Milos Forman

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Peter John Dyer (essay date winter 1965-1966)

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SOURCE: Dyer, Peter John. “Star-Crossed in Prague.” Sight and Sound 35, no. 1 (winter 1965-1966): 34-5.

[In the following essay, Dyer examines Forman's emphasis on celebrating the emotions of his characters in Peter and Pavla and A Blonde in Love.]

Directors cannot be relied upon to look and sound like the films which they make. Milos Forman, who with two Czech films has made much the same quiet impact as Olmi did a few years ago, can. There's no good reason why one should expect him to live up to the image which his films create. It is simply interesting that—having lunch with him, hearing him introduce his latest film at the London Film Festival—his personality confirms one's feeling about his work. He has a puckish wit and a puckish love of pulling strings, like some benevolent puppet-master. Now that Central European directors of Shakespeare are all the rage, one would love to see him bring his fresh modern eye to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The ingredients seem tailor-made: mechanicals, star-crossed lovers, Oberon the supreme puppet-master and Pucholt playing Puck (obviously).

Peter and Pavla and A Blonde in Love are about the same things: adolescent difficulties with the other sex, a tangle of cross-purposes between boys and their parents, the dissatisfaction and search for identity suffered by only ordinarily intelligent boys and girls in soul-destroying jobs. Forman also has a love-hate (though in fact the term is misleadingly extreme) feeling about dance-halls. This is one of the characteristics which has led to the inevitable comparison with Olmi.

I think there is a closer link with the early films of another director, the English (but like Forman Czech-born) Karel Reisz. Momma Don't Allow was one of the first films I can recall to take a close, quizzical look at teenagers' dancing habits. Much of We Are the Lambeth Boys commented on the deadly monotony of so many factory and office jobs. However, it is doubtful if Forman would recognise any deeper affinity than that. His two films are not confined within documentary disciplines; and his use of amateur actors is bound to be more fruitful than that of anybody filming the English at work and play.

There is a difference of tone, of emphasis, too. Karel Reisz once said to me, apropos of my strictures on a proselytizing critic bludgeoning some harmless little muddle-headed film, “You're right. One can't be serious all the time.” Yet his own films, springing from a Free Cinema climate of protest and scorn, were and indeed then had to be openly committed to Left Wing didacticism. Forman, on the other hand, prefers to let his generalised social comments find their own way through situations that are presented in the particular, and characters that are amusingly semi-articulate.

For Forman, gently poked fun is the thing. This could be due to working in a nationalised film industry where criticism is safer the more general it is. But I doubt if this is the case. There is evidence, in the films and in Forman's own conversation, that he is doing exactly what he wants to do. Certainly his concerns are serious ones: about kids who don't know what they want to be and whether or not they should have sex; about parents whose attitude is one of nagging, irascible bewilderment. But there is a hint of autobiography in Forman's concern (the problems are so commonplace there couldn't help but be), coupled with a wry determination not to take himself too seriously. His own conversation comes remarkably close in tone to that of his characters. Conscious that he has...

(This entire section contains 1952 words.)

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nonplussed a London audience by getting excited, in halting English, about the idea of filming Jesus Christ at the time He lived, he suddenly ends his speech by observing brightly: “Hasn't the weather been terrible lately?”

In Peter and Pavla, the spotlight is on the boy, a seventeen-year-old trainee in a supermarket. The humour springs from the particularity of his job, and his singular unsuitability for it. A shy, somewhat abstracted youth of limited intelligence, he is of all things a store detective. But this is by no means the sum of his problems. He is obsessively worried about sex and his own virginity; he can't do the twist; his time off with the slightly bored, slightly provocative Pavla is ruined by the ever-present Cenda (Vladimir Pucholt), a skinny and often tipsy young labourer who persistently reads offence into the intonation of the word “Hello”; his mother barrages him with questions about his love life; and his father is given to endless, rambling lectures in his braces, punctuated by turns up and down the living-room and the massage of an ample chest.

Like an expert juggler, Forman keeps all these themes running throughout his film. The narrative structure is fragmentary, composed of minutely observed details and a great deal of improvised dialogue. Forman is a master of the verbal and mental hiatus, of the comically strained pause for thought connecting truism with banality, and banality with some magnificently conceived non-sequitur. One cannot avoid quoting the film's already oft-quoted ending. To Peter's chagrin, Cenda and his mate barge in during one of his father's lectures. Their arrival encourages Peter's father (the formidable Jan Ostrcil) to embark on odious comparisons and homilies about hands blessed by honest toil. Out of his depth, Cenda brightly informs Peter's father that he has found the discussion “interesting.” The word, though quite innocently snatched out of Cenda's shallow consciousness, strikes Peter's father as the height of impertinent inadequacy when applied to the insoluble problem (as he sees it) of a shiftless son. Failure of communication is complete on all sides, and the film ends on a frozen shot of the father's utter bewilderment.

This shot is the core of the film, what it has been informally leading up to. It is a perfectly ordinary terminus, the end of a relaxed and impressionistic journey through one stratum of working-class life today, and had it been unsupported by some focal narrative thread one's interest might well have flagged. That it doesn't is due to the brainwave of setting so much of the action in a supermarket. Peter's job as a store detective turns the film into an affectionate comedy of embarrassment in which we all become voyeurs as willing as he is unwilling. There is the sinister suspect whom Peter tails through the town without having the courage to go up to him. The comedy is heightened by our understanding that Peter knows perfectly well he has no intention of challenging the man. (Later it turns out that he is a friend of the manager.)

But the highlight, almost cathartic in its relief after all those shots of hands feeling and prodding each and every product, is the great occasion when a woman suddenly steals something, then something else, indulging in an orgy of petty theft that leaves her shopping bag bulging as widely as Peter's eyes. True to form, Peter fails to make his move. Anything as violent as an actual nab would be as alien to Peter's timidity as to Forman's way of looking at life.

A Blonde in Love covers similar territory from a different, mainly feminine outlook. The heroine, a budding Czech Jeanne Moreau called Hana Brejchova, works in a factory and lives in a hostel. Vulnerably romantic, she gets picked up by a young jazz musician (Vladimir Pucholt). To her the night they spend together is the start of something precious. The boy, however, is still at the experimental stage, and he is utterly out of his depth when he comes home one evening to find that the girl has called to see him. His mother is appalled by the situation, delivering harangues as endless as those of the father in the previous film. Nagging curiosity (Forman's mothers are boundlessly curious and pessimistic) gives way to a curbed smile of hospitality, which in turn is quickly wrenched into a censorious inquisition.

The girl is put to bed in the boy's room, the mother drags him out to share the parental bed, and voices are querulously raised. There is a brilliantly timed switch of feeling here, with the audience relishing the prolonged, almost vaudevillian antics of the disrupted family and the girl listening outside and shaking. For a moment one imagines she must be laughing too, till a closer look reveals that she is sobbing bitterly. Silent sympathy overtakes the audience, a miraculous piece of mood-manoeuvre, and the scene quickly fades.

Again, the narrative is deceptively casual, zigzagging about to accommodate a number of comic set-pieces, but always coming back to the girl and her generous idealism, confiding to a friend that all is whiter than white where her current romance is concerned. In between, we get gently cutting glimpses of well-meaning adults, like the lady welfare officer in the hostel putting moral purity to the vote and gaining bland satisfaction from a herdlike show of hands.

Forman's view of hearty, well-meaning bullies and their obedient creatures, exemplified in a long, brilliantly worked out dance-hall scene involving three soldiers and the retrieving of a bottle of wine sent to the wrong table, is always gentle, never overtly critical. He respects people's shyness like no other director; and he sees the puzzled insecurity behind each show of self-assertion, as in the scene where a discarded boy friend argues his rights before the girl's hostel companions.

To be so scrupulous about the feelings of his characters, Forman resorts to a less scrupulous form of deployment in order patiently to achieve his ends, He leaves his actors pretty much in the dark about the plot, the theme, the characters they are playing. The father in Peter and Pavla, he told me, saw the film as some sort of tragedy; the boys found the film's situations irresistibly comic.

An apparently unique aspect of Forman's use of amateur actors, like the father in Peter and Pavla, is the exhaustive length given to any take featuring improvised speeches. The actor eventually grinds to a halt—more than likely there has been a mental block—yet Forman's camera keeps on turning. It's rather like watching a chain-smoker work his way through two cigarettes, with the camera giving special attention to the lighting of the second cigarette from the first. This metaphorical lighting of a second cigarette, in fact a signal of anguished mental effort, is accompanied by a grim, unchanging expression of almost bovine concentration which is for the audience a source of unfailing comic pleasure. Much the same technique is used in the dance-hall sequence in A Blonde in Love. As the three bored, unwilling soldiers try to work up a synthetic interest in the local girls, the camera fixes a beady eye on their every indication of discomfort. It is difficult to say or even guess how much rehearsal goes into setting up such a scene. But once set up, there is no cheating the audience. The ball of wool slowly, expansively unrolls, rather as in that famous practical joke sequence in a Swiss hotel in Hitchcock's first Man Who Knew Too Much.

I think the secret of Forman's success lies in his self-awareness, his ability to respect and at the same time deploy the reluctance, intensity and bewilderment of the people he works with. One last story sums up what I mean. Commiserating with him on his return home to do his annual military service, we tentatively enquired whether it wasn't perhaps a rather boring intrusion into his professional life. Forman disagreed. How could it possibly be boring, when he spent most of his time relieving the boredom of his fellow reservists by recounting fictitious meetings with innumerable glamorous screen stars?

John Coleman (review date 20 May 1966)

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SOURCE: Coleman, John. “Milos Forman, Marco Bellachio.” New Statesman 71, no. 1836 (20 May 1966): 746.

[In the following excerpt, Coleman praises A Blonde in Love, complimenting Forman's subtlety, proficiency, and simplistic directing style.]

Milos Forman's A Blonde in Love is a wonderful film concerning, among other things, young love, sexual and social timidity, parental incomprehension, and the problems of a Czech community where the ratio of women to men is 16 to one. It's so much of a piece in fact, so funny and painful and precise in its observation of a sector of the human condition, that it presents a very real problem: how to describe it adequately? It enlists itself in that—to me—central tradition of filmmaking which includes the works of Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Ozu, Truffaut, Olmi, the earlier De Sica and, most recently, James Ivory. Such men seem not only to have been born with a natural and happy instinct for expressing themselves in cinema but to bring to it a generosity of spirit, an intelligent openness and gaiety towards others, which gives them something authentic to express.

It may be time to declare my square predisposition towards most, if not all, their works now that irate Godard fans write in accusing me of hating movies. In certain highly-strung quarters M. Godard seems indeed to have become synonymous with ‘movies.’ As I tried to point out when I reviewed Alphaville not long ago, he does offer pretty occasions for those professional and amateur critics who've apparently spent more of their waking life in cinemas than out of them. His half-baked films, as Mr Winkler's ‘interpretation’ of Pierrot le Fou in last week's correspondence columns copiously demonstrated, don't merely lead themselves to exegesis: they come at you begging for it. This may be an exciting new art-form, of course, which produces more interesting stuff on a page than ever was there on the screen. But it reminds me disconcertingly of those records which supply an orchestral background, leaving holes during which you saw away on your own violin.

With Mr Forman's second film, as with his first, Peter and Pavla, all the work has been done beforehand. From the first shot to the last, he knows what he's about. Once again he turns an unclouded, affectionate eye on commonplace aspirations and bafflements and makes them absolutely fresh and important. His blonde in love (Hana Brejchova) works in a shoe-factory and lives in a hostel near Prague. Dreamily ripe for an encounter, she meets a young dance-band pianist (Vladimir Pucholt) during a hop organised to bring together the men of a local army unit and the romantically deprived factory girls. Later that night she goes to bed with him. He gives her his address in Prague. One evening, soon after, she turns up at his home with a suitcase, to be met by his bewildered parents. Grudgingly she gets a bed for the night. As the film ends, she's back at the hostel after lights-out, gently embroidering to an eager girlfriend on her disastrous trip to the big city.

Mr Forman's technique is as personal as handwriting, yet it never obtrudes. As before, he uses several non-professionals in his cast and certainly some of his effects must come from the way he lets them be themselves within a framework only he really knows about. (It is reported that the pontificating dad in Peter and Pavla thought of the film as some sort of tragedy.) Here there are notably the performances of the pianist's increasingly indignant mother (Milada Jezkova) and of a middle-aged trio of soldiers in confused quest of a pick-up at the dance. But to speak of these as performances in the conventional sense is clearly inappropriate. The camera settles patiently down on them, taking what it wants: watching the mother steadily work herself up into righteous fury, following every fumbling move of the soldiers as they send a bottle of wine to the wrong table and half-heartedly spur one another on. The two longest sequences—and the most unaffectedly funny—are those in the dance-hall and at the pianist's home. Lanky Pucholt, the obstreperous builder's mate in Peter and Pavla, gets back late to find his blonde in love unexpectedly sleeping on the sofa: mother bustles in and drags him into the family bed. The recriminations, accusations and distraught efforts to get comfortable that ensue manage to be both hilarious and likely. Outside, the poor blonde listens and weeps.

The film is full of small, disconcerting switches of emotional tempo, which is one of its secrets. One is constantly invited to readjust one's sights. It never allows one to patronise. The editing is brilliant. An early glimpse of a striped tie round a tree acquires pathetic resonance when it's revealed on the top of the girl's things in her suitcase later on. One rapid succession of little episodes is worth inclusion in any film course for the lessons it might teach in economy without loss of clarity: at the hostel the girls are given a solemn talk on keeping themselves decent; the charming Hana Brejchova is seen hitching a lift into the city; an overhead camera dwells on another dance-palace, where Pucholt is soon discovered with another girl; a sudden, cryptic look at a hobo trundling a dummy from a store-window proves to be what Pucholt's somnolent parents are watching on television in the parlour; the bell rings and the blonde has arrived. Throughout, Mr Forman establishes the external, workaday contexts of his people's lives with the minimum of fuss—a couple of glances at Hana at the factory-bench, a shot or two of Pucholt at the piano. He is an extraordinary director and confirms the expectations aroused by that week of Czech cinema at the NFT last year.

Philip T. Hartung (review date 11 November 1966)

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SOURCE: Hartung, Philip T. “Czech Mates.” Commonweal 85, no. 6 (11 November 1966): 166-67.

[In the following excerpt, Hartung offers a positive assessment of Forman's casting choices in Loves of a Blonde.]

Now in general release is Loves of a Blonde, the Czech movie that opened the New York Film Festival in September and won huzzas from most of the reviewers. Perhaps the critics, impressed with the glamor of this opening night, let some of their enthusiasm spill over into their reviews of this heart-warming and unpretentious little picture about romance-hungry adolescents. In any case, audiences can now judge for themselves—and they will find Loves a well directed movie with a slight plot, some sharp character portraits, and a few delightfully realistic scenes. But for all its assets, a masterpiece with depth and scope it is not; and for my money, Intimate Lightning, another Czech comedy shown at this year's Festival, has greater humor, understanding and universality.

In telling the tale of Andula, a naive and romantic blonde who works in a shoe factory in a small town where there's a shortage of boys, director Milos Forman does come through with universal touches; and as you watch Andula and her girl friends and some of those boy friends, you begin to wonder if young people aren't pretty much alike the world over. Forman by no means limits himself to youngsters in showing their relationship to the not-so-young and to next-generation oldsters. His cast, in all ages, is fine, and he has directed them expertly—although only the two leads are professionals: Hana Brejchova as the dreamy, not-too-pretty Andula who has only vague notions about what she wants but is certain, at this stage of her life, she wants male companionship; and Vladimir Pucholt as the young pianist who's beginning to feel his oats and definitely knows what he wants from Andula and the other girls.

Although Loves lags from time to time, it has three hilariously funny scenes that are worth sitting through the slow stretches for: the episode in which three soldier try to date Andula and two of her pals at a dance; the sequence in which the pianist takes Andula up to his room and unsubtly goes about the seduction—although seduction is hardly the word for what goes on with the girl naked as a newborn babe, still saying, “I don't trust you” and then insisting he draw the window shade; and finally the episode in which Andula goes to Prague to visit her love, pops in on his bewildered parents, and later is put to bed in the living room while the parents make their son sleep with them. Although this scene is the film's funniest as the mother keeps them all awake with her cliches and scolding, it is also the most poignant as Andula realizes the boy hardly remembers her. The film's finale makes it clear that Andula hasn't learned very much or lost her romantic notions. Parents, seeing the new films about the younger generation like Loves of a Blonde and Masculine Feminine and Georgy Girl may be more befuddled than ever about kids today and may ask with this boy's mother, “Where will all this end?” or with Georgy's father, “I sometimes wonder to what this country's coming.”

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 24 April 1971)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films.” New Republic 164, no. 17 (24 April 1971): 20.

[In the following review, Kauffmann commends Forman's artistic vision in Taking Off, but argues that the film lacks consistency and direction.]

Milos Forman had an interesting idea in Taking Off. He wanted to do a film about the generation gap that made its point primarily through pictures. The content of most films, particularly the ones with social themes, is usually conveyed in words and story. Taking Off has words and a story, of course, but they are only the scaffolding for the purely cinematic elements, which really state the theme.

Forman is a young Czech director (Loves of a Blonde,The Firemen's Ball), now working in the US. For a time, I enjoyed what he was doing here in this first American film of his, and I also had some of the same feeling one gets from Victor Sjöstrom's or F. W. Murnau's American films in the '20s: the odd sensation of seeing the very familiar as it looks to someone who is filtering his vision through different conditioning. The cinematographer was Miroslav Ondricek, who did The Firemen's Ball (he also did If … for Lindsay Anderson); between him and Forman, we get a sort of Middle European view of New York and suburbs. That is to say, we get a sense that this society is being observed as stratified and traditional, rather than flexible. An East Side luncheonette woman is a peasant, aloof and suspicious; the details of suburbia are displayed as caste marks, even when satirized; a bilked cab driver chases a nonpaying customer like a market-day stall-keeper.

Forman's chief cinematic device is the close-up, often done with a telephoto lens so that the naturalism is softened and surprised. He likes to shuffle faces in front of us like a prestidigitator with cards, and he does it often with faces that we see only once, using them to create his topography. He likes to intercut between sequences of close-ups, as when the parents of a teenage girl are worrying where she is, and their worries are intercut with close-ups of an audition for singers in the East Village, which the girl is attending. (Forman particularly likes close-ups of people concentrating on some effort: this audition sequence is like the beauty contest sequence in The Firemen's Ball.)

But Taking Off flounders. Loves of a Blonde had some good vaudeville skits in it, like the one with the boy in bed with his parents, but it was tenuous. The Firemen's Ball was so self-admiring of its quaintsy ways and character sketches that it soon bogged down in Gemütlichkeit. Forman's first American picture has just as much self-adulation and a less secure grip of its materials.

The details are accurate enough in themselves, but they don't all fit together. (Two of his script collaborators were American but haven't helped on this point.) The parents of the teenage girl who takes off are a mixture of cornball suburbia and swinging suburbia. The father who gets drunk in a cheap bar is hard to connect with the swank man who goes to a hypnotist to cure himself of smoking. The daughter is sketched so loosely that we're apparently asked to supply her reasons for running off from our portable files on Youth Problems.

At the end she brings her new boyfriend home to dinner, a fantastically successful hip musician. The father asks the youth to sing after dinner; youth demurs. Last shot is the father singing—“Stranger in Paradise”—with mother at piano, to the young couple who sit on the floor watching impassively. This is funny in the abstract, incredible in the reasonably sharp father we have been shown.

There is absolutely nothing more to be “said” in films on the generation gap at the moment, and it's nice that Forman recognized this by not trying to “say” anything. But to make a picture that gets its life simply by living—like Passer's Intimate Lighting (also shot by Ondricek)—takes a subcutaneous sure touch that Forman didn't have even at home. He laid on atmosphere very heavily and had a deficient sense of attention-span—another way of saying deficient theatrical talent. In Taking Off he is also socially insecure. Forman has some cinema gifts but insufficient control of them.

The only performance worth noting is by Lynn Carlin, who was the wife in Faces and who plays the girls mother here with delicate, sexy ease.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. (review date 21 May 1971)

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SOURCE: Westerbeck, Colin L., Jr. Review of Taking Off, by Milos Forman. Commonweal 94, no. 11 (21 May 1971): 262-63.

[In the following excerpt, Westerbeck offers a negative assessment of Taking Off, noting that the film's ending is “completely arbitrary.”]

Like most films about the youth culture, Taking Off should be called Ripping Off. Director Milos Forman doesn't seem to have been satisfied with the usual cynicism of exploiting teenagers merely as paid admissions to his film: he's also exploited them as extras in the film. Taking Off begins in a rehearsal hall where some impresarios of rock are auditioning hundreds of spaced-out, untalented teeny boppers. As the more pathetic auditions were interspliced through the first part of the film, I began wondering how Forman tempted all those girls to make fools of themselves this way. Did he perhaps lead them all to believe these filmed auditions would be their big chance to take off? That's ordinarily how this kind of thing is done, and this kind of thing is the lowest.

One of the girls is Jeannie Tyne (Linnea Heacock). While Jeannie is standing dumbfounded before the microphone, her absence from home is causing her mother (Lynn Carlin) to become hysterical and her father (Buck Henry) to get drunk. When Jeannie finally does return home, it is only to find her parents auditioning their respective neuroses. This sends her right back on the road for two or three months. But she makes the mistake of returning once again, this time to find her parents playing strip poker with some fellow members of the S.P.F.C. (Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children). During the interval Mr. Forman has, as they say, cut to the chase.

The film works toward a belittling accommodation of child and parents. The most obvious features of the youth culture are all reflected by the parents as if in a fun-house mirror. Trying to give up smoking, Mr. Tyne seems as susceptible to cold turkey as any addicted kid. Playing strip poker, he and his wife are, for the moment, as uninhibited. Even the children's closed society has its warped reflection in the S.P.F.C. In the end Jeannie brings home her songwriter boyfriend to meet her parents. Her father wants the young man to sing for his supper; but when he finds out the kid makes $290,000/year, it is he who adds the final audition to the film.

Of course a “take-off” is a parody, and that seems to be what Forman had in mind. But taking off is one thing this film never does in any sense. Forman is yet another European filmmaker presumptuous enough to think he could explain all our problems to us. The truth is he fits in too well here to be of any help. Taking Off might as easily have been a television series. Its ending, like that of a series, is completely arbitrary. And the Tynes' search for their daughter is certainly as episodic, and full of non-sequiturs, as any series is. The freaking out of Ozzie and Harriet, which is the essence of the film, just isn't either a funny idea or a powerful insight.

David Wilson (review date autumn 1971)

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SOURCE: Wilson, David. Review of Taking Off, by Milos Forman. Sight and Sound 40, no. 4 (autumn 1971): 221-22.

[In the following positive review, Wilson discusses Forman's understated directing technique in Taking Off.]

‘I think I speak English well enough to understand the “first row.” But what's behind that, the double meanings, and all the nuances, which are very beautiful, always this is difficult for me.’ Milos Forman needn't have worried about those nuances. Taking Off, which he made in America last summer, is replete with them.

We say we'd like to see ourselves as others see us, but we don't always like what we see. The Czech firemen weren't too pleased about The Firemen's Ball, and Americans—to judge at least from American critical reaction—are somewhat disgruntled by Taking Off. Forman himself tells a story which illuminates the wrongheadedness of this reaction (life, as always, imitating art): when he showed The Firemen's Ball in small towns across the States, audiences couldn't wait to regale him with anecdotes about their own local fire brigades, and many of them, he says, were funnier than anything in the film. Forman's films are not of course about national idiosyncrasies, and Taking Off is no more about middle-class urban Americans than A Blonde in Love was about working-class provincial Czechs. The film is set in New York, but really the only specifically American thing about it is that its theme appears to be a more commonplace social phenomenon in New York than it is in London or Prague. Taking Off is quintessentially a Forman film.

