapted from the play by Peter Shaffer. The film is loosely based on the life of renowned composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, focusing on the relationship between Mozart and his mentor, Antonio Salieri. Mozart is depicted as a childish and outrageous genius who flouts social norms and contemptuously rejects many of the personal and artistic ideals that Salieri holds sacred. Valmont (1989), an adaptation of the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, marked Forman's first return to screenwriting since Taking Off. The film—which Forman also directed—depicts a cold and cunning game of seduction played by Valmont, a rogue gentleman, and a manipulative lady, the Marquise de Meureuil. Set amongst the Parisian salons of pre-Revolutionary France, the film portrays Valmont as a confused young man who, despite his notorious amorous adventures, is only discovering his sexuality. Forman's next film, The People vs. Larry Flynt is based on the life of Larry Flynt, the founder of the pornographic magazine Hustler. Flynt turned Hustler into the foundation for a multi-million dollar publishing empire and waged several legal battles involving issues of moral decency against Reverend Jerry Falwell and financier Charles Keating. Despite the fact that Flynt is a pornographer and former drug user, Forman characterizes him as a champion of the First Amendment right to free speech. In 1999 Forman directed Man on the Moon, a film based on the life of comedian and actor Andy Kaufman, who became known during the 1970s and early 1980s for his bizarre and experimental comedy routines. Forman depicts Kaufman as a misunderstood performance artist who enjoyed pushing the boundaries of comedy in order to get a reaction from his audience, even if the reaction was negative. Forman has also published a memoir, Turnaround (1994), which recounts his early days in Czechoslovakia and his successful career as a filmmaker.

Critical Reception

Critical reception to Forman's films has been varied throughout his career. His early Czechoslovakian films have been praised by international audiences, even though the Soviet regime at the time banned several of his works. Reviewers have consistently praised Forman's ability to show the universality of human emotions, complimenting his tendency to present well-rounded characterizations. Some critics, however, have objected to Forman's American films—particularly Hair, Ragtime, and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest—pointing out that Forman's European sensibility hampered his adaptations of such singularly American works. Several reviewers have also criticized Ragtime for overly truncating or ignoring the novel on which it was based, though some have asserted that the novel's complex plot structure is primarily to blame for Forman's loose adaptation. The People vs. Larry Flynt has met with sharply divided criticism, with some critics praising the film's anti-Establishment message and others declaring that the film acts as propaganda for pornographers. A number of noted feminist critics, including Gloria Steinem, have argued that Forman glosses over many of the facts of Flynt's life and portrays him as a champion of justice, while his magazine routinely degrades women and mocks rape and child abuse. Other commentators have argued that the film uses Flynt's life as an allegory and that Forman is not obliged to factually recount every event from Flynt's life. Several critics agree that, despite the subject material, The People vs. Larry Flynt ultimately conveys a positive message about the American right to free speech.