Characteristically, the theme is the generation gap, only this time seen through the eyes of the parents; the father frozen in bewilderment at the end of Peter and Pavla is at last given his voice. When, that is, he has something to say, which isn't often. Most of the time Larry Tyne (Buck Henry) is content to meditate owl-like behind his outsize spectacles; when trouble threatens, he wanders off into a hypnotic reverie, a cigarette-substitute urged on him by a cheerfully morbid psychiatrist in a multicoloured bow tie. Larry is the sort of man who has always steered clear of trouble. He is reasonably well off, comfortably ensconced in a New York suburban apartment, a reasonably average guy. At the moment his only concern is coming to terms with the onset of middle age; and when one evening his wife Lynn (Lynn Carlin) is on the verge of hysterics after their teenage daughter has gone missing, he is nonchalantly unperturbed, though just a little confused by a situation he's not prepared for. In a marvellous bit of Forman timing he executes a kind of double shuffle and stumbles out into the night clutching a giant framed photograph of his errant daughter.

The point is, and Buck Henry's enduring look of bemused exasperation explains it all, that even if Larry doesn't understand Jeannie's reasons for running away, he at least appreciates the gesture. Driving back from a fruitless journey upstate where a counterfeit Jeannie has been arrested for stealing a Japanese portable TV set (‘Sony?’ asks Lynn, petit bourgeois to the last), Larry finally airs his feelings: ‘She's out having fun. That's what we ought to do—go some place and have fun, goddammit.’ Earlier, out looking for Jeannie in what he imagines to be likely East Village teenage haunts, Larry ends up at a bar, tipsily cracking eggs on the counter and demonstrating for his equally tipsy neighbour his self-hypnosis trick. Forman intermittently cuts back from this scene to the waiting women, with Lynn by this time blithely engrossed in her neighbour's account of her mild-mannered husband's voracious sexual appetite (‘In the kitchen too … he's inimitable’), climaxed by an impromptu rendering of the song and dance routine which apparently turns him on in the middle of the night.

All through the film Forman cross-cuts between the generations, counterpointing stumbling parental pomposity with the inarticulate self-assurance of their children. Jeannie is just one of hundreds of girls who turn up for a pop audition, an event which gives Forman the opportunity for another of his visual catalogues of the human face as the camera (Miroslav Ondricek again) probes a score of expressions and every one of them speaks volumes. The variation is in the camera eye of the beholder as much as in the object of his gaze (at one point a Polaroid montage of faces takes us right through a song). And if, like the cross-cutting, the device is overindulged in terms of the film's structure, it's an indulgence one can allow such a master of timing. Don't count the faces, count the number of times in the film Forman makes telling use of a pause or a double-take where a lesser director would have settled for a reaction shot.

Not that one can really speak of a Forman style. His art is rather that of a master craftsman, an astute and sympathetic chronicler of that mine-strewn area in human relationships between what is said, what is meant and what is understood. After the cold, and to some disenchanted, conclusion of The Firemen's Ball, Forman is here once again the amused and tolerant observer of human frailty. His characters may be vulnerable under the camera's close scrutiny, but his view of human nature is essentially that of an optimist; and even if it's simplistic, this tolerance is like a cool draught of air after the clammy narcissism of so much native American self-analysis. Forman's art, though, is deceptively simple. There's a stunning, almost dreamlike sequence in the film—when Buck Henry exchanges the stuffy night debris of his apartment for the mysterious promise of an urban dawn and Dvorak's ‘Stabat Mater’ magically soars on the soundtrack—where the resonance is infinite.

As always with Forman, there's a double edge to humour, a discomforting sense of laughter reflected in a mirror image of oneself. All the same, Taking Off is easily his most enjoyable film, in its best moments irresistibly funny. Larry's encounter with the woman who introduces him to the Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children (whose evening dress convention and nervous after-dinner experimentation with the pleasures and perils of drugs provide two hilarious Forman set-pieces) is in its accumulation of detail a masterpiece of comic timing, and quite possibly Forman's homage to the great American tradition of screwball comedy. It's echoed throughout the film—in the strip poker variation (‘Texas one-card showdown’) to which the Tynes' SPFC friends introduce them, in the scene in the nightclub when a tight Mrs. Tyne is propositioned by a pair of jaded hustlers who know a respectable suburbanite when they see one—but it would spoil the fun to catalogue the varieties of middle-aged folly.

Even if Taking Off reveals in Forman a tendency to let his actors over-respond to the material, to milk it of slightly more than its promise (the last sequence in particular, a confrontation between the Tynes and their daughter's money-spinning rock musician, is a little strained in its ironic effects), there is more than enough fresh invention to demonstrate that Forman's visit to America has been richly rewarded. As he says himself, ‘In any other country you are a foreigner. Here, after one week, you are an American.’

Michael Wood (review date 5 February 1976)

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SOURCE: Wood, Michael, “No, But I Read the Book.” New York Review of Books 23, no. 1 (5 February 1976): 3-4.

[In the following excerpt, Wood compliments Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, noting that Forman's quieter, more realistic approach to the material adds sensitivity to the story.]

Kubrick is attracted by apparent impossibilities. Lolita,A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon are all, in their different ways, highly literary texts, works that seem to defy translation into film. (“How did they ever make a film of Lolita?” the advertising asked when the movie was first released—although the question was not prompted by the texture of Nabokov's prose. One critic tartly replied, “They didn't.”) Ken Kesey is neither Nabokov nor Burgess nor Thackeray, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest seems to invite translation into film as much as the other books defy it. And yet Miloš Forman [in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest], oddly enough, runs into much the same problems as Kubrick, although with different results.

Kesey's novel is narrated by Chief Broom Bromden, an inmate in a mental hospital who pretends to be deaf and dumb. The Chief sees metaphors. When men are described as rabbits, the rabbits hop before his eyes. When the head nurse on his ward gets angry, the Chief watches the transformation:

So she really lets herself go and her painted smile twists, stretches to an open snarl, and she blows up bigger and bigger, big as a tractor, so big I can smell the machinery inside the way you smell a motor pulling too big a load. …

The Chief knows what he knows:

Yes. This is what I know. The ward is a factory for the Combine. It's for fixing up mistakes made in the neighborhoods and in the schools and in the churches, the hospital is. When a completed product goes back out into society, all fixed up good as new, better than new sometimes, it brings joy to the Big Nurse's heart: something that came in all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin. …

Of course the Chief's paranoia may be truer than our supposed sanity, and that is precisely his argument: “It's the truth,” he says of his story, “even if it didn't happen.” The game being played here, our implication in the Chief's vision and our resistance to it, our attempts to see it as just crazy or just literary, even our desire to believe in it, is a special, bookish form of hide-and-seek, which requires text and readers, can't be played with images on a screen and an audience in a cinema.

Kubrick replaces that sort of irony—Thackeray's inviting his readers to an understanding of Barry which is not Barry's own—with poker-faced art. Forman replaces it with a gentle, under-played realism, something which is the opposite of Kesey's hyperbole. The monstrous Big Nurse of the novel is not a monster in the movie, but simply a handsome, hard-faced, flat-voiced, infinitely patient and sensible woman. Louise Fletcher's performance in this role is quite extraordinary. She is the nurse/teacher/social worker from countless soap operas tilted toward nightmare by the sheer relentlessness of her professional behavior. She has disappeared into the deceiving manners of her job, and Fletcher, under Forman's direction, catches perfectly the horrible inhumanity of kindly, comprehending phrases offered without either kindness or comprehension, indeed systematically used to keep people under control.

It is as if the metallic politeness of a telephone operator those courteous words rattled out in that synthetic voice, were used on us daily to keep us in our place. And as if we actually needed to hear that voice, since real madness, for Kesey and Forman, is submission, acceptance of the tyranny of the so-called sane. The ward of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, many of whose inhabitants are voluntary patients, becomes a fierce figure for the consent of the governed. We consent not only to be governed, we consent to be oppressed. We ask to be oppressed. Kesey would say no doubt that all government is oppression, but Forman's view seems milder (or is it just the Seventies nudging down the Sixties—Kesey's novel was published in 1962): governments oppress us because they have the power to do so, and because we allow them to.

Forman's restraint then gets a lot of the effects of Kesey's exaggerations. Or rather, Forman persuades his actors to get these effects for him (Kubrick can't, or won't, get anything from his actors, because he is too busy using them as coat-hangers and moveable foregrounds for his insistent backgrounds). There is not only Fletcher, there is also Jack Nicholson, as a roughneck who undertakes the liberation of the ward, only to end up lobotomized and then killed in kindness by the Chief.

The tone of the whole film is really set by Nicholson's early interview with the hospital doctor, which is such a sly, amiable, whispered, chatty, smiling affair that it seems crazier than any more flamboyant madness could possibly be, and throughout the movie Nicholson looks sensible, bewildered, wily, and zany by turns, and in ways that test the idea of sanity not logically but visually. What does it mean to look sane? We know what it means to look crazy, since the film first shows us the inmates of the ward as a caricatured bunch of freaks. But then one of Forman's achievements is to make us feel so easy with these men that we simply stop thinking of them as crazy and see them as the victims of the Nurse and the system and their own fears.

A single, brilliant moment in the movie pulls all this beautifully together. Nicholson is leading the men from the ward on a deep-sea fishing expedition. As they board the boat, a man from the marina asks them what they think they are doing. Nicholson hesitates, then says, “We're from the State mental institution.” There is a pause, during which we wait for whatever remark can possibly follow this. Then Nicholson continues, introducing each of the men in turn, “This is Dr. Harding. This is Dr. Cheswick. Dr. Bibbitt. Dr. Scanlon. …” As the camera reaches each face, the men straighten up, put on serious expressions, nod like celebrities being presented on television, and actually look like doctors. A moment ago they were lunatics in scruffy sweaters, and now they are doctors on their day off, wearing their old clothes. The joke here is not simply the old gag about doctors in mental hospitals being indistinguishable from their patients, it is also a suggestion of genuine liberty. We look like whatever we choose to call ourselves, and the camera proves it. If we call ourselves crazy, or allow ourselves to be called crazy, we shall look crazy.

Of course, real madness disappears in such perspectives. And while the cheerful, libertarian politics of the film are appealing, the literalism of Forman's rendering of the ward—tiled floors, starched uniforms, clanging cage-like doors and the rest—makes one wonder about actual mental hospitals in the world outside the movie. About the hospital in Oregon where the movie was shot, for example. Can it be true that the insane are merely scared, that it's all the Nurse's fault, and that a good fuck would cure many a pathology? Isn't there something unfeeling about such optimism? Kesey's novel doesn't prompt such questions, because it is safe inside the Chief's narration (“It's the truth even if it didn't happen”), but Forman's movie does, and thus reminds us how simplified it is, both psychologically and politically. I believe political repression is bad under any circumstances, and I don't doubt that many mental hospitals come all too close to Kesey's and Forman's descriptions. But the movie still evades madness itself, as it evades all serious political issues, because it just sorts out the good guys from the bad guys, the victims from the nurses.

The shallowness of this very attractive film probably comes from Forman's unwillingness to tolerate (and inability to dismiss) the ugly assumptions that lurk at all the edges of the story: women are all either nurses or whores; blacks (in the guise of ward attendants) are the world's sadists and creeps; the only hope of innocence is for scared white males led by an amiable jailbird. The presence of an Indian in the novel and the movie is a sentimental gesture, camouflage for the prejudices at work elsewhere. As I say, I think Forman is too generous to let all this out of the bag, but he hasn't fully succeeded in imposing on it his own amiable brand of anarchism, and the result is a movie with its foundations missing.

John Coleman (review date 27 February 1976)

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SOURCE: Coleman, John. “You All Crazy?” New Statesman 91, no. 2345 (27 February 1976): 269-70.

[In the following excerpt, Coleman explores the themes of sanity versus insanity and love versus hate in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest.]

Ken Kesey's novel [One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest] caused quite a stir when it first appeared in 1962, and rightly. I had heard vaguely of Kesey as a major prophet of the youth revolution, read some disjointed scraps of his somewhere or other, and knew that his book about life in a mental institution was supposed to have been written under the influence of LSD: the auguries were unpromising. But the other day I laid bold hands on the thing and found myself held enough to read it in a single session. Since events are transmitted through the now befogged, now pellucid consciousness of a huge half-Indian, Chief Bromden, it may be that some acid went into the creative melting-pot; but not much, I would hazard. Generally, Kesey has complete control of his material, his characters stick up from the page like so many wounded thumbs, the coherence and humour are in a different league from the ramblings of a Kerouac. There is, however, an underlying theme: one enlivening day a bull of a man called R. P. McMurphy is brought in from a penal work farm, feigning insanity, and in no time at all he has the walking patients (the Acutes, as opposed to the Chronics, the Wheelers, the Vegetables, and the people ‘upstairs’) striving to assert themselves against what he sees as the ball-breaking domination of Nurse Ratched, a great-bosomed martinet of some cunning and sadistic intent. Randle McMurphy, an inveterate gambler, sets out to defuse her in a week, and for a while his particular blunt therapy does wonders on his fellow-inmates.

This is one of the larger sentimental (or, at least, highly questionable) proposals that Kesey commits himself to: and we shall soon be returning to it. In the tragic event, the system proves too strong even for McMurphy and it is the disinherited half-breed, long thought to be deaf and dumb, who makes the final escape—on our behalf, we are invited to feel. Society is sick, etc.

Kirk Douglas bought the film rights 13 years ago and it is his son, Michael, who now figures as co-producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, together with Saul Zaentz: more interestingly, it is the marvelous Czech, Milos Forman (Peter and Pavla,A Blonde in Love,The Firemen's Ball and then his first American venture, Taking Off), who directs. The result is an in-and-out movie, much more in than out and at its best as good as anything Forman has done, with a radical but necessary structural alteration made to the original story: Kesey prepared an early draft screenplay, which was rejected (he and Forman never met), and the final version is the work of two writers, one coming in after the other—Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman—with, it would not be surprising, the director, who trained at the Czech Film School as a writer, coming up with the further odd line himself.

He likes a degree of improvisation, so much so—in fact—that he and his cameraman Haskell Wexler reluctantly parted company during the shooting: Bill Butler took over and, for a fishing-trip sequence filmed last, William Fraker. There were other snags: finding a location (a vacant ward in the Oregon State Hospital solved that, where the whole unit camped out), fending off the natural anxiety of the authorities, persuading an actress to play the ungrateful butch and bullying role of Kesey's ‘Big Nurse’ (both Anne Bancroft and Angela Lansbury are said to have turned it down). But the biggest problem of all was inevitably what to do about that first-person narrator. The answer has been to take the bull McMurphy by the horns and shove him firmly centre stage, relegating the Indian to the sidelines till near the end. And since McMurphy was to be the big fellow coming in from outside, Forman for once wanted a star and got him: Jack Nicholson, who may be about half the size of Kesey's Irishman but makes up for it in an astute, brash, persuasive and ultimately panicky impersonation of intentional ambiguity.

The rest of a superb cast was mainly recruited from the relatively unknown and the word goes that a few authentic patients and staff are occasionally on view. Forman ‘lived’ the film after his fashion and certainly specific details of his cuckoos' behaviour stamp themselves on the mind: the spruce, white-haired old dancer, the man forever self-crucified against a wall, the wheelchair general who thwacks a punchball with his walking stick, stumpy little Martini who messes up all their table games, peeking at cards, swallowing the die, hysterically flaring and subsiding Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) who worships McMurphy, stammering young Billy (Brad Dourif) with his fear of mummy, supercilious Harding (William Redfield), gelded by a flighty wife, and the great, slab-faced Bromden (Will Sampson), whose elated walk and jaunty jogtrot around a basketball court after a couple of successes against the male nurses brought a round of applause, for heaven's sake, at the packed, papered press show. No question at all about whose side the audience was on, which is where I must quote Mr Forman:

I can only define ‘mental illness’ as an incapacity to adjust within normal measure to ever-changing, unspoken rules. If you are incapable of making these constant changes, you are called by your environment crazy. Which of course indicates that mental illness is a social disease …

The trouble is—and all hail to R. D. Laing—it is surely more complicated than that. And yet Forman appears to believe it that simple, enough at any rate to promote a mildly modified form of Kesey's baddies (the staff) versus the goodies (the patients): even allowing for the fact that a majority of the so-called Acutes are voluntary inmates—and McMurphy's traumatic shock comes in a superbly underplayed scene in a swimming pool when he realises he is one of the few to have actually been committed and therefore liable to stay until Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) says otherwise—they would hardly be, as they are here almost to a man, little more than eccentrics, usually harmless and hence available for genial comedy. ‘You all crazy?’ asks pretty Candy, a gum-chewing whore imported for an illicit fishing-trip organised by McMurphy, and old Cheswick nods contentedly back.

When matters grow really ugly at the close, with McMurphy smuggled back into the ward at night, lobotomised, and Bromden compassionately putting him out of his nullity before crashing free, it is nearly too sudden. And yet something equivocal, fighting to disturb the excellently entertaining surface of the film (that fishing-trip, a wild drinking party that finishes with Billy getting laid and killing himself under verbal duress next morning), has been prepared for. A strange smile passes between Miss Fletcher's Nurse (is she all bad?) and her tormentor-in-chief at one moment: and the smooth doctor in charge turns to her later, underlining this near-complicity—‘Funny thing is the person he's closest to is the one he dislikes most. That's you, Mildred.’ One could have done with a closer exploration of this tension, which is absent from the Kesey. As it is, it is perhaps the most disconcerting and resonant element in Forman's remarkable film.

Charles Champlin (review date 15 March 1979)

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SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Hair Comes to the Screen.” Los Angeles Times (15 March 1979): section 4, pp. 1, 25.

[In the following review, Champlin assesses the strengths of Hair, calling the film a “poignant reminder” of America during the Vietnam War era.]

Fresh off the bus, duffel bag in hand, the boy from Oklahoma stares in wonderment. A happening is happening in Central Park, Manhattan Island, U.S.A., vintage '60s. Crazy kids with long hair and costume clothes are sporting on the greensward. Then, like a foreboding shadow, two mounted policemen invade the scene, towering over it and monstrously silhouetted, keep the sunshine out.

It looks like curtains for our new friends. But no: The cops' handsome horses break into a sashaying circus two-step in nice time to the rollicking music.

In its sly and marvelous surprise, and in its artful melding of a breezy and literally open-air naturalism with the stylized inventions of the musical form, the introduction of the prancing steeds gets the triumphant Milos Forman film of Hair away to an invigorating, delighting start.

Thereafter, for just over two swift hours, the movie's moods and settings vary dramatically, but its energy, invention and charm never falter.


Hair is the best film musical since Cabaret and, like Cabaret, it is a fine and innovative use of the medium and an entertainment that is also an illumination of history. Hair, of course, is even more than a look at history, it is a piece of history.

It was the musical that more than any other captured the tumultuous spirits of the young American '60s: the roaring sounds of its music and the look of its celebrants, the defiance of a tethering past, the protests against present injustices and against Vietnam most crucially, the lyrical optimism of a new age dawning.

Hair had its premiere nearly a dozen years ago, and somehow the '60s already seem an era as echoing but closed as the Roaring Twenties or the depressed '30s. The movie in part thus becomes a reprise of history, overlaid now with many new emotions, most powerfully a bitter-sweet nostalgia, combining a feeling of pride with a sense of loss, for those whose time was the '60s.


But Hair is more than an artifact. It is hugely appealing as a movie, bursting with vitality and dazzling in its displays of song and dance, and ingratiating in its choice of protagonists.

John Savage (Robert DeNiro's surviving pal in The Deer Hunter) is the Oklahoma ranch boy come to New York for a quick look at the bright lights before he goes (unquestioningly enough) into the Army and probably off to Vietnam. (Savage's role in The Deer Hunter gives his appearance in Hair an eerie and unexpected additional resonance.)

Treat Williams as Berger is the leader of the free-spirited group—hippies now sounds as antiquated as jazzbabies or hepcats—Savage falls in with in Central Park. Annie Golden is the sweetly rumpled earth mother of the group, Dorsey Wright and Don Dacus the other regulars. Beverly D'Angelo (marvelous again as she was in First Love and Every Which Way but Loose) is the rich girl from New Jersey who gallops into the lives of the quintet. They are all expert and likable in equal measure.

The push to the outdoors, to natural settings, that Francis Ford Coppola gave the musical with his Finian's Rainbow, has been pushed still further by Forman and choreographer Twyla Tharp. The exuberant rompings through the park and up and down its steps and balustrades and benches are, for example, contagiously thrilling to watch.

It is also striking to realize just how much a part of the national musical heritage the music of Galt McDermot and the lyrics of Gerome Ragni and James Rado have become. “The Age of Aquarius,” “Good Morning, Starshine” and “Let the Sun Shine In” really were anthems of an era, and they retain their power to lift the spirit.

As he did in Taking Off and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Forman proves to be a keen-eyed observer of American manners and milieus, and suggests that the comic vision is universal. A formal garden party in suburban New Jersey (with Richard Bright as a rich kid not sure how to cope with some flower-powered crashers) is a very funny and satirical stretch, leading to a riotous sitdown banquet at which Treat Williams runs splendidly amok in “I Got Life.”

Hair lends itself well to a cinematic opening-up and Forman and his cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek lead us a grand chase from snowy city to sun-baked desert Army base (the setting in part of another piece of comic story-telling) to an extraordinary gathering at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

From a striking piece of recent American cultural history, Forman has fashioned a timelessly impressive example of the art of movie making. What is also interesting is that simply as an expression of protest and affirmative change, Hair does not seem to have grown dated or lost its relevance or its appeal.

The cultural shock of long hair (as the central symptom of a whole package of change) may have subsided and the package been assimilated by the middle class (on which it is not invariably becoming) and made safe.

Yet the need to let sunshine in does not appear to have vanished with the '60s, nor the need to challenge conventional wisdom and to commit to causes of conscience. If some of the druggy adventuring of the '60s looks now like a wasting self-indulgence, Hair is in the end a poignant reminder that the decade's bloody backdrop was Vietnam and that its lingering lessons nearly all relate to that conflict, home and abroad.

The nudity, which was part of the notoriety of Hair in its early days, is recalled in the movie, but in so evolved (and so relatively restrained) a way that the rating is not unreasonably PG, which means not least that the early teenagers will have a chance to see what made the '60s unforgettable for their elders.

Lester Persky and Michael Butler were the producers. Galt McDermot arranged and conducted his own music and Michael Weller did the script.

Richard A. Blake (review date 7 April 1979)

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SOURCE: Blake, Richard A. “Selective Memory.” America 140, no. 13 (7 April 1979): 286.

[In the following excerpt, Blake commends Hair's atmosphere of “great good fun,” but cautions against the film's tendency to sanitize historical events.]

Sanitizing the past is easier than living with ugly memories. Self-exoneration is, of course, a key motive for reshaping the past. Today, for example, people who admit they once admired Senator Joseph McCarthy and his crusade against Communists (and, incidentally, the Constitution) are as rare as those who can recall their enthusiasm for stopping the Red menace in Vietnam. Everybody, it seems, was on the right side from the beginning. The practice of selective memory is harmless enough until it leads to self-delusion. Moreover, simplifying complex periods of history reduces movements to morality plays, and simplistic morality plays can be terribly hollow.

Hair, even without its famous nude scene, was an exciting, even shocking political statement when it opened on Broadway 11 years ago. Not only was it the Magna Carta of the new life style, it reversed the traditional hero and villain roles of American morality plays. Drugs, vulgarity, long hair, loud music and irresponsible sex were good. The U. S. Government and convention, known in some circles as civilization, were bad. The Visigoths had their revenge at long last. It was an ugly period in American history and many of the scars have yet to heal. We just pay less attention to them.

In movie recollection, however, the age of the “flower children” has become one grand, happy love-in, bubbling with youth, vitality and freedom. In the meantime, the establishment was busy napalming civilians in the process of losing a war that was a mistake from the outset. How clear is the logic of memory! The ruined lives of drug addicts and professional (now middle-aged) dropouts, the cultivated rootlessness, alienation and the death of civility can be forgotten as easily as the disillusion of embittered veterans. It was an age of Byronic romanticism, intoxicating and suicidal.

If one is old enough to forget, or young enough not to remember, Hair can be enjoyed as the great good fun it was intended to be. The plot is, after all, incidental to the music and dance. A young enlistee from Oklahoma comes to New York for induction, meets a band of what were once called “hippies” in Central Park and learns to do the scene with them: hashish, skinny-dipping, trashing an establishment party and jail. He eventually goes through basic training, and his Central Park cronies come out to visit him before he ships out for Vietnam. Through an unlikely twist of events and a case of mixed identities, the slapstick comedy turns to tragedy.

Hair is first of all a musical, and the score by Galt MacDonald has aged remarkably well. The opening proclamation of “The Age of Aquarius” is thrilling. “Easy To Be Hard,” a lament sung by a young, abandoned mother, is guaranteed to bring sustained and deserved applause from misty-eyed popcorn munchers. Twyla Tharp's choreography adds the athletic angularity of Merce Cunningham's modern dance to the geometric energy of Agnes DeMille's screen style. The result is breathtaking, literally.

Milos Forman, the director, was still making films in Czechoslovakia when Hair came to Broadway. In The Firemen's Ball (1968), the establishment, a local fire company, is the target for his irreverent satire, since the Communist Government at that time was not noted for its ability to enjoy satire aimed explicitly at itself. By the time the good villagers discover the modest corruption in the raffle, the ball is a complete shambles. Working in this country, Forman has turned his dislike for establishments from the Communists to repressive American institutions, like the mental hospital he portrayed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.Hair is a continuation of this theme in Forman's work and, luckily for him and his audiences, he was not in this country during the war-protest movement. His film is playful and bright, even though the times were not.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 14 April 1979)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Ex-Champions.” New Republic 180, no. 15 (14 April 1979): 40-1.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann examines the change of public perceptions and attitudes between the original theatrical production of Hair and the release of Forman's film adaptation.]

Hair (United Artists) is chockablock with imaginative lift and pyrotechnical dazzle, all of it apparently intended to forestall question. That question, of course, is: Is Hair dated? Well, most of the songs (most of which have been retained from the original score) are still engaging, and much of the filming is fine. But Hair, even with its now-blanched script, is about a subject, and 10 years have put that subject in a cooler light.

I saw the first production (1967) at the Public Theater in New York, and beyond this song or that performer, I remember feeling throughout the show that the whole high-ceilinged room was being charged with energy, compressed within the walls, and that the walls might burst. Besides its intrinsics, the show had the added power of the Right Moment. For young people, it was their generation's outburst of protest, of relief at being young so that—by non-involvement—they could plead “not guilty” to the corruption with which they charged their elders; for older people it was a reproof by vitality and innocence, reproof particularly about Vietnam.

The subsequent Broadway version seemed both sharper and flatter—sharpened a bit into slickness and flattened out of some of its seeming spontaneity—but its success, there and on the road and around the world, shook the show-biz seismograph. For a time the show had an aura of more than success. In the late 1960s I was on a TV panel in Chicago with a member of the Hair touring company who spoke apostolically about it as an instrument that would help to change the world.

The world certainly changed in the 10 years that followed, but one of the changes is that Hair and Hair-y matters are no longer looked to as instruments of change. Today's equivalent of the Hair generation is still a good-sized gap away from older generations but not because of any arrogation of moral superiority by the young. (For one point, the gap between the drafted and the drafters is gone.) This film of Hair was made too late for any spontaneous connection with that idea of youth's moral superiority which is still its base. Now our only connection with Hair is through its music (by Galt MacDermot); but in the past, though the music was world-famous, it seemed only one aspect of the work's larger existence.

Too recent to be historical even in an era of instant history, too remote to be “now,” the film had to be placed somewhere relatively out of time in order not to seem dated. That placement was in a context of cinematic splash—a cascade of visual ingenuities so often overwhelming that they almost disguise their (presumable) intent as salvage operation. The screenplay, taken from the original book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, was evolved by Michael Weller, author of Moonchildren (itself an irritatingly self-licking play about 1960s youth). The script tries to keep some motions of social protest, but they are all pallid dilutions. The real achievements are in the filmmaking itself.

Two Czech émigrés are central. I disliked the work of the director, Milos Forman, even before he emigrated. Loves of a Blonde and The Firemen's Ball were heavy with provincial genius. Forman's first American film, Taking Off, strained to prove that he was at home abroad, and didn't. Then he made One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, much of which was admirable, and I thought—still think—that the improvement owed something to the presence in the cast of Jack Nicholson, an experienced filmmaker. Hair doesn't need much veristic detail, it mostly exists in a limbo of fantastication, which seems to have touched the latent best in Forman.

Certainly he has been strengthened by working with Miroslav Ondricek with whom he had worked in Czechoslovakia. (A sequence after an LSD “communion” is right out of Czech symbolist films of the mid-1960s.) And the editing—by Lynzee Klingman with Stanley Karnow and Alen Hein—is miraculously deft, an imaginative achievement in itself.

Twyla Tharp's choreography—or rather the use of it by the filmmakers—helps to make the texture of the film. Clearly they all decided not to do a conventional musical with numbers, nor to do a conventional fantasy like The Wiz, but to create a free-floating work, hovering a few feet above visible reality and touching it only often enough to push off again. Tharp's movement-designs, running through, help to keep it all suprareal.

For a while, the film looks as if it's going to succeed. The opening sequence shows Claude—played with unostentatious reticence by John Savage of The Deer Hunter—leaving his ranch home and going to New York to be drafted. (No questions, please, about a westerner going to NY to report.) As his bus enters the Lincoln Tunnel, blackness hits the screen; then that blackness is flecked with lights—not headlights, as we soon see, but the lights of a celebration in Central Park (where Claude later appears), and the picture is off, or seems to be.

A lot of the blends and braids of the film are extremely clever, sometimes lyrically lovely. All the songs are well sung and are never simply “held” as songs: the camera movement and editing help to dramatize them. But the staled topicality of the original show keeps wearing through and distancing us. The small band of hippies led by Berger now seem only scruffy trarmps, not a statement of anything. Berger's courageous moral stances, in the light of the last 10 years and stripped of the horrible pressures of Vietnam, now seem merely juvenile and silly. And the oppressive Treat Williams in the role doesn't help.

When Berger leads his friends to a stately suburban home, where he dances on a long polished dinner table and outrages the stuffy guests, it now seems to shame him, not them. When Groucho Marx did that sort of thing with Margaret Dumont, he assumed no moral superiority: it was just an appeal to the fat-man-and-banana-peel anarchy in us. Berger is proclaiming a moral and ethical superiority that today seems dated and dumb. I couldn't wait for the cops to come and take him away. This response, or variants of it, recurred.

Still, in a film world where naturalism is taken as primal law, the fanciful leap of Hair provides some relief. Six years ago the English director David Greene made the same sort of leap with Godspell (TNR, May 12, 1973). In a more modest film, Greene had proportionately more success. (Coincidence: both films of American “youth” musicals were done by foreign-born directors.) But at least the makers of Hair have given us some high-spirited reminders of splendid things that film can do and, these days, isn't often asked to.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr. (review date 25 May 1979)

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SOURCE: Westerbeck, Colin L., Jr. “Hair Today.” Commonweal 106, no. 10 (25 May 1979): 305-06.

[In the following review, Westerbeck offers a negative assessment of Hair, criticizing Forman's understanding of American culture and the editing of the film's dance sequences.]

No one lives in the Age of Aquarius today. Its “dawning,” celebrated ten years ago in the musical Hair, turned out to be its twilight as well. Still, Hair remains pertinent. It continues to tell us something about our collective life as Americans. Popular shows usually do this. They are a revelation to us of ourselves, especially shows that are surprisingly popular as Hair was. Hair was made on the novel premise that the hippies weren't really alienated from America. They were an expression of it. Whether this was true for hippies themselves or not, it was true enough for other Americans to make Hair enormously successful. On the one hand, people came into New York from Connecticut, Connecticut to see the show because they also yearned to be FREE, somehow, and Hair assuaged those yearnings. On the other hand, Hair made freedom safe. It made it into entertainment. It made hippies appealing and familiar. In Hair, the commune and the crash pad and the demonstration in the streets became a new kind of togetherness, a renewed and ideal Melting Pot. The show recognized in the dawn of its own new age the twilight's last gleaming for certain American dreams still widely cherished.

Hair was therefore not as hard to adapt to the screen ten years later as it might seem. The thing to do was get Milos Forman to direct the film [Hair]. Forman is one of those Europeans whose perception of America is too weak and superficial to be dangerous. He is an immigrant Magoo, avoiding most harm and confusion in American culture by being oblivious to them. Since Forman didn't feel any of the rougher barbs and burrs in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he could certainly be trusted with Hair, which had far less potential for hard truths. Innocent adaptations of modern classics is becoming Forman's specialty. He flies across the Atlantic in jumbo-jet style, without paying any attention to the storm-tossed seas and swirling clouds beneath him. If there was any wildness or vexation with which the immediacy of the Vietnam war endowed the stage version of Hair, Forman hasn't responded to it in the movie. He has seen and elaborated only those aspects of the Broadway original which made it widely popular. In the true tradition of musicals, he has accentuated the positive, eliminated the negative, and not messed with Mr. In-Between.

During the Depression, when the movie musical was being invented, what kept America going was the feeling that we were all in the same boat. Forman's Hair has a similar vision of America, except that what we're all in now is a Lincoln Continental. That's what all the principals in Hair finally get in to drive and sing their way cross-country. It's a real ethnic Ark. In the original Hair the thing that all the street people had in common was their rootlessness. No one had a background or a home. Everybody was free-floating—a condition epitomized by the song “Frank Mills” in which a girl had tragically lost her boyfriend's address. But “Frank Mills” is one of the songs dropped from the movie version, where family backgrounds and off-stage homes are created for the major characters. It's as if Forman were trying to make more explicit the connection of these hippies with America at large—as if he were afraid the rest of us Americans might miss the point.

The Lincoln contains every race, creed and social persuasion—a very straight black lady and her little boy (archetypes of the new black bourgeoisie in the post-Hair era) along with a newly liberated debutante from Westchester and a drop-out from a lower-middle-class home in Queens. The only important character not in the car is Claude Bukowsky (John Savage), whom the movie turns into a cowboy from Oklahoma. The car is, however, on its way to rescue Bukowsky from the military. We visit each of these characters from the original Hair in the different economic and regional background the movie has created for him. This is the movie's way of making them all more representative, like Congress.

The greatest innovation the movie has is its choreography by Twyla Tharp. Galt MacDermot's music with its fast, changing tempos meshes beautifully with the jerky, dislocated dancing that Tharp creates. The opening performance of “Aquarius” done in Central Park is almost strong enough by itself to carry the rest of the film on its flying coat tails. Yet the choreography finally seems, like the trite plot that the film manufactures around the original characters, only a way to keep us distracted—a way to keep any unpleasant associations in Ragni and Rado's lyrics at arm's length. This intention is especially apparent in the movie's brief reprise of the song “Three-Five-Zero-Zero,” which makes music out of military body counts. In the Broadway version this song was a lead-in to “What a Piece of Work Is Man,” with lyrics by William Shakespeare. In the movie Shakespeare is cut, and “Three-Five-Zero-Zero” becomes a couple of minutes of cut-aways from a slapstick review of the troops at Bukowsky's boot camp.

Forman's editing of the dance sequences—lots of medium shots very rapidly spliced together—obstructs our view of the dancing itself. It gives the choreography the maddening quality of a dance seen under one of those bright, blipping strobe lights at a disco. It makes the dancing paradoxically static, as if we were seeing a series of quickly glimpsed tableaux or freeze frames. Or perhaps these are scenes from an American Pompeii that was cataclysmically suspended in time ten years ago and is only now being unearthed again by Forman's movie. Or maybe the editing in the dance sequences is just Forman's way of using his camera to break the original Hair into pieces, so it will fit into the Melting Pot once again. Maybe this movie is just our way of scrapping the hippies once and for all.

Sheila Benson (review date 15 November 1981)

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SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “Ragtime—An Optimistic Novel Lost in Translation.” Los Angeles Times (15 November 1981): Calendar section, p. 29.

[In the following review, Benson asserts that much of the depth of E. L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime is lost in its film adaptation.]

E. L. Doctorow's bold exhilarating novel Ragtime, his “real-world act,” was a newsreel of America at a critical period, from 1902 until just the end of World War I when “the era of Ragtime had run out.” America at that time combined innocence, optimism, energy and personal and social ambition at levels it would never reach again.

And in the book every character and virtually every detail was interdependent. Doctorow created three fictional family groups: a comfortable middle-class New Rochelle bunting and fireworks manufacturer's family called simply Father, Mother, their Little Boy and her Younger Brother; a Latvian-Jewish immigrant family in New York's Lower East Side, Tateh (meaning father) the silhouette maker, Mameh and the Little Girl, who sews in the garment district. And finally, a dignified black ragtime piano player, Coalhouse Walker Jr., his love Sarah, and their baby son.

Into the lives of these three families tumbled the stars and comets of the day. J. P. Morgan and Henry Ford, Freud and Houdini, “Red Emma” Goldman and teenage seductress Evelyn Nesbit, flanked, of course, by her husband Harry Thaw and her architect-lover Stanford White. Every character was seismographic, a jostle here produced a bruise there. Freud visited and left America, finding it a “gigantic mistake”; a decade later “his ideas began to destroy sex in America.” Henry Ford came up with the assembly line, and a sparkling Model T, defiled in an act of humiliation, becomes the story's most memorable symbol.

Doctorow's book was a cool and fast read, seemingly as flat as one of Tateh's miraculous cutout paper silhouettes and certainly as intricate. And in spite of the agony of some of its scenes—the dangerous and bloody early days of the American labor movement, sweatshop life and bigotry on the rise—Ragtime as a book left you on a high as infectious as ragtime itself. Doctorow's goodwill and deep-seated optimism prevailed.

Enter Dino De Laurentiis, who bought the book's rights with Robert Altman of “Nashville” in mind. But the two had a falling-out during the making of Buffalo Bill and the Indians and director Milos Forman was brought into the project.

What Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller (Hair) have done is to wade in, lift three characters who seem to them the most significant—Evelyn Nesbit, Younger Brother and Coalhouse Walker Jr.—thin out a whole history book of references, and build [Ragtime,] their rich, intricate, often bewildering film with what was left.

It is the connective tissue of the book, the aerialist's net that supported its audaciousness, that has been removed. Without this thread of history the characters at times are left doing things which seem completely arbitrary.

We also lose two major characters. Harry Houdini stood for the magically successful side of the immigrant wave, but he is peripheral to the action. But to lose Emma Goldman, who politicized Evelyn Nesbit in the book's most extraordinary scene, is a real tragedy.

Forman's casting is careful and often inspired. The New Rochelle family, the canvas on which new Freudian awareness and the awakening conscious of the American woman will be sketched, rejoices in the presence of Mary Steenburgen as Mother. In a subtle and delicious performance she imprints delicately but firmly a sense of who really holds the power in this post-Victorian era. This genteel conflict isn't as interesting since Father's character has been stripped down. He's all obvious repression and rigid control, tautly played by James Olson, but his interesting history, exploring the North Pole with Peary, has been omitted.

Mother and Father are the link to Coalhouse Walker Jr., and with him to the film's vitality. During a family Sunday supper, a newly born black baby is discovered abandoned in the back yard. The baby becomes Mother's obsession. She takes him in, then his sweet, silent mother Sarah (Debbie Allen) and it is while he is in search of them that we meet Coalhouse Walker Jr.

His name and character are a hint: Michael Kohlhaas is a novella by Heinrich von Klist set in 16th-Century Germany. In it a wronged man, having exhausted lawful means, turns to anarchy, razing a castle and finally whole cities. “One of the most upright and … most terrifying men of his time,” he is most certainly the model for Coalhouse.

The film is crammed with action but has no real focus until Coalhouse turns up, at the front door, heaven help us, in New Rochelle. Newcomer Howard E. Rollins takes charge of the film from that first ebullient moment. He becomes our obsession—everyone in Ragtime has one. Evelyn Nesbit is obsessed with Tateh's beautiful child. Younger Brother with Evelyn, and then with Coalhouse. And Coalhouse is obsessed about justice, which he demands at any cost.

Because Coalhouse is so energetic, so sympathetic, so sweetly, fatally optimistic, the way the film changes the book is critical. That it becomes “The Coalhouse Walker Story” in the last third of the film's 2 hours and 37 minutes is no surprise. His is the only cohesive story line and the casting of James Cagney in what was virtually a minor role, as the police commissioner who must oppose him, weights the film further.

But Forman and Doctorow seem to take differing views of the outcome.

After barricading himself in J. P. Morgan's priceless library and mining it with dynamite, Coalhouse's demand is constant and simple. He wants his car restored by Willie Conklin, the bullying coward who desecrated it (Kenneth McMillan). And in the book's most cinematic scene he gets just that; Conklin has to rebuild the Ford, out on the street in front of the library, a nine-hour job which he does “sweating, grunting, complaining and at times crying.”

Forman removes this scene, and with it Coalhouse's triumph. But by emphasizing the inevitable conclusion he seems to have subtly altered the message: This is the birth of 20th-Century black militancy and You Are There.

There are other small, strange shifts. When Tateh tries to sell his silhouette flip book, which is, of course, the rudimentary beginnings of moving pictures, in the film he is given $4 for the idea and 40 cents for each future book. Doctorow gives him $25 and $25, respectively, a decent sum in those days. Not everyone was cheated by money-loving Americans.

There are less depressing things to be found in the film, however. The idea of Randy Newman as the composer of a wickedly lively, perfectly suited score seems to have been inspired. There isn't an imperfect performance, quarrel as you might over emphasis, over which an actor has very little control. You might suspect that even Cagney is a little embarrassed at the amount of brouhaha vs. the size of the role, but he brings integrity as well as stirring remembrances of things past in a nostalgic audience.

As the film shifts its emphasis to Coalhouse, the character of Younger Brother recedes more and more. Brad Dourif has no problems conveying confused and marginal characters, with [One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest] and Wise Blood it's becoming his specialty. All Younger Brother wants is to commit his life to Evelyn, who in turn only wanted someone who would treat her badly and whom she could treat badly. The way of the world.

And as Evelyn Nesbit, Elizabeth McGovern is wonderfully dippy and off-center. With her luscious mouth but uncharacteristically slim build for that period of robust women, this Evelyn would have had to attract men by sheer force of personality. This McGovern has. Her scene as an outraged September Morn, haggling in the buff with her husband's envoys for $1 million as reasonable payment for her time with sadistic Harry Thaw is tragically funny.

Mandy Patinkin as Tateh, who in one speech gives Mary Steenburgen her first glimpse of passion, is fascinating and memorable. And exquisite small daughter, who will eventually form an alliance with The Boy. The wonderful bored Boy in his sailor suit and this small, wise girl-child are real brother and sister, Jenny and Max Nichols, children of Mike and Mrs. N.

There remains the question of whether Ragtime could ever yield itself to a film. I suspect that it could, but that a less morose hand might have to guide it. This Ragtime is patchy and chilling—not exhilarating—but it at least hews to Scott Joplin's warning: Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.

Robert Asahina (review date 25 January 1982)

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SOURCE: Asahina, Robert. “Sorting Out the Film Glut.” New Leader 65, no. 2 (25 January 1982): 21.

[In the following excerpt, Asahina criticizes Forman's directorial skills in Ragtime.]

When E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime was published a few years ago, there was much heavy-handed discussion of its fanciful mixture of fact and fiction. In retrospect, the controversy seems to have grossly exaggerated the seriousness of what actually is little more than an entertaining commercial novel with a distinctly cartoonish quality. The film adaptation, [Ragtime,] on the other hand, directed by Milos Foreman from a script by Michael Weller, exhibits precisely the pretentiousness the book was wrongly accused of, while lacking Doctorow's humor and inventiveness.

Part of the problem is time, or the dearth of it; like most novels, Ragtime contains much more than any film could cover. So some elements of the book's plot are neglected, and others are thoughtlessly retained. The subplot involving Emma Goldman, for instance, is discarded entirely, and the amazing career of Tateh (Mandy Patinkin) is presented in such a fragmented way that his progress from Lower East Side immigrant to Hollywood mogul is incomprehensible instead of incredible.

Simultaneously, Weller and Foreman waste an appalling amount of footage on the murder of Stanford White (Norman Mailer), probably because it takes place in the opulent world of the pre-World War I decadent rich, a favorite tourist attraction for nostalgic modern viewers. Perhaps to balance things out, the rest of the film, contradicting the lively spirit and experimental form of Doctorow's narrative, grimly and narrowly concentrates on the rise and fall of Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Howard E. Rollins), the mythical Black Power militant avant la lettre. The movie unintentionally makes his struggle seem foolish; so much energy is spent dramatizing his takeover of the Morgan Museum that the provocation behind his extreme protest—the vandalizing of his automobile at the hands of some bigoted volunteer firemen—is reduced, by contrast, to triviality. The moral force is thereby undermined.

From beginning to end, in fact, Ragtime is a disaster. Foreman's overstylized direction is inappropriate to the comic-strip story. As in his previous American work (such as Hair, also scripted by Weller), the Czech director seems quite out of touch with the material.

David Thomson (review date January-February 1982)

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SOURCE: Thomson, David. “Redtime.” Film Comment 18, no. 1 (January-February 1982): 11-16.

[In the following excerpt, Thomson argues against Ragtime's negative critical reception, asserting that the film is well adapted and masterfully directed.]

Milos Forman's film of Ragtime omits many delightful views and moments from the book. Why not? It is a film, and it has assets denied to the novel. It does not go to the North Pole with Peary and Father, or to the pyramids with J. P. Morgan. J. P.'s strawberry nose and his stomach rumblings about reincarnation are both dropped: apart from a “newsreel” flash, the film's Morgan is only the absent owner of a fatuous museum that looks like the tomb left by some earlier and erased civilization, or like the spacecraft from another planet, spreading unreality through Manhattan. There is no Emma Goldman in this movie, no opportunity for Emma to administer that politicizing massage to Evelyn Nesbit, or for Younger Brother to come so explosively out of his hiding place so that his “filamented spurts of jism” can settle on Evelyn “like falling ticker tape.”

Emma was cast in Ragtime, her part played by Mariclare Costello, her scenes shot; but she is gone now, along with the regiments of history left out by even E. L. Doctorow (no Wyatt Earp, no Jack Johnson, no Sarah Bernhardt—all contracted for a Steve Allen Meeting of Minds). Perhaps someone at Paramount remembered that Emma Goldman loomed large in Warren Beatty's Reds, and feared that the Christmas audience might muddle the two films. That's not a fanciful worry, for Reds leaves things out too. It doesn't trace John Reed's adventures in Mexico (where he may have met Younger Brother, the bombman for banditos); it omits entirely the pageant mounted by Reed, celebrating the 1913 silk-mill strike, at Madison Square Garden (another gray-stone, belaureled Stanford White construction). Reds skirts the other women in John Reed's life, it does not identify the thirty-two witnesses who revolutionize the conventions of its drama, and it does not tell us that his wife Louise Bryant died, too, alone in Paris, drunk and doped, in 1936 (the year Reed's Soviet nemesis, Zinoviev, perished in jail from purge and execution, perhaps not painlessly).

So, if we have read E. L. Doctorow, and looked at history enough to know the need and the impossibility of warning the Duke, we could quarrel with both films. On the other hand, they are two extraordinary, intelligent entertainments, the best things their makers have done, the restorers of dignity to the big-budget movie, and American pictures that want us to understand this century, rather than reel along in its momentum.

In the movie films, he said, we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadowed screen, as from the darkness of one's mind. It is a big business. People want to know what is happening to them. For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting and, forgive me, embracing one another. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new. There is such a need to understand.

—Tateh to Mother, in E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime

Milos Forman is an American citizen with all the advantages of recent immigration. He knows that no one is American beyond the dispute of others; he has always enjoyed the profusion of the country, the way in which the swinging audition in Taking Off was like a version of Ellis Island. America is a stage where everyone wants to play American. That need or envy in the immigrant never dies or finds satisfaction: it is the force of idealism and the reaching out of hope, despite every brutality or horror practiced by Americans. What has always distinguished Forman in this flux is the kindness with which he viewed the big parade.

Ragtime teems with kindness: it is like looking down into a steerage full of eager faces. It is mercy when the grim voice of Rhinelander Waldo says shoot and Coalhouse Walker is saved from due process (and this is not in Doctorow). Consider the generosity that allows Norman Mailer to be party to just one psychopathic crime; and the fond eye that sees a terrible burst cherry appear in his building-block brindled head. The movie is respectful of its own modest bigot, Father. His inability to stop seeing Coalhouse as a Negro is not rebuked or underlined. Indeed, it seems less than just (by the scales of melodrama) that Father's efforts to help Coalhouse, and to serve as intermediary and hostage, are rewarded with the loss of Mother. But Forman's film knows that irony replaced justice when movies displaced life. Doctorow gave Father a much more substantial shortcoming: he was not good in bed in the book. In the movie, it is rather that James Olson's face cannot register the same sympathy as Mary Steenburgen's, and is not as vital as hers to the very precise ragtime rhythm.

Forman loves behavior. He has always seen it as diverse, characteristic, and beyond judgment. That is why [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] is his most forced film, for it obliged him to dislike Nurse Ratched and to take sides. Give Forman a face and he wants to see the best in it: He shows us the pathos in the bogus rhetoric of Booker T. Washington, the weary humor in Pat O'Brien's devious lawyer, the attempt at decency in Father's headache-tight face, and the creamy goodwill that radiates from Mother. Whereas the novel slips from the local to the large, from fact to fiction, to excuse the silhouette flatness and speechlessness of its characters, as well as the cool aloofness of the narrative tone, the movie is full of faces and the moral distinctions that come from the shyness and the assurance with which the various people regard events.

This is not simply a matter of close-ups. The cutting of the film is its conscience—a dynamic but gentle connecting system, looking from here to there, that the audience is required to follow. Thus, Forman has reappraised the action of the novel and extracted this key contrast: there are two outrageous murders—Harry K. Thaw shoots Stanford White, and the Coalhouse Walker gang assassinates several firemen. They are both enraged crimes, both mad, helpless responses. The one is frivolous, though, and the other is profound.

Thaw's violence becomes a popular entertainment: Younger Brother goes to the trial, and even Mother tells Evelyn Nesbit that the family read about her and the case in the papers, kindness and celebrity confusing her instinctive distaste for the squalid actuality. Thaw was provoked by his own mania, by White's gracious philandering, by Evelyn's cheery lack of principle (she is a chronic onlooker), and by his own fatal belief in the hugeness of petty things. The trial is a fiasco: Thaw shouts that out at its conclusion, and he is correct for the first time because scarcely a word of truth has been uttered in court. He will go to the asylum, but he will be free soon. He is seen at the end of the film, drinking champagne in an automobile, as rich and complex a vehicle here as it was in The Magnificent Ambersons. He is the killer set free, a daft monster the result of privilege and that lunatic individualism so admired by America.

Coalhouse is mad from pride and logic—the first the crucial right denied by his times, the second the process that white society prides itself on. He is wronged, and he refuses every opportunity to keep the wrong at its level of triviality. He knows what it represents, and he capitulates to the urging to give up his own life and be an example. And so he kills, becoming an image of terror. He is as much dedicated to fairness as Thaw's trial travesties it. Coalhouse is humane, balanced, and talented. But because he kills, we begin to see Thaw as something other than just a mad dog. Principle meets uneasily in these two killers; they are twin zealots. But we are left to measure the difference of issue, and to grasp the banality of racism's damage. Ragtime the movie does not merely applaud Coalhouse's stand—as MacMurphy's was in Cuckoo's Nest. It shows us his sweet-faced arrogance, his vanity, and his final bewilderment. But it reactivates a cause that it would have seemed unnecessary to film today, so thoroughly has complacent liberalism buried the continuing reality of racial discrimination.

What in God's name possessed you on that? The country has facilities for indigents. You took her in without sufficient thought. You victimized us all with your foolish female sentimentality.

—Father to Mother in E. L Doctorow's Ragtime

Yet another of the gifts Forman brings to Doctorow is Coalhouse as a movie-theater piano-player, witnessing the newsreel that introduces the film and which serves as that society's hectic, inadequate record of itself. Ragtime the movie is about looking, and the lessons of cutting that juxtapose a face and a spectacle. Men in the film do sometimes look with intelligence and feeling. Younger Brother is a follower and a voyeur, as repressed as James Stewart in Vertigo. Brad Dourif's lopsided stare is a vivid mistake of excessive good nature, of nobility and awkwardness and what Doctorow calls “the violence underlying all principle.” The sad twinkle of James Cagney looks through his swollen face and through the jagged frame of a broken window—the police do more damage in Ragtime than any other gang. Cagney is immobile, but the old voice still spars with Warner Brothers belligerence and John Reed idealism. I don't think the casting was opportunistic; it was historically motivated, for Cagney was one of the most pained radicals in Hollywood, and he was the presiding champ of street battles. When he looks down on the Morgan museum, you imagine “Top of the world, Ma,” but you feel the futile escapism of its showbiz bravado. Very subtly, a farewell appearance serves as oblique criticism of the ethos of his earlier work. This is exactly the spirit in which Forman has challenged Americana with history. Thank God Robert Altman wasn't allowed to make a carnival of the project. The film has to be as precise as the book. The faces are always examining an issue, just as the novel never forsakes the numb inability of the present to intervene in, or stop contemplating, the past.

Doctorow's narrator is the child of the family—but a child wrapped up in a later life that we know has not been good or easy, even if it had years in Our Gang and lived on to see Marilyn Monroe. That magical but disarming intervention at the end of the first chapter, when a voice speaks through the child, telling Houdini to warn the Duke, dips the whole novel in melancholy, a feeling that times change for the worse and that history is the preoccupation of disappointed conservationists. We have to watch the picture show, and Jack Ruby's aim will always be as sure, and as lucky, as Gavrilo Princip's, and it will be over before we can shout out. The narrator of Ragtime cannot quite come to terms with that fate: history is the wisdom of the powerless; action is the decision of the helpless.

In the film, this boy yawns over the soup that is never started, and looks sideways in bashful ecstasy when he meets the heiress to the Ashkenazy title. Forman films the children with genius: they are delectable individuals, divine, erotic, and bored, without ever being cute or sentimental; they are a tribute to Our Gang, but also the proof of that untaught vitality that Forman's eye always picks out. And, if Stanley Kauffmann is interested, the film's “feeling of walking past a head-high fruit stand or a series of costume displays in a museum” comes from Forman's recognition that the action is in large part seen and felt by a child's consciousness.

Not that this stance is ponderous or persistent. The movie also cranes up and down to discover fresh settings, the movement being part exposition and part commentary, for height is another representation of time's vantage. The camera style is less participatory than analytic. That's how cutting and the points of view compose the two leading female faces in a kind of polarity. You cannot begin to see Ragtime without appreciating what Forman has done with Mary Steenburgen and Elizabeth McGovern to illustrate “that foolish female sentimentality.”

A fascinating subversion affects the family home from the moment we see it: Mother and Younger Brother are framed like the couple of the house, and Father is the outsider. This way of seeing is too subtle for the characters themselves to notice. The humanity of Mother is something beyond her own awareness; ordinariness and excellence work together, depending on our perceptiveness. All that Fordian bombast of “we are the people,” and we won't stop saying it, slides into oblivion as we recognize the equation of directorial encouragement and the characters' potential in Forman's way of seeing. Time and again, Mother comes alive in Ragtime, but only with the meekness of a woman tranquil in her normalcy and the actress's determined disavowal of glamour or attention.

The film asks us to see the differences between the anxious authority of James Olson's Father—hardly one of his brittle orders is obeyed—and the humble, glowing rightness of Mother. Mary Steenburgen's face is still but active, like that of someone beginning to realize that she has not been seen, but too modest to show alarm. That is why the most tender close-ups are kept for her self-discovery. Beneath the demonstration of racism, the film suspects that the oppression of women is an even greater injury to ourselves. The ending is as light and off-hand as a leaf falling upstate, but the film has moved towards a wife leaving a husband who is brave, striving for honor, faithful, honest … but wrong. Mother gives up this bleak pillar of society for an opportunist, but her new man shows love, delight, and a sense of changing times. Irony remembers that he is also the husband who once beat a tempted wife out of their home.

Like a little boy, silent and unnoticed, but still suckling the idea of his mother, Forman attaches the film to Mary Steenburgen's face. When the black baby is discovered in the vegetable patch, the visual and aural consternation are resolved in the close-up of Mother holding the baby. (She is too real to be a madonna, but we realize why she needs no name.) We know the answer to where the baby will live before the question is asked. It is as if this is Mother's first child, the fruit of aroused conscience. How remarkable then that the son's gaze is not ruffled by resentment. When the Inspector proposes the workhouse for the baby—“These people don't have the same sense of family as what we do.”—punched out past the cigar that he has lit up at the family dining table without permission or request—Mother's downcast face (looking down at the son's mute level) is filled with the humility of discreet dissent. It is the shot's moral weight that wills insecure Father outside (into the area of the vegetables) to discuss the matter further: this is also her first quitting of the house. And, much nearer the end of the film, when Tateh/Ashkenazy toasts light, on that word we cut to Mother and she turns towards the camera and the man like a New Rochelle Liberty that has felt the warmth of the light, discovering herself and a true context of reality in the same instant.

Simultaneously, Forman is declaring his highest faith in humanity and having Tateh salute the profession they share. If ever reverence might have smoothed away doubt, it is here, but Forman rises above smugness, thanks to the baby-face burping exasperation of Evelyn Nesbit, a comic character as disreputable and adorable as Carette's poacher in La Règle du jeu. Elizabeth McGovern, the actress here, has come in for amazing obtuseness, our critics have such difficulty in watching a film. Stanley Kauffmann thinks she is a “dead loss,” not pretty enough. She is not beautiful like a photographic model; she is not Joan Collins in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, the face a sultry-prim mask of loveliness, shutting character out of the role. She is beautiful if you rate that term according to the difficulty you have taking your eyes off her restless responsiveness to passing surprises. She is also, I suspect, very close to what was most admired in the age of ragtime. More important, she is a great actress playing an artless fool who happens to inspire a killer, an artist, and a lonely extremist.

Evelyn Nesbit is character shrugging off morality. She is wonderfully unredeemed, undiscovered, and without apology—all in a film that cherishes Mother's awakening. It is in the vein of Renoir to enjoy enlightenment and its opposite in the same film. Evelyn lies in court. She makes silly photoplays and soaks up compliments like a pancake in syrup. She is a victim of her own good nature and of sexual leverage. As Doctorow put it, “It was characteristic of Evelyn that she could not resist someone who was so strongly attracted to her.” But she is never victimized because of that sunny, lazy fecklessness that is her river, winding on, never dammed and free from damnation. She is silly, frivolous, fickle, and grasping, and all those warts are made into beauty marks. She is also honest: she knows Harry's mad, she knows Tateh's an artist, she can see what he sees in Mother, she believes $25,000 in her bush (or very close thereto) is better than $1 million in prospect, and she knows how boring it is when film directors rhapsodize over the light. Thus, straight after Tateh's toast, and Mother's moment of annunciation, there is an overflowing close-up of the pouty, flirty sighs of injured long-suffering from Evelyn. It's Elizabeth McGovern's face, of course, Magdalene to Steenburgen's Nazarene—both as inviting as peaches.

So warn yourselves (never mind the Duke) about possibly the most mistaken paragraph Pauline Kael has ever written. At the end of her dismissive review of Ragtime, Ms. Kael lamented the scene in which Evelyn is about to screw with Younger Brother, naked but for black stockings, when detectives arrive, pounce on adultery, and offer the cut-rate divorce settlement of $25,000. McGovern plays the quite lengthy haggling scene as naked as she was on the brink of love. Younger Brother tries to stick a robe on her. But it only falls off her concentrating person. (“They are not pulling that one on me,” grumbles the infallibly wrong and right Evelyn, as McGovern's breasts sit at the bottom of the frame like babes begging for attention.)

Kael thinks this is awful, and a mark of Forman's crudeness. I think it is one of the best things in the film, for, if the actress's nakedness is appropriate for love-making, then why is it gross during the intimacies of money? Love and money are loyal American companions, and Ms. Kael should remember love and money. It is the epitome of Evelyn's nature that she negotiates in the raw, and then counts the bills against the frills of fat in her tummy. Ms. Kael should understand the repression that lurks in Younger Brother's attempt at cover-up: he will make the fireworks that kill with the same righteousness. Evelyn's flesh and McGovern's openness are a judicious match, and in that one scene we learn so much about desire, gratification, and the superstition that sex is sanctified and bodies more secret than behavior.

Ragtime falters with Coalhouse inside the museum. I think that the film needed to open out again at that point: the willful holing up of the terrorists being matched by an explosion of references to the outside world. That's where Houdini would have worked so well, forever escaping but still imprisoned by life and death. At the very end of Ragtime, there is a pregnant image of Houdini, hanging upside down, rid of the strait jacket but still tethered and suspended. It's Forman's verdict on the land of the free, and it extends as far as the anxious beauty of Warren Beatty, at liberty but haunted, like the rich man seeking to enter the kingdom of heaven. The troubling majesty of these films is in letting us know that freedom is not enough.

John Simon (review date 5 February 1982)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Wrong-Note Rag.” National Review 34, no. 2 (5 February 1982): 122-23.

[In the following excerpt, Simon asserts that Ragtime's unsuccessful transition from page to screen is due to the novel's diffuse storyline structure.]

For once I am in complete agreement with the majority of my colleagues: Ragtime, the movie, does not work, largely because one misses the kaleidoscopic construction of the Doctorow novel. Milos Forman, the director, and Michael Weller, the scenarist, chose what they felt to be the principal strands of this multifarious web: Evelyn Nesbit and the celebrated murder case; Coalhouse Walker Jr., the black musician with his fanatical and fatal quest for justice; Tateh, the impoverished Jewish immigrant who works himself up into a movie director; and the typical turn-of-the-century American family that gets itself embroiled with all of them.

Some of the many subplots and characters beyond these make all but subliminal appearances (e.g., Houdini), some ended up on the cutting-room floor (e.g., Emma Goldman), and quite a few (e.g., Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, Dreiser, Freud, Zapata) never even passed their screenplay test. So, instead of free-wheeling ragtime, we get a fugue, and a rather unbalanced one at that, with Coalhouse and his vendetta given top priority. A good deal of Doctorow's irreverent, ahistoric, but politically satiric jocularity bites the dust in the process. But could the filmmakers have stayed faithful to the novel? The printed page can work as a kaleidoscope because the reader takes the shuffling and reshuffling images at his own pace, making his quietus whenever he may choose; but a screen-sized kaleidoscope shimmying around relentlessly for several hours would leave audiences dizzy and confused—if it did not just make them leave, period.

So Ragtime was doomed from the beginning, and with what may well have been additional pressure from the crass producer, Dino De Laurentiis, Forman ended up making a predominantly earnest social document, a film whose piously liberal intentions, deprived of Doctorow's jazzy texture and mischievous mythmaking, emerge as conventional, indeed stolid, fare, a with now and then a jaunty fillip. When history is monkeyed with as recklessly as it is in the novel, it turns out, paradoxically, more acceptable than when it undergoes fewer, lesser distortions, which now sound like false notes in a solemn music. And since the Coalhouse story becomes so important, it cannot help revealing how inferior it is in moral fervor, psychological complexity, and sublime irony to Heinrich von Kleist's masterly novella Michael Kohlhaas, from which Doctorow derived the tale as a respectful but reductive hommage.

We are left with some very handsome production values—John Graysmark's set designs, Anna Hill Johnstone's costumes, and Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography; individual scenes that work, but are surrounded by others that don't; and a mixed bag of performances. Howard E. Rollins is a superbly restrained yet emotionally resonant Coalhouse, and there is excellent support from Kenneth McMillan, Elizabeth McGovern, Debbie Allen, Robert Joy, and a couple of others; acceptable performing from Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, and quite a few more; but plodding contributions from James Olson and Mary Steenburgen as father and mother. Norman Mailer is rather stiff as Stanford White even before, mercifully soon, he becomes a stiff; and poor old Jimmy Cagney, as the police commissioner, even though one gets the feeling that he is moved about on casters, still manages to exude cocky authority. In this lean period of the cinema, I cannot reprove whoever admits to having caught the movie; but I doff my hat to him who can say: “No, but I've read the book.”

Sheila Benson (review date 19 September 1984)

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SOURCE: Benson, Sheila. “The Music of Mozart, the Magic of the Film Maker—That's Amadeus.Los Angeles Times (19 September 1984): 1, 6.

[In the following review, Benson compliments Forman's casting choices and attention to historical details in Amadeus.]

To be able to perceive genius, to luxuriate in its example, all the while knowing that one's own work would have to strain, to reach mediocrity is a pretty good working definition of hell on earth.

In Amadeus, Peter Shaffer's play, which he and director Milos Forman have turned into an enthralling film, [Amadeus,] the genius is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the “mediocrity” is Antonio Salieri—reigning success of the court of Emperor Joseph II of Austria in the late 18th Century—and the confrontation between the two is fatal.

The story is told in the framework of a memory by the very old Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), consigned to a madhouse after his attempted suicide. He has outlived. Mozart (Tom Hulce) by 32 years, and watched his own compositions wither in popularity during the time.

To the devout young Salieri, who had dedicated his very chastity to music as a boy, the even younger Mozart was his idol. For almost 20 years Salieri has listened, enraptured, to Mozart's extraordinary output, from the time the 6-year-old prodigy was trundled about by his father from court to salon, to perform like a musical lap dog.

Their first encounter leaves the Italian thunder-struck. It is at the splendid residence of the Archbishop of Salzburg, who has become the adult Mozart's employer. There Salieri discovers his god: with the rising giggle of an Ipswich barmaid, sliding on his satin knee britches under a buffet table, sniggering dirty words in hot pursuit of a young and common girl more than half out of her dress and knickers.

To make matters worse, the music he scrambles off to conduct is the most sublime Salieri has yet heard. (It is the adagio from the “Wind Serenade for 13 Instruments,” and for the benefit of those non-musicians of us in the audience, Salieri dissects its elements as it is played, making it entirely accessible.)

And so a lethal impasse begins. At first only scandalized by the spectacle of Mozart as braying, scatological and tactless, Salieri finally decides that Mozart, whose music is so obviously God-given, is so thoroughly unworthy of God's favors that he must be thwarted at every turn.

It's a theatrical conceit that doesn't exactly hold together, since Mozart all on his own was eminently capable of thwarting offers which, at the least, would give him security, and at the most might add prestige into the bargain.

But Shaffer does not pretend that this is a biography of Mozart; he calls it a “fantasia on fact,” and taken in that frank vein, it is bewitching.

First, it has Mozart's music threaded lavishly through it, and its interpolation into the action is subtle and masterful.

Watch the way Forman stages the scene that finally breaks Salieri: Constanze, (Elizabeth Berridge) she of the floor-play, is now Mozart's wife. They are, as usual, living well over his income, but her husband will not stoop to submitting a sample of his work for the plum appointment as teacher to Emperor Joseph's niece. So the loyal, and sweetly dim wife has gathered up armfuls of her husband's work to show to Salieri.

This could be one of the more boring scenes extant (“Salieri slowly picks out the themes on his piano, hums snatches of others, looks impressed”), but the film maker's invention is beyond that. Salieri looks at this miscellany—the “Kyrie from the C-minor Mass,” the slow movement from the “Flute and Harp Concerto,” and more—and as he does, each theme wafts out to us. It becomes a sublime patchwork of melodies.

What Salieri sees, to his horror, is page after page of first drafts with no corrections whatever, making him believe that Mozart had some sort of automatic writing arrangement with God. (?!?). It is at this point that he decides to block genius wherever he can.

After its musical core, the second joy of Amadeus is that a great deal of it was photographed (meltingly, by veteran Forman cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek) in Prague, standing in for Vienna.

We are allowed into the actual Tyl Theater, where Mozart himself conducted the first of the only five performances his Don Giovanni received during his lifetime, for the final, harrowing scenes of that opera as well as scenes from Abduction From the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro.

We get a sense of what Shakespeare's Globe was to the Elizabethans in the lusty Schikaneder Theatre, a people's theater where ribald parodies of Mozart's operas packed the house, and Forman lets everything rip: papier-mache horses, real horses, gods and sopranos from machines, dwarfs and enough pretty girls to populate a year's worth of burlesque.

The film's details are exquisite: Its production design (Patrizia yon Brandenstein), editing (Ne na Danevic, Michael Chandler), costuming (Theodor Pistek), opera set design (Josef Svoboda), the opera's quaint ballets (Twyla Tharp) and the music, coordinated by John Strauss and conducted and supervised by Mozart-specialist Neville Marriner and his Academy of St. Martin in the Fields orchestra. And it is made on so lavish a scale as to make you think you had died and gone back to the Golden Age of Movie Making.

Every member of the cast is exceptional. To begin a little off center, there is Jeffrey Jones' earnestly tin-eared Emperor, a mouthpiece of royal banality, in a performance both humorous and sly, Elizabeth Berridge's Constanze grows from callowness to a too-early maturity, thanks to the utter improvidence of her boy-husband, and it is a depressing and well-acted transition.

Watching F. Murray Abraham's Salieri, at first makes you miss Ian McKellen's vicious virtuosity, and the moments when Abraham looks like a bewigged Mel Brooks are unsettling. But he has two scenes that cannot be bettered—the manuscript scene with Constanze, and a new final scene in which the barely alive Mozart dictates his “Requiem Mass.”

By this time, Hulce has entirely grown on us. If he is never exactly credible as the assured conductor/creator of this music, he is certainly touching in the film's last third, during Mozart's swift and dreadful decline. And the burial scene that closes the film (or closes it emotionally) is one of the most bitterly tragic scenes in filmmaking memory, as the small, cloth-wrapped body is given a sprinkling of quicklime and consigned to a common grave, that grave “not even marked with a bad inscription.”

Harlan Jacobson (essay date September-October 1984)

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SOURCE: Jacobson, Harlan. “As Many Notes as Required.” Film Comment 20, no. 5 (September-October 1984): 50, 53-5.

[In the following essay, Jacobson explores the working relationship between Forman and Saul Zaentz, the producer of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus.]

So long and so used to measuring the achievements of individual genius, we have built a culture devoted to it. Time tells us that we have begun trying to teach the fetus in the womb. In the most wanton and random of our acts, war, we single out a man here or there for a medal. And in between, we have this problem of the artist: is he an artist if he doesn't sell? When does the man in the businessman's suit become an artist—when the artist he produces fails?

So it is with all who live here, each wrestling with the dark angel of doubt. “Genius” has been debased, and “brilliance” is a cheat word used by critics and stolen by producers to sell the only mediocre people who are honest about it—the suckers born every minute—in the Sunday entertainment page ads. How abused are the terms of endearment common to our myth-making apparatus, the movies.

Producers do say “Loved your story,” as do magazine editors, and “I'll get back to you on it.” No producer wants to make a picture and lose money—even Monroe Stahr sensed he was no longer a producer, at that point. Oh, we've gotten sophisticated over time and can see the pattern: at Academy Awards time the popular but low productions are spurned and the midcult “serious” films are rewarded, their essential qualification being popular with not just everybody (see Groucho Marx on joining a club, here) but with the right bodies.

Seen in the proper light, the cult of the director, the auteurist invention, is no more, no less than finding a path to repatriate movies into mainstream culture: See, they are a venue for individual accomplishment, just like the perfect game, despite the cant that films, like baseball, are collaborative.

So how very ironic is this return of a partnership, Milos Forman and Saul Zaentz, to make Amadeus, each doing what they do best, Forman directing, Zaentz producing, or is that prodding, a story about the quirky individuality of a misfit in a world of drones. The last time these two worked together, on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975, they produced the first film since Frank Capra's It Happened One Night in 1934 to win all five major Oscars.

True enough, this Amadeus celebrates Mozart's specialness as much as it denounces the weekly paycheck living death that most of us lead. But this man (Wolfie, as he is known to his wife), genius though he is, ends up in a burlap sack in potters field. What a double message the culture tortures us with: Be unique! Be yourself! Innovate! You gotta do it—and have it—your way! But, we'll kill ya if you do, just starve you right past the point of fashion until you disappear between teardrops. Why is there so much handwringing when it is an open secret that ossified personalities make it in a system that values ossification? The rule is simple: Lay low, because if you don't have the sense to die of embarrassment (the primary social constraint) when you risk an anti-herd profile, then by God the herd will simply flatten you (the ultimate social constraint).

This is also the somber message of Zaentz and Forman's Cuckoo's Nest, in which Jack Nicholson, as novelist Ken Kesey's Randall Patrick McMurphy, was the magnificent exponent of the sore thumb sticking out. But while thematically Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus both lament the snuffing of the life spirit in its heros, the emphasis has shifted from the organization running amok in Nest to its having fallen back asleep in Amadeus to its having become gray and being resentful of the impertinent reminder. The agenda in Amadeus is far more introspective than Cuckoo's Nest, which pointed Kafka's finger.

Perhaps the shift in emphasis is explainable as equal to and mirroring the same shift in social outlook from the Sixties' and early Seventies' suspicion of authority to the self-obsession cast of the last ten years. Both Zaentz, who came up through the recording industry, producing Lenny Bruce on his Fantasy label as early as 1957, and Forman, who had a thing or two to say about his native Czechoslovakia in The Firemen's Ball in 1967, and later this country in his Taking Off and in his altogether excellent and overlooked adaptation of Hair, were willing to call the system nuts. Amadeus is an altogether more self-effacing work. The times, they-have-a-changed, and we now know how little to expect from official bodies. It is ourselves lately with whom we have been engaged.

One must figure Zaentz, as the producer, for more than simply Moneybags. It was to Zaentz that Forman, after seeing the stage play in London in '79, turned to produce Amadeus (perhaps repaying the compliment when Zaentz and co-producer Michael Douglas handed a down-on-his-luck Forman Cuckoo's Nest on a hunch in '73). And Zaentz chose to produce it, like all good producers having seen some point larger than profit. Forman says that “for Saul, the meaning of the story is very important,” and that his appreciation springs from “a little deeper level than just (his) brain.” Behind the thick lenses of his glasses are eyes that say Older Brother: “You want it, kid—don't worry, I'll make it happen.” Or perhaps they are the eyes of an emperor who sees his Mozart clearly. Zaentz takes from Amadeus a warning not “to do things damaging to someone who is creative or has ability. Does he envy his director's talent? “No. I'm not a director and I never will be. I think I'm a good producer.”

One of the enduring mysteries of film is that of the producer who, without the hands and eyes that yield the artifact of a picture, must first simply see a vision—either his or someone else's—and then worry it into being. The hacks are easy to spot. They make money if they're lucky, they continue to make films even if they're not. At some deeper level, an individual producer must not only see that the costume drama of, say, Mozart's life bears on the present moment, but accept the fate of Joseph II—to be never known, certainly forgotten soon, and never to be apotheosized. Only Thalberg and perhaps Selznick have been remembered, and the mountains that they climbed were a product of a unique business terrain ground down and no longer extant.

And while Zaentz will tell you that he doesn't try to second guess the public, or the critics, and that he has simply always produced what he liked (does Creedence Clearwater Revival, the source of his first fortune, count here, too?)—all the right things to say—can it be that he doesn't harbor the one secret sentence that passes through the brain of each of the invisible members of his ranks, “I want to be known as the producer of …”? Well, what he does say is this: “You're never really through with a picture in your mind or your heart, because there's always something you felt you could've done. It's like any artist, any writer, any painter, any musician, any director who always feels the day after he's finished that painting, or film, or piece of music that he could improve on it. Always. Otherwise, you're not really an artist.” You judge whether he cares about what his name goes on besides the checks.

Or the Czech. “I trust him,” says Forman. “Not only in his honesty, but his judgments and his feelings—right or wrong—they're always honest, you know. And he makes me feel that he trusts me. So … a barrier which very often prevents people from saying stupidities falls down, and nothing is more comforting in the creative process than to be unafraid to be stupid. Because if you try to be brilliant every moment, after a while you become pretentious. Because nobody is brilliant every moment.” Not even Mozart. Well, maybe Mozart.

Inevitably, the producer has the gloomy mission of negotiating reality in an enterprise ultimately and specifically devoted to forgetting, distorting, or refracting it. To that end, the director, like Mistah Kurtz, goes up the river, in fact has been handsomely rewarded in the coin of the realm—money and the title “artist,” as if he were an endangered species of mynah—for his past forays into the netherworld of souls and is being paid here to do it again. Up there, where passion runs hotter as the borders recede, someone needs to remain sane while seeming part of the expedition, authoritative while seeming slightly quizzical.

“You go crazy,” says Forman. “You get excited about some detail, some something which at this moment is so brilliant an idea, so important an idea that you are now willing to spend more time, more money, more effort, more energy that. …” Forman moves in his seat. “If I had the luxury of distance, say a week, I could tell myself what I am doing, that this wonderful moment has just led me astray. It was stupid.” Note the concretion of “it,” the power “it” has, the move to the passive voice. That is what Zaentz is there to counteract, to reduce the fever on the brain, and that is not fun.

For example in Amadeus, recalls Forman, “There was a scene I liked very much … at the end of the alto concerto, Ludwig Mozart, the father, is there and has a very touching scene before the emperor where he's seizing the opportunity to talk to Mozart—not directly, but through the emperor.” Zaentz thought the scene was redundant and argued it would squander precious location time won from the authorities reserved to shoot the concerto. “In the final analysis, the conversation scene would've been cut from the film,” says Forman.

On Cuckoo's Nest, however, the situation had been reversed: “Oh, I was very excited by a theoretical idea that the whole film (will remain inside the hospital), you know, and only at the beginning and later at the end, when the Indian breaks out, will the outside breathe in the screen. Yet, in the book, is this wonderful scene with the boat ride outside—I didn't want the scene there—and Saul, when we wrote the first version of the script (we collaborated), said ‘I just feel sorry that the fishing scene isn't there. It's a wonderful scene.’ And I said, ‘Saul, it doesn't make sense. It doesn't play, because it's a hospital story and what confinement is doing to people …’ And I went on and on explaining why the scene shouldn't be in the film, and he was just nodding, and he said, ‘It makes sense what you say, but I still feel sorry the scene's been cut. Let's not talk about it.’ And the moment he said this, it started to hurt my head.” Weeks later, after further script revision, Forman came to Zaentz’ senses. “Yes, its logical, my thinking, but psychologically who cares? If the scene would be great, it shouldn't diminish the end. And the scene is really good. Is right.”

There are several things to glean about the workings of these two from these instances, other than ‘Lets not talk about it’ being one of the great acts of passive aggression: A) In Amadeus, the excision saved money; in Cuckoo's Nest, the addition cost money, so money is not the fulcrum of Forman's and Zaentz’ discussions, though it is a factor. B) Both films have in some way touched on Czechoslovakia, either metaphorically in the instance of Cuckoo's Nest, or physically in Amadeus, filmed in Forman's native Prague. An exile since the Czech summer of '68, Forman left an ex-wife, twin sons and the memories of foster parents and birth parents, the latter taken from their apartment by Nazis when he was nine. Though Forman dismisses the Cuckoo's Nest metaphor for its obvious broader, universal applications (Zaentz says Forman must watch what he says), and insofar as he avoided painful parts of Prague during shooting Amadeus as too disconcerting, it is not difficult to see the potential for a displaced emotional response when filming that close to the edge.

Therefore, a swaggerer as a producer will not do. “It's not the words, it's how a person talks to you,” Forman says of Zaentz. “You don't feel that Authority is talking to you. He talks to you like a partner. It's up to you which way to sway. Very intelligent approach.”

“I don't know any artist, any genuine artist, who's a fool,” says Zaentz. “Most are fairly rational. You say look, we can't have 600 horses because we'd have to bring 400 in from Egypt and it'd cost too much.’ Milos knows that if I thought it would be worth it for the picture, then we wouldn't be arguing. He's not going to say something totally insane. He's not wasteful, but he likes, in doing a picture like Amadeus, 700 extras in costumes, and it drives you crazy, but you know what you're getting into upfront.”

Upfront, Amadeus was budgeted at $15 million, with three of that earmarked for Forman, Shaffer, and Zaentz deferred. The film ended up costing $18 million and went 37 days overschedule, the latter aggravated in part by what Zaentz cites as Czech bureaucratic snafus. Also the day before she was to begin filming her role as Constanze, Meg Tilly tore her Achilles tendons, costing her the part (to Elizabeth Berridge) and the production nearly two weeks. Unexpected air freight bills ate up hundreds of thousands of dollars. Back home, after a four hour roughcut, Forman realized he couldn't deliver the picture by its planned February 25 release date via Orion (which in its previous executive incarnation as United Artists had released Cuckoo's Nest) and requested a few more months of editing time. “We could've come out in April,” Zaentz says, “but then we'd run into the big block of summer pictures in May.” So Amadeus was rescheduled for September 19, a six month delay that added a million dollars in interest and labor.

One question both Zaentz and Forman faced early was whether or not to assume the conventional Hollywood insurance policy of casting major stars in lead roles. “If we had stars,” Zaentz says, “then people would say ‘Isn't Nicholson, or Pacino, or Scheider, or whoever wonderful as Salieri?,’ and not ‘Look at Salieri, that son-of-a-bitch.’” It's a neat enough rationale, particularly after Zaentz’ calculation that “A star is good for one or two weeks if the picture's no good. If it's no good, it's going to die anyway, even with Redford.” Instead, Zaentz banked on the play to buy the audience for the first two weeks, and the film (with F. Murray Abraham as Salieri and Tom Hulce as Mozart) to carry itself thereafter—without the $10 million burden of a top-heavy cast.

If there's a Zaentz credo, it's “Humor me, it's my money.” It's one sentence he uses when he has to go into battle to achieve some logistical toehold prior to or during lensing, or when he must defend against his (and his collaborators') baby being held hostage to some strategic kidnapping by the marketing mafia of the studio. “I try to be rational, maybe a little tougher because they're coming to you from a business aspect,” Zaentz says. “But if I spend three and a half years on Amadeus (four and a half on Cuckoo's Nest), the same for Milos, and Peter has spent seven or eight, I feel we're entitled to a little more than a cursory ‘Yeah, yeah’ and then do what they want to do.”

After adding in prints and advertising and figuring in the exhibitors share, break-even could run as high as $70 million at the box office—an achievement made more difficult by its two hour, 33 minute running time which reduces the number of performances in the important major markets. Just as Zaentz says, “But we made the film we wanted to make,” one secured by a mortgage on his studio complex in San Francisco, Forman says “It has just as many notes as required—no more, no less.” It is a line neatly borrowed from Mozart's response to Emperor Joseph II, who thought The Abduction from the Seraglio too long.

“We have reached that kind of knowing each other where I don't mind being with him doing nothing,” says Forman. “I was even in his house in Italy, and he was there doing his things, and I was doing mine, and when we felt like it we'd sit down and talk. It's wonderful when you can feel comfortable with somebody even being silent.”

As written by Peter Shaffer for the stage, Amadeus is more a play about Salieri than it is about Mozart, more about the rule rather than the exception. If Forman has elevated Mozart as an incandescent presence to equal and surpass for a time the force of Salieri and all he represents, then the film really sharpens the core question of self-confrontation, “Am I Mozart, or am I Salieri?” It is Forman's good fortune that he has a friend who understands his answer: “I am both.”

Peter Shaffer (essay date September-October 1984)

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SOURCE: Shaffer, Peter. “Making the Screen Speak.” Film Comment 20, no. 5 (September-October 1984): 50-1, 56-7.

[In the following essay, Shaffer—the author of the play that Amadeus was based on—discusses his working relationship with Forman, describing the process of how they adapted the play into film.]

The cinema is a worrying medium for the stage playwright to work in. Its unverbal essence offers difficulties to anyone living largely by the spoken word. Increasingly, as American films grow ever more popular around the world, it is apparent that the most successful are being spoken in Screenspeak, a kind of cinematic esperanto equally comprehensible in Bogota and Bulawayo. For example, dialogue in heavy-action pictures, horrific or intergalactic, now consists almost entirely of the alternation of two single words—a cry and a whisper—needing translation nowhere on the planet: ‘Lessgidowdaheer!’ and ‘Omygaad!’ Mastery of this new tongue is not easy for older writers.

Equally dismaying has to be the endemic restlessness of filmgoers. In his mind's ear as he writes for the live theatre, the dramatist can presume the attentiveness of his audience: its mutual agreement to listen, and to remain in one place while the performance is going on. No such agreement exists among movie audiences. Indeed the very word ‘movie’ nowadays can as accurately describe the viewers of films as films themselves. I never really understood the meaning of the phrase ‘upward mobility’ until I had experienced a Manhattan cinema on a recent Saturday night.

All of which is by way of saying that but for the enthusiasm of Milos Forman I doubt if there would be a film of Amadeus at all. He met me in London after the very first preview of the play at the National Theatre in November 1979, and declared without hesitation that what I had actually written was a natural film, and that if I were ever willing to let him do so, he would direct it. In this assertion he persisted for two years.

Persistence was coupled with perceptiveness. When finally I cautiously agreed to explore the possibility of working with him, he sensed quite plainly my unease about films in general, and my dissatisfaction with all previous films of my own plays in particular. When I asked him what he would do with my piece, he told me what he would not do: turn it into a stagey hybrid, neither play nor picture. He also pointed out that the film of a play is really a new work, another fulfillment of the same impulse which had created the original. The adapter's task was to explore many new paths in order to emerge in the end at the same emotional place. During this process a fair amount of demolition work would go on, some of it perhaps painful to the author. In the case of Amadeus, its operatic stylization would probably have to go, and its language would have to be made less formal, though not, of course, more juvenile.

Actually, my own personal taste in cinema inclines very much to the operatic and stylized—the opening sequence of The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, or the iconographic groupings in the First Part of Ivan the Terrible—but I also sensed, as we talked, how this vigorous man's brand of naturalism, infused with his huge humor and his obvious passion for my material, might make an enthralling new thing out of it. The possibility of working with him was suddenly very tempting.

Certainly I was not afraid of new approaches. In composing the play I had spent over a year simply finding a way of beginning it. I don't know how many be-wigged phantoms I chased down how many suddenly blocked avenues before settling on the final formulation. Why not join a brilliantly talented film director in even further exploration? Of course partnership would mean permitting him to write the script with me, alone in his house—the Forman method, and one not easy for an author to countenance—but I reckoned that I had ultimately far more to learn than to lose from such an adventure, and finally I agreed. On the first day of February 1982 our collaboration began.

It was a startling experience for me. In the end we spent well over four months together in a Connecticut farmhouse—five days a week, twelve hours a day—seeing virtually no other company. These were four months of sustained work, punctuated by innumerable tussles, falterings and depressions, but also by sudden gleeful break-throughs to relieve the monotony of the prevalent uncertainty. In some ways we made an Odd Couple, yoked together in a temporary form of marriage, cooking for each other in the evenings, and each day exploring whatever might contribute a Variation on the vast theme of Mozart and Salieri. We acted out countless versions of each scene, improvising them aloud. I sat at a long refectory table extracting, writing down, and polishing all dialogue. In the process I filled at least twenty thick notebooks. Some of the talk is inevitably simpler in the film than in the play, but none of it, I hope, is Screenspeak. At my urging, Milos set out to investigate an unfamiliar world of music; at his I set out to investigate an equally unfamiliar one of screen technique. If nothing else were to come out of this frenzied seclusion, we each discovered a new discipline and a new friendship.

From the start we agreed upon one thing: we were not making an objective Life of Wolfgang Mozart. This cannot be stressed too strongly. Obviously Amadeus on stage was never intended to be a documentary biography of the composer, and the film is even less of one. Certainly we have incorporated many real elements, new as well as true. The film shows the acerbic relationship between the fretful young genius and his haughty employer, Archbishop Colloredo of Salzburg; the disastrous visit of Papa Leopold to his married son in Vienna; Wolfgang's playing of his Piano Concerti in the open air; his delight in dancing and billiards. But we are also blatantly claiming the grand license of the storyteller to embellish his tale with fictional ornament and, above all, to supply it with a climax whose sole justification need be that it enthralls his audience and emblazons his theme. I believe that we have created just such a climax for the film of Amadeus.

To me there is something pure about Salieri's pursuit of an eternal Absolute through music, just as there is something irredeemably impure about his simultaneous pursuit of eternal fame. The yoking of these two clearly opposed drives led us finally to devise a climax totally different from that of the play: a night-long encounter between the physically dying Mozart and the spiritually ravenous Salieri, motivated entirely by the latter's crazed lust to snatch a piece of divinity for himself. Such a scene never took place in fact. However, our concern at this point was not with facts but with the undeniable laws of drama. It is where—holding fast to the thread of our protagonist's mania—we were finally led.

Some people may find this new climax hard to accept. Others may rejoice in it as a horribly logical end to the legend. To me it seems the most appropriate finish to our black fantasia. Even on stage I had to create a final confrontation quite outside historical record. I had to recognize and honor the change of atmosphere from clear Enlightenment to murky Gothic which inevitably occurred once the figure of the Masked Messenger was introduced. In the film this recognition is more carefully prepared for. Indeed the motif of masked people goes all through the picture—paralleling to some extent Mozart's own preoccupation with them. After all, the three great Da Ponte operas are all concerned with the dramatic effects of wearing disguise.

What pleased me best about this resolution is that we were able to construct a scene which is highly effective in cinematic terms, yet wholly concerned with the least visual of all possible subjects: music itself. I do not believe that a stage version of this scene would have been half as effective.

Filming Amadeus for six months in Czechoslovakia was a testing but perhaps indispensable experience, considering our subject. Prague offers the most complete Baroque and rococo setting in Europe, largely untouched by the savageries of war or city planners. It is possible to turn a camera there in a complete circle and see in its frame nothing built after Mozart's death. Architecturally, Czech buildings provide a perfect background for the story, just as aesthetically Czech faces provide a perfect foreground. The people of Central Europe are not embarrassed by wearing period costume: the smallest bit-player on a day's leave from the factory looks absolutely natural in perruque and pelisse. Contemplating the audiences of extras assembled in the Tyl theatre to watch the Mozart operas being played—the very theatre where Don Giovanni was first produced!—one experiences the miraculous feeling of time being reclaimed from oblivion. I hope profoundly that this eerie and exquisite sensation will seep through the print on to the screen.

What I hope will not seep through is any sense of the difficulties experienced in making the picture. These, of course, were considerable. Inevitably the very act of making a two-and-a half-hour costume picture entirely behind the Iron Curtain became something of an ordeal for all concerned. I keep meeting people who imagine that the business of setting up cameras and turning them on sets and actors is somehow a romantic and liberating occupation. It is impossible to convince them that the daily activity of a camera crew is just about as liberating as that of Sisyphus. On each visit I grew more and more impressed by the sheer staying-power of everyone concerned: by the manner in which a hundred differing skills were kept keen and shining in the face of all that could blunt and rust them. Throughout what seemed an interminable time (for the river of Time unquestionably flows slower than it does elsewhere through the channels of Czechoslovakia) the producer Saul Zaentz defied all known rules laid down for the behavior of movie producers by presenting each morning to the world of delay and confusion a countenance of unalterable equanimity.

I am extremely grateful to him for this example of poise, as I am to the entire team for its endurance, and to Milos above all, for showing me how you can hold every detail of a long film in your head simultaneously for six frenzied months—provided that you have prepared it properly first over another six. Fine directors do not appear by accident, nor do fine pictures.

Nevertheless, despite this and all his other dazzling demonstrations to me, which may yet result one day in my attempting an original film script, our joint movie is definitely the first and last of the metamorphoses of Amadeus. Unlike Equus it will not also become a ballet; unlike The Royal Hunt of the Sun it will not become an opera. Above all, and no matter how fortunate our effort may prove in its reception, it will spawn no sequels. There will be no television series of half-hour dramas in which Salieri plots a different method of murdering Mozart each week, only to be frustrated by the wily little genius in the twenty-ninth minute. Even Milos Forman will agree that there can be a limit to adaptation.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 22 October 1984)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Divertimento.” New Republic 191, no. 173 (22 October 1984): 30-2.

[In the following review, Kauffmann argues that although Amadeus is an improvement over the original play, the film is still implausible and poorly acted.]

Lucky are those who see the film of Amadeus without having seen the play. Peter Shaffer's original was markedly different in the London and New York productions that I saw, but both of them used theatrical conceits as if they were virtuosity, when in fact they were padding for a thin body—tricks like an address to the audience and a stylized chorus. Shorn of this spurious decor, the film fares somewhat better.

Shaffer's screenplay, which was worked out with the director, Milos Forman, is a more straightforward narrative; it goes on too long and it heaves toward a dreadfully contrived climax, but in the main it's a visually lively piece that tells a story about Mozart and Salieri. Not the story: those familiar with Mozart's life may die the death of a thousand cuts unless they agree from the start to a romance. Still, that romance is presented here with much less of Shaffer's undergraduate playwriting cleverness, less tinselly rhetoric, and a lot of nice things to look at. With, of course, a great many bits of Mozart's music—bits only, yet ravishing, more than in the play and played more sonorously. (Those who complain that the music is overrecorded might remember that Mozart liked large orchestras, was happy when he could get them.)

The story takes off from the myth that Salieri, the Viennese court Kapellmeister more successful than Mozart yet jealous of him, poisoned the younger man. (The material was used at least once before in the theater. Rimsky-Korsakoff wrote an opera, Mozart and Salieri, based on Pushkin's dramatic poem, and Chaliapin was successful as Salieri.) Shaffer's notion is neither to prove nor disprove the poisoning but to assume that Salieri believes himself responsible for the death, principally because he is so jealous of Mozart. Thirty-four years later, plagued by his obsession, Salieri attempts suicide, and soon afterward dies. In the play the old man recounts the story to us, with flashbacks, as he tries to redeem himself with future generations. This abominable idea is shucked in the film: Salieri recounts the story, with flashbacks, to a priest who visits him in the hospital after the suicide attempt. The wiping off of greasepaint metaphysics—by making the narrative a straight confession—helps immensely.

It would take too much time to dwell on all the liberties with fact. Just a few samples: Where is Aloysia, Mozart's sister-in-law, so important in his life? Where is the trip to Prague for the premiere of Don Giovanni? (The omission is all the more odd since the film was largely made in Prague.) Why would the Commendatore in that opera, slain father of a violated daughter, be linked in Mozart's mind with his own father? And—wildest of all—why would Mozart on his deathbed dictate some of his Requiem Mass to Salieri? First, what remains of the score is in Mozart's firm hand; second, the one composer at the deathbed was, apparently, Süssmayr. But let's generously allow factual license to Shaffer as we do to Schiller for Mary Stuart and Brecht for Galileo, and see what we get in return for our generosity.

Forman cast the three leading roles with actors relatively unknown in films, but he showed more courage than sense. Only one of the three people really succeeds. F. Murray Abraham, long familiar in the theater, plays Salieri and does especially well as the older man. Younger, he tends to make too much of hiding his true feelings; older, he is affectingly resigned to his hell. Still, all through the role, he gives us a man with enough honesty in him to recognize Mozart's superiority and to be bitter about his own bitterness.

Tom Hulce comes halfway toward realizing Mozart. The casting idea, as in both theater productions, was to use a young man with a non-ethereal face (supported by several portraits), capable of vulgarity (supported by many Mozart letters), and credible as a genius. Simon Callow, who plays Schikaneder in the film, was Mozart in London and caught it all. Hulce has the energy, gives us Mozart's complete confidence in his powers even when he is broke, but his face is too doughy and his voice is insufficiently modulated. He can't give the role the fineness of inflection and color that it needs.

As his wife, Elizabeth Berridge is disastrous. Constanze was a rough diamond, at least in her younger years, but Berridge is a rough rhinestone. Presumably Berridge was supposed to bring the audience close to a just-plain-folks girl. If that's what she really is, then she can't even be herself on screen.

Forman has never directed so well. This is a relative statement. Most Czech writers about Forman say that he was better in Czechoslovakia and became ill at ease with American producers; but some of us who saw his Czech films, such as The Firemen's Ball and Loves of a Blonde, think those earlier works were more clever than good, that his American films were more clever and less good. His best film was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I can't shake the suspicion that its star, Jack Nicholson, had something to do with the making of the film.

Amadeus is not free of middle-European artiness: closeups of repellent guffawing faces, stark shadows, grotesque angles, many masks. (If only some higher power would inspire the U.N. to ban the use of masks in films everywhere and forever.) Still, except for such impossible sequences as the parodic performance of Don Giovanni and the whooped-up climax, Forman shows much more control, more intent to serve his story and actors, than ever before. He balances the picture nicely much of the time between historical appreciation and a view that is touched with a present-day satirical edge.

Forman, along with his cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, was working in Prague as a visiting émigré. Together they have resisted and divulged: they have resisted any temptation to show off their intimate knowledge of the place, while they have divulged some of the secrets of that captivating rococo city. The opera sets in the film were done by the Czech artist Josef Svoboda, widely considered the best scene designer alive, but Svoboda is wasted here because he has little chance to do more than follow neoclassical models.

The fundamental question in the film, as in the play, is the justice of God. Was it just of God to make the scatological, arrogant Mozart a supreme genius, thinks Salieri, while his own decent behavior and hard work are rewarded only with serviceable talent? The justice of God is an old question in drama but, more often than not, is taken as unfathomable in mortal life, to be explained hereafter. (In fact, a whole genre was devised—melodrama—to compress the dilemma and make God's justice clearly visible in mortal life at the end of the play.) The muzziness of Shaffer's exploration is exposed by one question: Would Salieri have been any less jealous of Mozart's genius if the other man had been conventionally well spoken and modest? The implication is that Salieri is more incensed by bad manners than jealous of genius.

The very close of the film, however, has a power that the play lacked. In the play, the last lines were addressed by Salieri to the audience: “Mediocrities everywhere—now and to come—I absolve you all! Amen!” He raised his arms, and we heard a beautiful bit of Mozart. It seemed both presumptuous and self-exculpatory for Shaffer. In the film we, the future, are left out of it Salieri is being wheeled down the corridors of the hospital through a crowd of lunatics chained to the walls, and it's to these lunatics that he speaks those lines. This gives irony, not impertinence, to his act of absolution. And the final sound is not Mozart's music but Mozart's high-pitched, irritating giggle That's good.

Gilbert Adair (review date spring 1985)

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SOURCE: Adair, Gilbert. “What's Opera, Doc?” Sight and Sound 54, no. 2 (spring 1985): 142-43.

[In the following review, Adair examines the relationship between Mozart and Salieri in Amadeus.]

In the beginning, probably, was the word; or name: Amadeus. Futile as it surely must be to speculate on the various mazy processes of free association rippling through an artist's consciousness when a project enters its formative stage, it might just be worth playing the game with Milos Forman's Amadeus—not only was creativity the subject of Peter Shaffer's play, it was a shortfall of creativity that constituted its own tragic flaw. Why, then, did Shaffer call it ‘Amadeus,’ instead of ‘Mozart’ or, like Rimsky's opera, Mozart and Salieri? Because the word's Latinate coda made it sound more like a ‘title’? Because the us suffix rhymed it, intertextually, with Equus? Or, which seems likelier, because in it lurks deus, Latin for god; and even, were one to indulge in punnilingus, A mad deus and I am a deus? For Salieri, of course, Mozart represented, as it were, an Amadeus ex machina, the unwary object of what could be described as a sad case of unrequited hate. More to the point, however, a divine artist he clearly is for Shaffer who (in a scene exclusive to the film version, which has the dying Mozart dictate, in a febrile, rasping hum, the closing pages of his Requiem Mass to his nemesis-turned-amanuensis) effectively inverts the proverb-honoured proportions of inspiration and perspiration in the recipe for creation. And it is to Shaffer's affecting, almost adolescent, idolatry of Mozart (an idolatry which is paradoxically re-inforced by the fictional being he has fashioned, an obscene Struwwelpeter, a nutty amalgam of the Marx Brothers, crossbreeding Harpo's lunar appearance with Groucho's preening lechery and Chico's pianistic virtuosity) that we can trace the (noble) failure of his play.

What does it propose? Antonio Salieri, an eighteenth century petit-maître of by no means negligible qualities, who has, in his devotion to Euterpe, forsworn all worldly pleasures (excepting the glutinous Viennese eclairs to which he is unrepentantly addicted), finds himself upstaged by a lascivious tot brimming with unearned genius; whereupon he pledges that in full—and, for the period, unseconded—cognizance of his rival's prodigious gifts, he will, like some cultural Judas Iscariot, destroy this son, or favourite nephew, of God. Now that, even so sparely paraphrased, is a great theme, one of the contemporary theatre's greatest, not unworthy of Shakespeare himself: dramatists' names have rung down the ages for less than having lit upon such a theme. But Shaffer, precisely, is not Shakespeare, not, indeed, a poet; so that, short of tactlessly comparing his plight with Salieri's, one can imagine another play, its protagonist a playwright ‘of by no means negligible qualities’ entrusted with a grandiose theme to which he, practically alone of his contemporaries, realises that he cannot do, and has not done, justice. The ‘tragedy’ of Shaffer's Amadeus is, in a sense, that it is not a tragedy, though it tantalises us with the uncultivated seed of a (terrible, Molièresque) comedy.

Forman has cultivated that seed. His is a genuine adaptation, not only because the play is permitted to stretch its legs beyond the pop-up book confines of a proscenium arch, but because he has leavened its High Art pretensions with a dash of showbiz raciness. What is for feited by such a shift in emphasis (notably, the spine-chilling moment when Salieri, liquefying before us like a beadlet of congealed blood on the heart of a plaster Virgin, blasphemously defies the God he has so loyally served) is compensated for by the gain in coherence. The period, first of all. Let the press handout gloatingly detail the unheard-of numbers of candelabra and costume changes: the film is not stultified by ‘research.’ Forman sketches a cartoon of the eighteenth century, Greenawayesque in its frisky over-codification and reducible to the period's infallible emblem: the bubble bath periwig (here pink, punk and high as an elephant's eye). The accents are mostly American, a convention which certain squeamish commentators have judged intrusive—though how a cast, say, of British actor-knights, aside from the reactionary cultural snobbery which their presence would imply (Amadeus is an American film), would be more ‘naturalistic,’ or more admissible to either Mozart's or Salieri's compatriots, I cannot fathom. Besides which, Forman's decision should be interpreted as consciously reflecting Mozart's, when he liberated opera from the mellifluous tyranny of the Italian language by setting Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail to a German text; which is, in turn, why The Magic Flute, concocted by its librettist Schikaneder as a populist fairy-tale pantomime, is sung in English in the film (and conducted by its composer in a manner more appropriate to Geraldo than Gesualdo).

As for the pivotal duo, it has been cross-hatched with broad, caricatural lines. I likened Tom Hulce's Mozart (whose casting, by succeeding where the other failed, vindicates in extremis that of Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon) to a composite Marx Brother, opposite whom Salieri has been stuck with the Margaret Dumont role. I might equally mention, from the cornucopia of popular culture, Peter Pan and Captain Hook, a Hook evilly dedicated to the proposition that his brattish bête noire never ‘grow up’; or else Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. The linking confessional exchanges between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and a quizzically earnest young priest brought to mind scenes shared by George Burns and Richard Benjamin in the film version of Simon's comedy; and I could also detect something in the curl of Abraham's lower lip and the rhythmic jabbing of his index finger to recall Robert Preston as, aptly, Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. Finally, rounding off this brief inventory of equivalences is the narrative's odd resemblance, in its tug-of-war of lethal oneupmanship, to Sleuth, by Shaffer's twin brother (and fantasised Salieri?) Anthony.

Or, rather, not finally. I wish to submit one more reference, the crux of the matter, hinted at in my description of the film's eighteenth century as a ‘cartoon.’ The relationship of Mozart and Salieri, as given the once-over by Forman, is very exactly that of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Or the Road Runner and Wily E. Coyote. (Can there exist a neater encapsulation of the distance which separates effortless genius from mere plodding talent than a Warner Brothers cartoon?) In fact, what Amadeus presents us with is an unexpected and strangely moving spectacle: a Roadrunner cartoon in which Wily Coyote, mustering his usual armoury of dynamite sticks, big black bombs with lighted fuses and complex retroactive rockets, ends at last by stopping his fleet-footed foe dead in his tracks. And, as Salieri is wheeled through the asylum in whose noisy, insalubrious oblivion he has, as they say, sought ‘asylum,’ offering sarcastic absolution to the assembled mediocrities of whom he styles himself the patron saint, and drawing this special edition of Looney Tunes to its close, I half hoped to see, scribbled across the screen in its familiar penmanship, the much-loved envio: That's All, Folks!

Tom O'Brien (review date 1 December 1989)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. “Bland and Better Than Bland.” Commonweal 116, no. 21 (1 December 1989): 670-71.

[In the following excerpt, O'Brien argues that Valmont is more sensitive to the underlying humanity of its characters than Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons.]

First things first: Valmont is not a remake of Dangerous Liaisons. Generally, it tells the same story; tonally, it is a completely different, sometimes better, sometimes weaker film. Its source is not the Broadway play, but the original novel; on the other hand, the film's credits declare it is “loosely based” on Laclos's text. Its new flavor reflects the humanistic vision of the director, Milos Forman (twice a big winner at the Oscars with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus), who continues to persist in his faith that nothing human can be wholly vile.

Valmont takes Forman back to the age of Amadeus, pre-French revolutionary Europe; Mozart, conducted again by Neville Marriner, echoes gracefully in its Parisian salons. As in Liaisons, there are chateaux aplenty and a costume feast for the eyes. But Forman gets beneath the pretty surface by drawing in urban lowlife; he never sees through one prism only; one scene of a food-buying spree in an open-air market is an astonishingly fresh, vibrant vision of old-world customs. The film ends in a wedding attended by the king, with Forman hinting, for those who know history, at the fate of the beautiful people of this brittle ancien régime.

The major force in the film, as in Liaisons, is not the title character, an aristocratic rake, but his ally in seductions, the manipulative Marquise de Meurteuil, here a remarkable discovery. Forman loves to cast less well-known actors in major parts exactly for the freshness of their impact on the audience; for the Marquise, he relies on England's Annette Benning, who serves the purpose perfectly. Benning brings to the role different skills and glamour than Glenn Close did in Liaisons. Benning is a lithe, visual stunner; her gowns have the right light grace of the 1780s; in one elegant, authentic chinoiserie bathrobe she's at her glamorous best and moral worst. Benning doesn't rage as colorfully as Close, but is better at wit and mischief. In the early scenes, she is also shown enduring betrayal in love; her revenge plans against the world are given full motive. In line with Forman's attempt to humanize monsters (cf. Salieri), his monsters are always first shown to be human.

Forman also uses minor actors wonderfully. Jeffrey Jones, using the same gift for personifying the stiff pomp of his emperor in Amadeus, is fine as the lover who betrays Benning; the elderly Fabia Drake (sometimes on Miss Marple) plays Valmont's elderly aunt and gives a lesson in crafty professionalism. At first almost senile, she comes on as a strong, shrewd observer, with a gem-like final gesture that seals Forman's claim that something good can even come of evil. Surprisingly, Valmont is a better, deeper version of “immediate family.” Forman won't bow to the god Irony.

Still, this is no masterpiece. Meg Tilly competently plays the innocent young married woman seduced by Valmont, but lacks the radiance of Michelle Pfeiffer in Liaisons. England's Colin Firth plays Valmont well, but the part is vaguely written. Forman tries to make Firth the movie's center, but forgets to give the character enough of one himself. From the beginning of Valmont, he is a rake searching for something better; in Liaisons, he only discovers values very late. As awkward as that was, the alternative isn't better: watching a character wrestle with equivocations is often tedious. Here you want to scream, “fish or cut bait.” The trick, which Forman misses, was to get Valmont to express conflict but without seeming like a paralyzed, Hamlet-like pre-Romantic.

Critics will constantly compare this film with Liaisons. Beware of any who overrate its faults, which are real, without an honest discussion of the ideological differences between the two movies. Ideology plays a heavy role in criticism, which expresses judgments but also often masks them. Forman will probably come in for some rough treatment because he has humanized, at times even sentimentalized, Laclos's novel. But this is only another way of saying his critics buy the cynical, ultra-ironic ideology which is the intellectual black hole of our age and which brightened the luster of Liaisons. Forman, having survived the mid-twentieth century in Eastern Europe, doesn't know the luxury of not giving a damn. One can only respect his blithe earnestness about caring.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 11 December 1989)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Worlds Apart.” New Republic 201, no. 24 (11 December 1989): 24-5, 28.

[In the following excerpt, Kauffmann compares Valmont to Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons, arguing that Valmont is the weaker of the two films.]

In less than a year since Dangerous Liaisons comes another film made from the Laclos novel. This one is called Valmont (Orion), after the leading male character; was directed by Milos Forman, whose last work was Amadeus; and was adapted from Laclos by Jean-Claude Carrière (with, uncredited, Forman). Carrière has had one of the most active of screenwriting careers since he began in 1961, a career especially famous for his many collaborations with Luis Buñuel and especially blotted by his collaboration with Peter Brook on the atrocious Swann in Love.

Here Carrière falters again. Valmont is called a free adaptation of Laclos. This is like calling Riunite a free adaptation of Mouton Rothschild. The time and milieu are unchanged in the film—late 18th century, French aristocrats—and so are some of the events. But there are radical alterations. I mention only two. Madame de Tourvel, the virtuous young wife who is seduced by Valmont solely because he has bet that he can do it, does not go mad and die: she is forgiven by her husband. Cécile, the virgin whom Valmont seduces en route to his main quarry, does not enter a nunnery: pregnant with Valmont's child, she marries her middle-aged fiancé.

After these changes and more, what is left? Only flouncy intrigues, after which Valmont—without the real punishment of falling in love with one of his victims—goes to his death in a duel self-sacrificially, as if nobly cleaning his slate. Dangerous Liaisons, which was adapted by Christopher Hampton for the screen better than he did it for the stage, moved toward Laclos's theme. Under the glitter, it's the Tolstoyan theme “God Sees the Truth but Waits.” To put it otherwise: in the social sphere, cruelty is the most expensive pleasure, and emotional exploitation is the most expensive cruelty.

In the earlier film, the aristocratic tone, essential for the vicious boredom in the work, was unfulfilled by an all-American cast. Here there's a range of accents from Fabia Drake's muffins-and-tea English accent as old Rosemonde to the flat heaven-knows-what accent of the inept sprat who plays Danceny, the youngest lover. It's hard to believe that all these people are living at the same time in the same class.

Colin Firth is more credible than John Malkovich as the irresistible lover, Valmont. Annette Bening as the diabolical Meurteuil, though she doesn't suggest the whir of Glenn Close's computer brain, is a sly and pretty viper. The best performance comes from Fairuza Balk, charming as Cécile, the initiate into love and into the intrigues thereof.

Miroslav Ondricek, the cinematographer who has been working with Forman since 1964 (in Czechoslovakia), delivers the requisite dazzle. The sound track nicely catches the rustle of the silks in Theodor Pistek's good costumes. But none of the visual qualities equals those in the prior film.

Forman says that he and Carrière were well into the screenplay when the earlier film was announced; that, knowing his tempo, he couldn't beat it to the theaters; that he kept on working because nobody told him not to. But he knew that he would have to compete, and it's not clear why he thought he could, what he thought he had to offer that, Laclos or not, would reward a viewer. In every way, the effort seems wasted.

Worse than that. Forman says he hasn't seen the other film, directed by Stephen Frears. Perhaps that's just as well. Frears directed with a more lithe and responsive line, making the movement of each scene fit the scene's intent. Valmont is the work of a director who has sometimes been clever, but not here.

Anne Billson (review date 22 November 1991)

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SOURCE: Billson, Anne. “More Laclos Than La Close.” New Statesman and Society 4, no. 178 (22 November 1991): 40-1.

[In the following review, Billson compliments Forman's casting choices in Valmont, describing the film as more plausible and enjoyable than Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons.]

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos is my own personal Bonfire of the Vanities. Given it to read at an impressionable age, I promptly concluded that “la Marquise de Merteuil, c'est moi,” and went on to develop that obsessive possessiveness reserved for one's favourite works of fiction. None shall touch! And if they must touch, they'd better bloody well get it right.

So if Bonfire fans were peeved at the casting of Tom Hanks as a Master of the Universe, imagine my chagrin when I saw Dangerous Liaisons. I am sorry, but I am not Glenn Close. I am prepared to admit she can sometimes appear quite handsome in a backwoodsy, frecklesome, big-boned sort of way, but an elegant, seductive, 18th-century French aristocrat she is definitely not.

I also had problems with the performances of John Malkovich (too much prancing and leering) and Michelle Pfeiffer (too gooey and cute). Not the least of my objections was that we were asked to believe that the sort of lecherous bozo Malky was playing would dump Michelle in return for exclusive grazing rights to Glenn. And one has yet to fathom why Stephen Frears is so highly regarded as a director, unless it's because his drab TV docu-drama approach hoodwinks indiscriminating filmgoers into thinking it's a purposeful cinematic style. The Grifters, for example, after a promising glimpse of split-screen choreography, degenerated into a good screenplay and a trio of great performances governed by a visual sensibility which made it all look like a more than usually gory episode of Casualty.

Even before anyone had seen Valmont, Milos Forman's rival version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it had already been decided that Frears' film had scooped up all the honours in this Battle of the Laclos Adaptations, due either to misplaced jingoism (Frears' film, in fact, is classed as American, while Forman's is Anglo-French) or simply because it was first past the finishing-post.

But don't let yourself be carried away by the tide of critical opinion. According to the rule of guerrilla film-reviewing, the Forman film is far better and a lot more fun, and I don't mind being played by Annette Bening at all. It has worked to the actress's advantage that, after a delay of almost three years before the film's release, she now appears before us with all the interesting baggage of Beatty and The Grifters in tow. She is rare among American actresses in that she has an intelligent face with interesting creases, plus the most delightful hamster cheeks since Elizabeth McGovern.

Where Dangerous Liaisons was top-heavy with Christopher Hampton's fine theatrical words, Valmont presents itself in the guise of a light-hearted costume romp. Don't be fooled, though, by accusations of frivolity; the story's dark streak is still there, the difference between the two versions being that in Forman's you are credited with sufficient nous to dig it our for yourself.

The film's punchline is totally visual—a haunting glimpse of Bening's face, at sea in a revelling crowd, as she realises she has played and lost everything, followed by a hint that the younger generation has already been tainted by her relish for duplicity. This is much better than the somewhat perfunctory ending to Laclos' book, where the Marquise falls prey to a disfiguring bout of smallpox. (It was only after protracted argument with a friend that I realised that she was supposed to be a villainess—I had always seen her as a heroine—and that Valmont's final volte-face was a kind of redemption and not a despicable lily-livered cop-out.)

The other cast members are equally effective. Colin Firth as Valmont, Merteuil's partner-in-crime, strikes a perfect balance between the sham fevered glance and the genuine passion which sneaks in and takes over. Meg Tilly is virtue incarnate as the respectable married woman he sets out to seduce and ends up besotted with—a far more plausible Madame de Tourvel than was luscious, pouting Pfeiffer.

And here we actually get to see the cause of Merteuil's rancour—the humiliating slight that sets in motion her desire for revenge, and hence the plot: her scheme to have old flame Valmont deflower the young-bride-to-be of the bounder who has offended her. Much of the story's piquancy stems from the fact that Merteuil and Valmont are made for each other, but that, wrapped up in their role-playing, neither is prepared to admit it.

The bounder is played by none other than Jeffrey Jones, in a performance fit to rank alongside his classic film-stealing turns: as the school principal who tries in vain to catch superbrat Ferris playing truant in Ferris Bueller's Day Off; as the harassed paterfamilias who looks through his binoculars and exclaims “Birdies!” in Beetlejuice; and, momentarily lifting Forman's Amadeus onto another, more exhilarating plane, as Emperor Joseph II, complaining to Mozart that his music has “too many notes.”

Unfortunately for Jones, his big break role turned out to be the villain in Howard the Duck, which megaflopped, but J. J. completists will know what a treat is in store when I say that, in Valmont, he gets to fence and put on a wig.

Malcolm Bowie (review date 29 November 1991)

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SOURCE: Bowie, Malcolm. “Rites of Passage Romp.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4626 (29 November 1991): 21.

[In the following review, Bowie asserts that although Valmont is visually stunning, the film is ultimately a sterile adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses.]

What will Milos Forman do next?, cinema-goers were entitled to ask themselves during the long years of silence that followed Amadeus. Forman's career had been Protean, after all, and the gulf between, say, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the Shaffer adaptation was perhaps even more remarkable than the caesura that the Soviet tanks had inserted between his early Czech-language films and the later English series. The surprise with Valmont, based on Laclos's Les Liaisons dangereuses and now released in Britain after a delay of two years, is that there is no surprise: hard on the heels of one big-budget costume drama with a late eighteenth-century setting comes another of the same kind, sleekly photographed and awash with expensive local colour. Amadeus offered a prophetic glimpse of the commodified and designerized Mozart that the current bicentennial celebrations have brought into being, and one might have expected Forman himself to have put the lid back on his pomade-jar by now and returned his flounces and farthingales to the wardrobe. But no: even more than its predecessor, this is a film that seeks to gratify the concupiscent time-traveller's eye.

Les Liaisons dangereuses is not an obvious place to begin quarrying for a period screenplay of this kind, for Laclos's text in its original form is spectacularly unvisual. The novel is the fullest flowering of the epistolary tradition in European fiction; it is a cat's cradle of intersecting destinies held together by exquisite verbal artifice; it portrays human passion as endlessly subject to the mediations and indirections of language; and it is remorselessly ironic in its account of sexual conduct and motivation. To make matters even less promising, the book contains enough conspiracy and bed-chamber politicking to sustain a good half-dozen two-hour movies. In paring it all down to manageable proportions, Forman is well served by his screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, whose long partnership with the later Buñuel was a perfect training in textual economy. Carrière not only avoids bel canto spoken dialogue but moves epistle-writing itself to the margins of the scene: dissimulation is still at the centre of the work, but it is now to be observed in pantomimic expression and gesture that need only sporadic support from the verbal arts.

In refashioning Laclos's plot, Forman and Carrière have opted for Cécile Volanges as the mainstay, where Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton in their almost simultaneous film version favoured the Présidente de Tourvel. And Carrière's choice, which runs against the grain of the novel, has bizarre consequences. In Laclos, the relationship between Valmont and Merteuil is the central tale of rivalry and revenge upon which all other tales hang: youthful virgins, faithful wives, imperceptive bridegrooms and husbands are seduced or dishonoured in accordance with the developed and exacting libertine code to which Valmont and Merteuil both subscribe. The dominant idiom is that of the battlefield, and sexual pleasure is the product of long-term strategic calculation. In choosing to place Cécile rather than Tourvel at the crossroads of the film, its makers could have produced a strongly lit tableau of corrupted innocence and thereby remained loyal to a major dimension of this complex book. But their unusual choice of second heroine is part of a thoroughgoing attempt to re-imagine the book under the sign of Youth. Fifteen-year-old Cécile is engagingly played by Fairuza Balk, who was indeed, we are assured, fifteen at the time of filming. And Laclos's remaining principals are all in their twenties, Forman has discovered. Accordingly, Colin Firth as Valmont, Annette Bening as Merteuil and Meg Tilly as Tourvel all emerge as fresh-faced experimentalists in matters of the heart. They still have growing up to do, and their several voyages of self-discovery really should be over by the age of thirty if indecency is to be avoided. “If the story of Les Liaisons happened to people of thirty or forty years of age,” Forman has said in a recent interview, “it would be very unpleasant.”

This conceit works well in that it keeps Laclos's teeming ironies under control and creates a consoling solidarity between predator and prey: the deflowering of Cécile is part of an educative process conducted by a rather glamorous teen-and-twenty self-help group. There are no real villains or victims on the scene, and even the cruellest rites of passage are something of a romp. This film removes the darkness and savagery from Laclos's book. Who could guess, contemplating the seductive surfaces and the design youthfulness of it all, that Laclos's Valmont had perverse and destructive designs upon his women? Or that hatred runs as a constant theme through the ingenious repartee of Valmont and Merteuil? Or that the battle between self and other is here routinely fought to the imagined death?

Valmont contains memorable passages of comic invention, and sumptuous displays of architecture; there is brilliant effrontery in its portrayal of costumed and uncostumed sex; and the ending of the film, much altered from the letter of Laclos's book, swings back to the spirit of it with complete conviction. But overall Forman's latest excursion into grand cinema is far too safe, and juvenile, and complaisantly ancien régime. “I saw the manners of my time and published these Letters,” Laclos wrote on his title-page, quoting La Nouvelle Héloïse and mocking Rousseau's benign vision of man and woman in society. But his novel also countered Rousseau's encouraging view of the human psyche. Far from being an account of youth in its slow progress towards adulthood, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a work that helps to make intelligible the grown-up follies of the Marquis de Sade, the Terror and our own murderous century. Forman's Valmont keeps quieter and kinder company.

George B. MacDonald (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: MacDonald, George B. “Control by Camera: Milos Forman as Subjective Narrator.” In A Casebook on Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, edited by George J. Searles, pp. 163-72. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.

[In the following essay, MacDonald analyzes the intent and effect of the subjective camera technique that Forman employs in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, highlighting Forman's use of color and point-of-view.]

The film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that rare adaptation which balances a respect for its literary source with a rich contribution of cinematic meanings. [One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest] establishes Czech director Milos Forman as a major director in contemporary American filmmaking.

Forman's role reaches far beyond the shaping of the actors' performances. It extends into the entire visual design and the literary structure of the film. Forman insisted that the film not be told from the first-person point of view of Bromden, for he wanted no single character's viewpoint to dominate in his adaptation. Partly as a result of Forman's intransigence in this matter, Kesey disassociated himself from the production, and two other writers, with Forman's help, wrote the final scenario.

Forman's elimination of the first-person viewpoint places McMurphy and Nurse Ratched outside the subjective coloration of Bromden's projections. In the film McMurphy and the Nurse are equally matched and realistically ambivalent characters. On the whole, Forman's McMurphy is less admirable than Kesey's hero. The McMurphy in the film is generous, spontaneous, and eager to teach what he knows, but there is also much in him that is unheroic and even mean-spirited. This is the McMurphy who complains to Dr. Spivey behind the Nurse's back instead of confronting her directly; who repeatedly punches Washington while the aide's body is pinioned by Bromden; and who becomes maddened with infantile rage as he screams, “I want that television set turned on—right now!” In a way Forman's McMurphy simply has less character than Kesey's hero. This is evident in the two protagonists' attitudes toward work. Kesey's McMurphy is a brawny, Bunyanesque figure whose hands are calloused from his days as a logger. He sees certain kinds of work as tests of strength and forms of self-expression. Forman's McMurphy is just the opposite. He is a shirker who looks on the state asylum as a “feed farm.” He allows his sanity to be questioned partly because the hospital which is observing him is also giving him a place to eat and sleep.

Thanks partly to actress Louise Fletcher, the Nurse Ratched of the film is a more admirable character than Kesey's nurse. Although ineffective as a counsellor to the patients, she works hard at her job and honestly believes that her “therapeutic” measures are what the patients need. Perhaps not surprisingly, Forman's Nurse Ratched partakes of the feminist politics of the seventies. We are never allowed to forget that much of the exacting physical work of this hospital falls on the shoulders of the nurses: Nurse Itsu may do the work in preparing McMurphy for his electroshock, but it is the male doctor who operates the control panel which sends the volts through his body. Nurse Ratched's proximity to the three black aides indicates that her officious personal identity is inseparable from her subjugated political identity as a woman and a laborer. Even the Nurse's worst quality, her consuming jealousy, is partly mitigated by the care she must expend on a group of male patients who despise her and yet who cannot live without her.

Forman is absolutely evenhanded in dealing with McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. Each character is equally sympathetic and unsympathetic. A kind of parodic Adam and Eve after the Fall, they are locked in a deadly contest of “masculine” and “feminine” egos in which each tries to humiliate the other in a series of progressively more brutal agons. What the film makes clear is that McMurphy and the Nurse are equally dangerous. McMurphy, the male ego of exhibitionism, is solipsistic and socially irresponsible. Nurse Ratched, the feminine ego of bonded labor, is overly repressive and absorbed by form. Billy Bibbit, the androgynous child, is a symbolic externalization of what both McMurphy and Nurse Ratched have repressed and slain within themselves. Bibbit's suicide is an indictment of both McMurphy and the nurse, each of whom knows that Billy has attempted suicide in the past because of his sexual anxieties. The Nurse provides the immediate catalyst for the suicide when she invokes the name of Billy's mother after finding him in bed with Candy, but she is not the only one who pushes the boy to his death. McMurphy too is culpable in casually prescribing a sexual encounter for someone clearly not ready for such a “cure.” The imagery of the film underscores the inappropriateness of McMurphy's therapy: Billy is pushed into the trysting room in a wheelchair, and the bed of love is festooned by leather straps used to belt down violent patients.

Forman has not made a work of pure realism out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Rather, he has turned Kesey's novelistic monodrama into a realistic allegory in which characters are both realistically and symbolically conceived. There is certainly a greater sense of history and time in Forman's film. The film opens around early autumn of 1963 and continues through the fall and early winter. Television newscasts keep us informed of such events of the day as the Birmingham Sunday bombing, the Christine Keeler saga, and the Cold War dramatics at the Berlin Wall. These events invoke images of racial conflict, scandal, and warfare. They are more appropriate to Forman's hospital than to Kesey's. Milos Forman has given us a film in which there is little hint of growth, development, or progress. Certainly Forman's eye is compassionate and full of comic appreciation, but it is an eye which rather pitilessly beholds a world gone mad, a world in which institutional rigidity makes it impossible for human beings to interact and learn from each other. Forman's is a gray film, suitable to the fall of 1963.

Rather than discuss further the film's departures from the novel, I would like to examine the ways in which Forman uses cinematic idioms as visual surrogates for elements in Kesey's novel. Two areas particularly rich in this respect are color and point of view. Through them Forman and the screenwriters convey the spirit of a literary work of art by using the techniques of the film maker's medium.

In Kesey's novel green and white play important roles in characterizing the ward. Patient uniforms and shower tiles are green; walls are white. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, on the other hand, are associated with brighter, more dynamic colors. McMurphy's red hair suggests fire and heightened life just as the nurse's red-orange lipstick carries the weight of repressed anger. Milos Forman uses color imagery in a similar but even more pervasive way. When Forman picked one particular ward as his major set at the Oregon State Hospital, he had the walls painted in colors that would photograph as off-white, green, and a washed-out lemon-beige. The film creates a homogeneous color design by playing these watery shades into the liquid blues and yellow-greens of other parts of the hospital interior. Frequently all of these shades are set off by the richer, more saturated, seaweed greens of the trees and grass which are visible through the windows in the backgrounds of many of the interior shots. The pastel aquamarines evoke the medicinal and bodily fluids of a contemporary hospital. Forman immerses us so thoroughly within this watery chromatic haze that we sometimes feel as if we are drowning in a swamp of disinfectants and bedpan odors.

During the first part of the film Forman deliberately uses chromatic monotony to give the viewer a feeling of captivity within the ward's miasmic hospital colors. This helps to explain why we feel a sharp sense of release when the camera joins the inmates on their bus ride to the pier. The yellowish orange of the bus provides a change of color which is also a change of mood and meaning. One of the most lyrical shots in the film is the tableau shot in which the orange bus recklessly snakes through the green and beige exteriors of the hospital grounds. The meaning of the shot lies as much in the contrast of colors as it does in the movement of the bus and the promise it offers the inmates. Forman continues to work in orange in the next major sequence. The colorful orange life vests worn on the boat convey inner meaning through a chromatic alteration. It is a relief to see the patients out of their dull-colored, pajama-like uniforms. The color of the vests suggests the internal change of character which McMurphy briefly makes possible for the patients.

Like Kesey, Forman often uses bright colors to convey not simply freedom, but anger, danger, sexuality, and frustration. When, for example, Nurse Ratched glares at the patients after their party, Forman places the camera so that the glowing red night light appears just above her head, externalizing all the rage that is just beneath the surface of her rigid countenance. Perhaps the most shattering use of red lies in the thick film of blood which surrounds Billy as he lies dead on the floor of the doctor's office. The meaning of Billy's death is partly embodied in the colors of this shot, for the rich hue of the blood clashes in a particularly ugly way with the pale green shade of the floor. Somehow the clash between these two colors signifies the lack of harmony which prevails at every level of this film. There is no compromise between the wet greens and the hard orange-reds of the mise en scène. The bright colors conflict sharply with the duller tones. From color to idea, nothing is reconciled in Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The second area of cinematic expressiveness which needs attention in Forman's film is point of view. Forman may have upset Kesey with his unwillingness to accept Bromden as the narrator and central consciousness, but on the deepest level of cinematic expressiveness, Forman has respected the idea of the subjective viewpoint which prevails in Kesey's novel. He universalizes the narrative consciousness by using the “subjective camera” to give virtually all of the major characters their own points of view in the film. Even more, through his camera placements Forman reveals his own presence as the directorial architect of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In this sense he has not so much eliminated the first-person viewpoint of Bromden as he has usurped it.

The term “subjective camera” usually refers to any shot in which the camera photographs something through the eyes of one of the characters in the dramatic situation. An example of this technique from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the low-angle shot of the squirrel on top of the fence of the hospital yard as it appears to McMurphy, who is standing below the fence looking up. Usually the subjective camera indicates what a character sees in the film, but, in a more encompassing way, it can present the director's viewpoint as well. In Hitchcock's films, for example, both levels of the subjective camera are present. Hitchcock identifies his camera with various of the individual protagonists in his films at the same time that he identifies himself as the directorial presence with an encircling viewpoint which watches over the characters as they watch one another.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Forman's use of the subjective camera is similar to Hitchcock's. Through this technique Forman reveals himself as the central consciousness of the film while at the same time “translating” the subjective consciousness of Kesey's novel into a cinematic idiom. The entire structure of the film is designed around variations of the subjective-camera technique. Let us look at two examples from the opening and closing framing passages of the film.

The first shot of the film is a fade-in on a mountainous landscape near dawn. The vista is without human life as the credits begin to appear on the screen. Suddenly a single flickering yellow-orange light appears at the left side of the screen. Then a second light appears at its side. These two headlights turn on and off in irregular rhythms as a car moves from left to right toward the center of the frame. Forman deliberately makes the lights flicker in a stylized manner so that the viewer will associate the car with something uncanny, magical, or at least subjectively conceived, for this is the car bringing Randle Patrick McMurphy to the mental hospital. As the car continues, Forman pans the camera to follow it out of the right side of the frame. At this moment Forman cuts from the rightward panning exterior shot to a leftward panning interior shot within Nurse Ratched's ward. In this second shot the camera pans and moves among the sleeping patients. The composition and editing of these first two shots suggest that McMurphy (the first shot) is in part a subjective projection emerging from the collective dream life of the patients (the second shot). Throughout the film Forman will use the subjective camera to suggest that many people see not the social world of fact but the projective mirror images of their own anxieties and expectations. The opening shots of the film presage these pervasive “mirror shots” by implying that McMurphy has a partly subjective existence in the minds of the helpless and sleeping patients, some of whom may be unconsciously anticipating and even projecting his arrival.

The concluding shots of the film are similarly subjective in design. In this sequence Bromden lifts the tub-room panel, throws it through a window, and disappears into the wilderness. The composition and the dramatic development of the film's last shot presents the exact reverse of the design of the first shot of the film. In the last shot Bromden runs away from the camera into the darkness of a mountainous landscape. As he slowly descends the slope of the hill, his entire body disappears from view until we are left with the same image which opened the film: a vista of New World nature wholly devoid of human civilization. On one level, Bromden's absorption by the land signifies a suicidal triumph of fantasy over reality; on another level, his escape to the wilderness is a subjective dream-fantasy in the minds of the hospital patients. Bromden escapes not during the day but at night when all the patients are asleep. At the moment he leaps out the window he is watched by the suddenly awakened Taber, whose cries of manic joy arouse a number of the other patients. There is the suggestion that Bromden's epic gesture lives as a fantasy image in the mind of the inarticulately helpless Taber, who may well have dreamt Bromden's superhuman feat of strength. The picture ends as it began: an image within an image.

All the individual characters in the film are defined by the subjective camera. None of them sees the world. Each merely looks at the world and tries to control it with the annulling and objectifying Look of Sartre's ocular assassin. When McMurphy talks with Dr. Spivey and when Nurse Ratched talks to the patients, the subjective camera usually cross-cuts between the various interlocutors to reveal that each individual is trying to “stare down” and degrade the other through the medium of a paranoid and aggressive Look.

Forman uses a number of techniques to deliver the viewer from the paranoid subjectivity of the individual characters of the dramatic situation. Frequently he plays the patients' subjective-camera views against the more universal subjective camera of the director. In these instances Forman develops a sequence by cross-cutting among the subjective views of the individual characters. Then he unexpectedly cuts back out of a scene in order to give us the artist's subjective viewpoint, which embraces a multitude of individual viewpoints. This technique is especially dramatic at the end of the fishing sequence. In the last shot of this sequence the camera leaps above the boat, where some of the patients are absorbed in catching a fish, to a helicopter-level shot of the boat. In this final shot of the fishing scene, the camera looks down with a rather merciless objectivity. What the camera sees is no longer a playful image of a group of people fishing, but a pathetic image of a boat going round in circles. The cut to the helicopter perspective is startling because the breadth of its compass makes the obsessiveness of the patients seem disturbingly private and self-centered. Here Forman has pulled us away from the insane subjectivity of the patients into the sane subjectivity of the artist.

There is also a Brechtian quality in the way Forman uses the directorial subjective camera. In a number of instances he breaks the viewer's emotional identification with the patients of this mental hospital by a shock technique in which the director functions in much the same way as a first-person narrator functions in telling a story. During one of the playground sequences, for example, Forman dramatically calls attention to the camera as the controller of the audience's sensibilities. In this scene McMurphy is trying to get the inmates to play a game of basketball. During the game, Martini, who cannot obey the rules of any game, receives the ball and, to our astonishment, throws it directly at the camera. The spectator inwardly ducks as the ball disappears below the lower border of the frame with a loud changing noise. We do not understand what has happened until McMurphy cries out in frustration that Martini has thrown the ball into the fence. By this camera placement, Forman reminds the viewer that the director's camera is the central consciousness and the guiding viewpoint of this film. The ball flung at the lens is meant to wake us up to the fact that we are not the patients but the watchers of the patients. In the style of Brecht, Forman repeatedly catches us off-guard. Here he breaks our emotional rapport with the zany basketball game to warn us against becoming too involved with these characters, who are not “zany” at all. Forman wishes us not to become the people of this film but to learn something from their experience. The basketball, which all but bounces off the lens of the camera, keeps us alert to the much more serious “game” being played in and by this film.

A more audacious acknowledgment of the camera's power occurs during the boating excursion. After taking the boat from the pier, McMurphy turns the wheel over to Cheswick, who holds the wheel until he becomes anxious at being abandoned by the other inmates. They have become distracted by the love-making of McMurphy and Candy below. When Cheswick lets go of the wheel and heads below to join the others, Forman manipulates point of view in an unexpected manner. He fixes the camera upon the wildly spinning wheel. During this shot the audience feels as if it has been abandoned on the bridge of a boat which has no captain. Forman is again provoking the audience into realizing that we are as much at the mercy of the director as the passengers of a ship are dependent upon their captain. The camera's presence is acutely felt in this shot because Forman refuses to “rescue” the camera from its entrapment on a boat that is careening over the water under no control at all. As viewers we are made to feel somewhat like the helpless Cheswick as we watch the wheel spinning furiously in the foreground and feel the ocean swelling beneath us. Once our response has become this primitive, we realize that again Forman has caught us off guard. Again he has called our attention to the fact that the camera sets the boundaries of the audience's attention and that the way a screen narrative is told is just as important as what is being told. On a thematic level, this crazily subjective use of the camera is a serious warning to the audience, for it indicates how dangerous any society becomes which loses its principle of social organization. Forman is not an American primitive like Kesey. Nor is he an authoritarian East European social realist. He is an artist sensitive to the need for some kind of order in any social grouping. A society without cohesion is like a ship without a captain, or a camera without an artist behind it.

Forman's use of subjective-camera techniques thus creates in cinematic terms a world analogous to the subjective viewpoint of Chief Bromden in Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In acknowledging both the dangers and the positive values of the subjective viewpoint, Forman's film is closer to Kesey's novel than one might think on a first viewing.

In imposing his own subjective viewpoint on the story, Forman altered somewhat Kesey's attitude toward insanity. Whereas Kesey sees the poetry in paranoia, Forman is more attentive to the destructiveness in all forms of mental unbalance. Kesey has more faith than Forman in the chances of the individual outside of social forms. Although there is some hope, even if rooted in fantasy, in the last page of Kesey's novel, there is nothing but a haunting image of self-annulment in the concluding frames of Forman's film.

It is possible, of course, to see Forman's film in a more optimistic light. Some viewers regard Bromden's use of speech and his climactic escape as indications of growth in at least one of the characters of the film. My own view is that to an extent Bromden is to McMurphy what McMurphy is to the rest of the patients: a fantasy screen. When Washington is beating up McMurphy, Forman uses a subjective camera to photograph Bromden's approach from the floor-level viewpoint of McMurphy. This camera angle tends to portray the Indian rescuer as at least partly a fantasy projection from the desperate McMurphy's point of view. There is a similar use of the subjective camera in the scene in which Bromden talks for the first time. Just before Bromden and McMurphy have their initial conversation, Forman photographs Bromden from McMurphy's viewpoint, suggesting that it is (only?) through McMurphy's eyes that Bromden becomes a speaking human being.

Forman's pessimism regarding the possibilities for human growth is emphatic in the last ensemble sequence in Nurse Ratched's ward. McMurphy is dead, and Bromden is gone, but relatively little has changed, except perhaps for the worse. Life on the ward ends as it began, with four of the patients playing cards at a table. Three of the players are the same ones who were playing at the beginning of the film: Harding, Cheswick, and Martini. The missing player is Billy Bibbit, the one patient who might have been saved. Replacing him at the table in this final scene is the irrevocably deranged Taber.

The film version of Kesey's novel is an extraordinary achievement. Its individual performances and its subtly orchestrated ensemble acting are remarkable. The screenplay is virtually without cliché. It manages the difficult task of consistently and imaginatively developing a large number of highly individualized characters. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a brilliant adaptation of a literary work at the same time that it is an original and lasting achievement of cinema.

Andrew Hislop (review date 7 October 1994)

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SOURCE: Hislop, Andrew. “The Cuckoo Clocked.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4775 (7 October 1994): 26.

[In the following review of Turnaround, Hislop underscores the recurring theme of betrayal in Forman's life and body of work.]

Off-screen at least, betrayal in Hollywood has all the sinfulness of a quick costume change—it's just business. “Turnaround” is a Hollywood term for a shift in loyalty, when a project is transferred from one studio to another, but, for Milos Forman, betrayal is no casual business. Its moral consequences and historical nuances permeate this subtle, witty autobiography, written with the Czech novelist Jan Novak, as it does his films. Forman, now a patriotic American, has directed two of the most Oscar-blessed films in Hollywood's history—One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (betrayal of human spirit and trust in a mental institution) and Amadeus (Salieri's betrayal of Mozart). The emotional and literary force of Turnaround, however, is not in its later amusing American film anecdotes but in Forman's Czechoslovakian recollections, as a child under Nazi occupation, then as a struggling filmmaker under Communist rule. There, Forman experienced betrayal to trump the melodrama of any on-screen Hollywood treachery.

Both of Forman's parents died in concentration camps after being betrayed by a member of the Gestapo who, before the war, was a night-watchman at their family hotel. His father died without betraying his comrades in the Resistance. Years later, a former Auschwitz prisoner wrote to Forman that his mother's dying wish was for him to know that his real father was a Jewish architect who had also worked on the hotel. (Forman tracked down the man to Ecuador and received a postcard, sending “regards.”)

Forman prints in full the letter to a newspaper of a casual school friend, the son of a purged Communist official: “Dear Comrade, I ask for the highest penalty for my father—the penalty of death. …” He tells the story of a Czech factory girl who acted in his Czech film, Loves of a Blonde (a poignant, spare study of love's betrayals). Betrayed by her lover on the shoot, she became a prostitute but went to gaol and tried to commit suicide rather than inform on her clients.

Western help for Forman's Czech film career only added to his experience of betrayal. Carlo Ponti assured Forman, who risked imprisonment for “economic damages to the state,” that he would not withdraw his investment from the delightfully comic Firemen's Ball (betrayal of society by its self-appointed guardians), but did so. (Claude Berri and François Truffaut organized a rescue fund to buy the film.)

There is also a sense of betrayal in Forman's account of how the first cameraman on Cuckoo's Nest criticized him behind his back; how Dino De Laurentiis made him cut twenty minutes from his film of E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime (betrayal of moral principles to right injustice); even in how Christopher Hampton failed to meet him to discuss filming Les Liaisons Dangereuses, thus leading to two films of this study of betrayal par excellence. Forman's version, Valmont, was a commercial flop.

The tone of Turnaround, however, is not crudely moralizing but teasingly ironic. Absurdity and horror, laughter and betrayal, were linked in the land of Kafka and Schweik even before Communism bound them together. As Forman says, their history has forced the Czechs to have “an ironic nothing-is-sacred sense of self-preservational humour”; a Czech, unlike Coalhouse Walker Jr in Ragtime, would have jokingly cleared up the mess left in his car, rather than demand satisfaction. When a professor at the Prague Film Academy was forced to organize a condemnation of Forman's intellectual decadence, he held it in a luxurious restaurant. And during the shooting of Amadeus in Prague, Forman's driver cheerfully admitted that he was a police informer.

In his prologue, Forman describes how his elation on the night he won an Oscar for Amadeus was followed by a depression which made him think of the Czech joke about the adulterer hiding in a closet full of perfumes so sweet-smelling that, on release, he called for excrement. Forman does not offer a sweet-smelling view of life, but splatters himself with some of the dirt.

Forman confesses that the loss of his hen-eating dog was the most traumatic moment of his trauma-filled childhood. He berates himself for not protecting a school-mate from bullies, even for cheating at chess, though he insists that he never betrayed Vaclav Havel for being “immoral with himself” at school: “Not only have I never informed on anybody in my life, I was being immoral with myself too.” He was thrown out of school for pissing in a shower on the son of a central committee member—the son did not notice but a master did. Forman lost his virginity to an instructor in “socialist modelling” who conveniently failed to tell a pupil with Moravian eyes about a rendezvous with Forman. Later, Forman made amends, but the girl became pregnant, had an abortion and never wanted to see him again.

Mental breakdown only added to Forman's sense of ironic absurdity when he encountered an asylum inmate who thought he was married to Forman's (first) wife, the actress Jana Brejchova. When he had another breakdown in the States, his old school-friend, the director, Ivan Passer, “cured” him by going to a shrink pretending to be Forman.

Though there are other colourful descriptions of Forman's early career in America, the emotional grip of the narrative slackens and the sense of the man fades as the detailed loves, infidelities and passions of his Czech youth give way to the odd mention of a girlfriend among the anecdotes. There is a picture of a stunning blonde leaning on Forman's shoulder with the caption “Many a tough task rests on a director's shoulders.”

Perhaps this results from Forman's putting a Hollywood career before his family. His second wife, Vera, went back with their twin sons to her career in Czechoslovakia in 1968 after escaping with Claude Berri in Truffaut's car. Forman admits that vanity as well as politics prevented his own return.

But while Forman found success in America, it was at the expense of his Czech production methods, which, born of his dislike of the theatrical and operatic, used improvisation and mixed non-actors with actors to re-create the pain and casual absurdities of everyday life. After his first American and “last Czech film,” the underrated and under-shown Taking Off (a comedy about family betrayal), his work in America has become increasingly historical and theatrical—at times operatic. Even Hair (betrayal of country out of moral and cultural conviction), oddly a favourite of Forman's, and Cuckoo's Nest were set in the past.

After the failure of Valmont, Forman tried to return to his earlier cinematic ways. His last project, set in Japan, collapsed just before shooting was due to begin because the Sumo Association thought that it betrayed the dignity of sumo—an unfortunate irony, but one which should not prevent Forman from rediscovering, like Robert Altman, critical and commercial success by first returning to a less lavish way of making films.

Milos Forman and Richard Porton (interview date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Forman, Milos, and Richard Porton. “Porn Again: The People vs. Larry Flynt.Cineaste 22, no. 4 (fall 1996): 28-32.

[In the following interview, Forman discusses his views on censorship and his film The People vs. Larry Flynt.]

The controversy inspired by Milos Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt has focused attention on America's most notorious pornographer and Hustler magazine's virulent misogyny. Unfortunately, this ongoing debate has yielded considerably more heat than political or moral illumination. Distinctions between Hustler's frequently vile brand of porn, First-Amendment issues, and Flynt's personal life have become hopelessly blurred. Gloria Steinem, for example, points out that Hustler's fondness for simulated rape and torture—a truly peculiar notion of erotica—is unquestionably degrading to women. Yet her understandable impatience with attempts to brand Flynt a “free speech hero” does not negate the fact that the smut peddler's censorship battles have, however unwittingly, helped to safeguard the rights of his opponents, whether antipornography feminists or right-wing fundamentalists.

From an equally problematic perspective, Laura Kipnis (a Marxist as well as a feminist), hailed Hustler as the most class-conscious mass circulation publication in the United States and expressed a surprising admiration for its “Rabelaisian” humor. Nevertheless, her generally incisive critique of Hustler's “maddeningly incoherent” preoccupations either ignores—or subtly apologizes for—most of the repellent images usually cited by the magazine's detractors: in her view, Flynt's obvious contempt for Church and State takes precedence over his penchant for depicting women as naked trophies.

These polemics at least raise complicated, and often disturbing, issues. The People vs. Larry Flynt, an enjoyable and well-crafted entertainment, skillfully avoids confronting most of them. Affirming its status as an archetypal Hollywood product, the film airbrushes the contents of Hustler—a perverse, rags-to-riches saga commemorating a country bumpkin's triumph over the forces of repression and sanctimoniousness is more palatable fare for a mass audience. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski's witty script (more a skillful series of interwoven vignettes than a traditional biopic) and Forman's unerringly empathetic direction of his cast (Flynt is played with intelligent restraint by Woody Harrelson, while Courtney Love gives an astonishingly convincing performance as his fourth wife, Althea Leasure) prevents Larry Flynt from being nothing more than a static panegyric to the First Amendment.

Of course, a certain queasiness is unavoidable if viewers pause long enough to compare the film's Teddy Bear-like protagonist with the considerably more ambiguous, real-life prototype. The svelte, devilishly charming publisher played by Harrelson contrasts sharply with the portrait of a paranoid, vengeful (and, of, course, chronically overweight) individual painted by his former associates. Flynt emerges as yet another incarnation of Schweik, the antiauthoritarian hero of Czech novelist Juroslav Hasek's comic masterpiece (The Good Soldier Schweik), whose shade can also be discerned in other Forman films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. Forman's wishful thinking converts a cynical entrepreneur into an earnest sexual libertarian: Flynt emerges as a hillbilly version of Wilhelm Reich, even though he might be more accurately described as a pop-culture descendant of the Marquis de Sade.

While the image of Flynt as a likably goofy crusader for press freedom that the film promotes may be as inaccurate as the heterosexual Cole Porter depicted in Night and Day or the homespun naif honored in Young Mr. Lincoln, the pleasures of this irreverent tribute to a self-styled “scumbag” reside in a series of lovingly evoked picaresque comic details. For most of its duration, Larry Flynt is imbued with a screwball ambience that is rare indeed in an era when film comedy tends to consist of either inept imitations of Capra or Sturges or simple-minded high jinks designed for the teenage market.

The film opens with ironic verve as the young Larry proves his resourcefulness as a purveyor of moonshine (we are spared, perhaps mercifully, the future pornmeister's sexual initiation with a chicken). Soon after, Forman segues to the near-clueless Flynt's early career as an amateur publisher (a befuddled printer has to explain the meaning of “slick paper” to him). Originally conceived as a newsletter to publicize his chain of strip clubs, Hustler's early success seems to surprise even the newly-rich Flynt. When our putative hero finally achieves notoriety as a hard-core press lord, the narrative's giddy absurdism proves irresistibly appealing. A Hustler editorial meeting debating the merits of an X-Rated cartoon homage to The Wizard of Oz (the tin man is revealed as a priapic stud) and quasisurreal sequences chronicling Flynt's ‘born again’ determination to combine sex and religion in hilariously unpalatable ways will surely be remembered as seminal Nineties film moments.

It is only when Larry Flynt focuses on its hero's numerous entanglements with the law that comic acuity becomes diluted by liberal flag-waving. Falwell's lawyer Alan Isaacman (Flynt's attorney in his Supreme Court battle against Reverend Jerry Falwell, played with boyish elan by Edward Norton, is designed as a composite figure who stands in for all the porn magnate's previous lawyers) functions as the film's moral center: a white knight in a respectable dark suit who possesses the well-scrubbed altruism of a high-school civics teacher. To a certain extent, Isaacman's paean to the First Amendment is the castor oil that the audience must swallow after enjoying the wacky hedonism that has come before. Yet, even if the film's conclusion threatens to become cloyingly life-affirming (The New Republic derisively dubbed the movie “Mr. Juggs Goes to Washington”), commentators like the law professor Cass Sunstein who complain that Flynt is a mere pornographer, not a political dissident, seem to be missing the point that Forman and his screenwriters are—however heavyhandedly—making.

It is easy to see why critics carped that Flynt and his magazine are unrecognizably ‘sanitized’ by the filmmakers, but antiporn legal scholars such as Sunstein conveniently overlook the historian Lynn Hunt's conclusion that, since the French Revolution, it has become impossible to make artificial distinctions between political protest and pornography. Hunt informs us that “politically motivated pornography undermined the legitimacy of the ancien regime.” Similarly, the cartoons and layouts in Hustler, however offensive and jejune, blend scatology with satire that is, more often than not, ‘politically motivated.’

Some years ago, Forman remarked that “all that is significant in contemporary art … concerns itself with injuries and injustices perpetrated against the individual.” The Czech emigre (who famously endured the injuries and injustices of both Nazism and Stalinism) has always had a soft spot for antiheroes, outcasts, and countercultural eccentrics, and the bizarre communal bonhomie of Flynt and his associates resembles the surrogate families formed by the mental patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the hippies in Hair. It must be admitted that, with the exception of Taking Off and Cuckoo's Nest, Forman's American films lack the tragicomic flair of his early Czech features. Nonetheless, Forman has always made a principled attempt to blend the demands of mass entertainment with social commentary and construct a bridge between rarefied art films and unadulterated Hollywood commerce.

Cineaste interviewed Forman in November 1996, a little over a month after The People vs. Larry Flynt's premiere at the 1996 New York Film Festival and a month before its commercial release. Pausing periodically to puff on his cigar, the director, obviously happy about the advance praise for his first film since 1989's Valmont, talked passionately about his fondness for improvisation, the travails of casting a film, and the evils of censorship.

[Porton]: Did Oliver Stone originally plan to direct The People vs. Larry Flynt?

[Forman]: The authors told me they had a bad experience with Columbia Pictures during Ed Wood. They said to themselves, “Let's first present it to Columbia. They'll certainly turn it down, but we'll learn the art of presenting. Then we'll go somewhere else.” They were so sure that Columbia would turn them down that they simultaneously sent it to Oliver Stone. To their amazement, Columbia said yes. Meanwhile, Oliver said, “I don't want to direct it, but I'll produce it.” Columbia and Stone then joined forces as producers.

Was it a relief to work on a film which was not an adaptation of a novel or play, given the fact that critics and audiences often compare these movies to the original source and authors feel possessive about their work? For example, didn't Ken Kesey give you a hard time during the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

I never met Ken Kesey, but I respected him very much. When I joined the project, the producers and Kesey were no longer on speaking terms. As much as I admired Kesey, I think he was wrong. I read a script that he wanted filmed. It was not really a screenplay, but another version of the book. From what I was told, Kesey not only wanted to write the screenplay but also wanted to direct the film and play McMurphy. I was a little confused.

I was also a little nervous with Larry Flynt, because little changes are made when the actors come in and the locations are found. I am not trying to rebuild reality so it fits the screenplay. If the screenplay doesn't fit reality, I want to rebuild the screenplay. I was afraid about the authors' reaction, but they were very open to changes.

Unlike many scripts, it reads very well on its own.

The script is wonderful. When I joined the project and learned how much material the writers had gathered, I realized it could have been ten movies—a whole life. To sift through it and find a structure was a challenge. It's not an ordinary, boring biopic, stuttering from one episode to another. They really built an ingenious structure. Even if I changed the names and it was not about Larry Flynt, it would still be a wonderful screenplay.

How did your collaboration with the screenwriters shape the final film?

It was a wonderful collaboration and they felt that I genuinely liked their work. They didn't consider me an enemy. We worked first on cutting it down to a reasonable length. The script was good, but it was overwritten. That's fine, because you have something to work with. So we worked together on the final structure, shrinking the story slightly. The whole script would have been a three-hour film.

Before I start shooting, I always like to act out the whole script with myself and somebody else playing all the parts. The writers played this ping pong with me. We went through the script so we could say aloud the lines and hear if they sounded right and rang true.

Even during the shooting, I discovered that Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, and Edward Norton all had this rare talent for improvisation. After they learned the lines by heart, I started to encourage improvisations. I respected the writers so much that I always called them and told them what was happening and how improvisation affected the scene. This helped convince them that the writers and the director are a team, coauthors and not adversaries.

Perhaps it helped that you were originally a screenwriter yourself.

That's correct. I have enormous respect for writers because I started as a screenwriter and I know how it feels when you spend weeks and weeks on something and then, without much responsible stream of thought, somebody else starts changing things around and then blames the author if it doesn't work.

According to what I read, your major disagreement with the authors concerned an elaborate fantasy sequence which featured Flynt's ‘born again’ conversion.

Yes. If you told me that you had a vision and that you converted to God, I would believe you, although perhaps with reservations. But if you start telling me something that is totally beyond my imagination—how Jesus Christ appeared to you, as well as Lenny Bruce and some other characters—then I'd think that you were on some kind of acid trip. That's why I suggested that they try to give hints of this conversion in some visual way, without trying to convince the audience that Larry Flynt really saw Jesus Christ and Lenny Bruce and other characters. So that was one thing. The other thing was probably a lesson I learned when dodging the censors in Communist countries. I learned not to put labels on the characters by saying, “This is a good guy, this is a bad guy”—the socialist realist approach. Together, we just toned down the extremes, so the characters would become more nuanced.

How much of the script was shot and then discarded?

There are certain scenes which were shot but are not in the film because of dramatic structure. The character of Dick Gregory just didn't contribute anything to the narrative, for example, so it didn't make any sense to keep him or the scenes featuring Larry Flynt running for President. Those scenes were shot and I liked them very much, they're very funny, but all the antics Larry Flynt performed paled in comparison to the fact that he was running for President. It didn't have any payoff. Audiences would have assumed that this was the nitty gritty of the comedy or tragedy, and nothing really happened—it fizzled. Those scenes went out, because they made the film stutter and made it long. That was very disappointing when I was putting the film together, but it was entirely my decision, not because of pressure from the studio.

I gather that you've been improvising with actors since you first started making films in Czechoslovakia. Are you continuing the techniques you pioneered with those early films?

It worked for me then, and that's why I'm trying to make it work for me here. And it already has—certain parts of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were improvised, like the first meeting with the superintendent and McMurphy. Since it worked wonderfully, I felt encouraged to try it again. Courtney, Woody, and Edward showed incredible talent. It's not very often that an actor can, with the same credibility, memorize the lines from the script and then improvise—not as an actor, not as Woody or Courtney or Ed—but as the character.

Valmont, on the other hand, seemed to employ a very tight script which allowed little room for improvisation.

Yes, this film was very different from Valmont or Amadeus, although even in those films I tried to make the language more comfortable to today's ear. Still, the language is slightly different. It was eighteenth-century language and that's very difficult for anybody to improvise.

That brings us to the casting of the film, something you always seem to regard as a very important task.

Casting is the most important element because, after all, that's what the audience sees on the screen, and these are the people I'm asking the audience to believe. To cast right is, for me, ninety percent of directing. If I cast right, I can work less.

You've continued the practice of mixing professionals with nonprofessionals that you began with your Czech films.

Yes, especially in this case. I always try to cast people who I think will bring some sort of electricity to the set which helps everybody else. For example, when we have Donna Hanover Giuliani, New York City's First Lady, playing Ruth Carter Stapleton, everybody is excited. “That's Mrs. Giuliani, that's great.” Everybody works better. The same thing was true with James Carville and D'Army Bailey, the legendary judge from Memphis. It was also very exciting for people to have Larry Flynt playing a judge. That was one of the reasons to opt for nonprofessional actors.

Does this interest in using nonprofessionals come from your early interest in neorealist films such as Il Posto?

In Czechoslovakia, we weren't reacting to the films made by Hollywood directors such as Ford and Wilder. We were responding to the stupid and phony films that the Communist Party was asking for. This thirst for credibility was a response to that phoniness.

Is it true that Czech President Vaclav Havel was instrumental in choosing Courtney Love for the role or Althea Leasure?

Well, I wouldn't say instrumental. Now, after the fact, everything seems to have been easy. I go through insecurities and doubts when I'm making these decisions, so what I like to do, when I confront crucial questions like casting the main characters, is to make screen tests and then show them to my closest friends and ask for their opinions. In the case of Althea Leasure, I had three candidates, three young ladies who were equally wonderful and each very different. Although, my heart was already going for Courtney Love—Rachel Griffiths and Georgina Cates were the others—I was not sure that I was making the right decision, that maybe I was seduced by her personality, not her professional ability. I showed these screen tests to a few people, including Havel, and I was very happy that he enthusiastically voted for Courtney Love.

Although she didn't have much experience as an actress, she apparently immersed herself in the role and greatly identified with this character.

Courtney is probably the most fascinating young lady I ever worked with. It's not just that she imposed her own personality on the script, she also did an incredible amount of homework, and it shows. She saw every single TV clip of Althea ever shot. She met with many people who knew Althea when she was alive. Her personality blends and is transformed by Althea's so perfectly that you don't see the seams.

One noteworthy thing about this film is the cinematography by Philippe Rousselot, while many of your previous films, both in the U.S. and Czechoslovakia, were shot by Miroslav Ondricek. What was the look you were aiming for?

When I was preparing this film, Ondricek was already signed to do another film, so I couldn't use him. I didn't know that the man who shot A River Runs Through It was a French guy. I just liked the look of that film, the simplicity, tastefulness, and cinematic vision.

I only require two things from a cameraman: the colors must be right—black must really be black and not gray—and human flesh must look like human flesh. The faces should not be red or yellow. It's not very easy for a cameraman to achieve that, but everything falls into place if he does. Something you can't really discuss very precisely is the fact that the cameraman has to know at every moment what you are trying to convey to the audience. It's difficult to tell him how to light, but it's very important that he knows that one scene is supposed to be dramatic and others are supposed to be funny or lyrical. Philippe was very sensitive to all of these things. The whole film suffers when you don't have a good relationship with a cameraman. The actors subconsciously feel the tension.

It's intriguing that, although Larry Flynt is a well-known figure, he almost becomes something like a fictional antihero—not unlike, say, McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

I would rather compare him to Mozart in Amadeus, because that film had the same sort of surprises and problems. In the case of Mozart, I knew only half of his personality, which was very boring. All I learned about Mozart at school was that he was an obedient little boy, a prodigy at school, composing this divine music and being well above the nastiness of human character: a role model put on a pedestal garbed in marble. This made him so boring that even his music became less interesting. Suddenly, when I read the play, I asked Peter Shaffer—“Is this true?” And he said, “Read Mozart's letters.” Then I discovered that this genius had a second half that was much less admirable, but was much more flamboyant and childlike, even vulgar and obnoxious. The fact that the sale of classical music records rose one thousand per cent all over the world after the film was released proves that showing this man not as a one-dimensional angel, but as a full-blooded human being with all his pros and cons, helped enormously to popularize what's good about Mozart—his music.

I went through the same process, but in reverse, with Larry Flynt. I knew only the sleazy side of Flynt, but I knew nothing else about him. When I finally read the script, my first question to the authors was also, “Is it true?” They said it was, and this was confirmed when I started to read articles about him. So all I did was to add the other half to this personality who lived only in a sleazy world. I discovered there was a second half to his personality that was admirable, almost noble, and that's what makes him interesting.

You've often said that you're more interested in characters who are ambiguous, neither heroes nor villains.

If someone is a clear-cut angel or a clear-cut devil, what else can you add that is interesting? But if you learn that this angel has a devil's hoof, that really arouses your interest and curiosity and confusion. It's interesting to deal with such a character, because if you discover that the devil is growing at least one angel's wing, it's suddenly so confusing that it's fascinating.

How extensive was Flynt's cooperation with the project?

He didn't have the right to veto anything in the script or interfere with the production. But I wanted to meet with Larry Flynt. First of all, as a courtesy, because I'm making a film about him. If someone was making a film about you, you'd want to know the details. Secondly, I wanted him to tell me all the factual mistakes that might have been in the script—places, dates, things like that, because I didn't want, in case the film should anger him, to give him any reason to attack us by saying something wasn't true.

We had a long, eight-hour script conference to which he came prepared as I never saw any actor prepared. Every page had meticulous notes. He didn't try to influence anything, even though he said that there was a lot in the script that was very embarrassing for him. But I said, “Well, if it's true, what can I say?” And he said to me, “Even if there are things in the script that I didn't say, if I could have said them, I have no objection at all. I'll object only if I think that I never would have said that.” What happened after that was more amazing. He occasionally said to me, “I wouldn't say it like that.” But when I'd insist that what was included in the script was better, more to the point or funnier, he'd reply, “You're the director, it's your responsibility, you do want you want.” That was a great attitude.

Were you attracted to the project because of your own experience with censorship under a Stalinist regime?

Definitely, because I lived for a long time in a society where censorship was strong. And I know the devastating effect it has on the quality of life, not only for artists but for the entire society. With censorship, as I experienced it, life becomes very boring and society very cruel. There is no way you can talk about anything which the government doesn't want you to discuss.

Why do you think authoritarian regimes are so nervous about pornography? What is the threat?

They are not nervous at all, believe me. They are just using it to gain the trust of the population. It's not a threat, they know that. What's important is that to fight pornography will open the door for them, because nobody is against fighting pornography and prostitution. Once they have their foot planted firmly in the door of your home, it never stops there. What has to be recognized is that a censorship commission is not judging anything according to the law, but according to their taste. Whatever doesn't conform to the censor's taste is banned, and taste is so vague and indefinable. Suddenly, you find out the space inhabited by the ‘pervert’ has become bigger.

If the Communists say that pornography and prostitution are poisoning the health of young people and exposing them to immorality, the same Communists can declare religion the opium of mankind. So Jesus Christ becomes a pervert, and because Beethoven wrote the “Missa Solemnis,” he is a pervert. Then they discover there is a lot in Shakespeare that is inspiring dissent, so he is a pervert, too, because he talked badly about people who should be revered. That's poisoning the people's trust in the government, it's perverse, and it has to be banned. Finally, whoever doesn't conform to official government policy is called a pervert. So it starts with fighting pornography. Everyone applauds, and that only encourages the government to further the cleansing process and make it stronger.

Do you see parallels between the former Communist government's policies and Falwell's antipornography campaign?

Yes, absolutely. They are all calling for censorship—Charles Keating, as well. Look, if you think that this is something that can't happen here today, on television a few days ago, Bork, a man who almost ended up on the Supreme Court, called for censorship and suggested changing the Constitution and the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers were so wise in the way they formulated the First Amendment. There will be no law abridging freedom of speech and freedom of expression. It's so clean and simple. If they wanted to add some loopholes, it would have been very easy, but obviously they knew why they formulated it the way they did.

Of course, its part of the comedy of your film that the people who are upholding civic virtue turn out to be a lot sleazier than Larry Flynt.

Don't use the word ‘sleazier,’ because that's again a question of taste. They are being hypocrites, because they're asking other people not to do things which they themselves are secretly indulging in. Keating is known for having archives of pornographic magazines and videotapes.

That was probably true of the Czech apparatchiks as well.

Listen, nothing was more vilified in the culture during the Communist era than American movies. The only movies that the Communist President and his cronies screened at night at their castle were American movies like Gilda. Hypocrisy is endemic to this kind of climate.

That kind of hypocrisy is featured in the movie when copies of Hustler are passed out by Charles Keating at the “Citizens for Decent Literature” meeting and the audience is obviously sneaking a peek.

Of course, in Czechoslovakia we were very happy about that kind of hypocrisy because it allowed us to see American movies. Since we were friends with the projectionists, after the Communist leaders had seen the Hollywood film and gone home, we would sneak in after midnight and the projectionist would screen the film for us.

There were cracks in the system.


Could you explain the controversy with the original Larry Flynt poster which depicted Woody Harrelson—clad in an American flag loincloth—crucified upon a woman's crotch?

That was the decision of the MPAA. I don't like it, but I respect it. That was one of the ironies of this film, even if it's not very important. I like the new poster we have. But it's ironic that we were making this film about how dangerous and devastating censorship is, and how we must all fight it, and the first thing that happens is that our own organization—the MPAA—censors us. I talked to Jack Valenti, whom I respect and whom I admire for many things he does for the movie industry. He explained his objections, which I still don't agree with. In order to protect freedom for our films, he said, let's not provoke them with a poster. What is important is to keep freedom of expression for the actual movies. There is enormous pressure in the Senate and the Congress from the right wing to establish some kind of censorship for films, television, and records.

Would you ever consider going back to Czechoslovakia to make a film?

No. This is the best country in the world to make a film and I'm spoiled. To go back there and visit friends, yes; to work, no.

You remarked once that you never could have directed The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I was offered that film, but in those times it was impossible to shoot a film in Prague. This is such a funny idiosyncrasy. I could shoot a Swedish story in Afghanistan or an American story in Australia. But I could never bring myself to shoot a Czech story outside of Czechoslovakia because I would suffer at every step and think to myself, “This is not real. This is not Prague, these people don't look like Czech people, it's all fake.”

Are you still in touch with Milan Kundera? What was he like as a teacher?

I see him from time to time, but he's becoming a more reclusive man, a strange bird. He was a wonderful teacher, the one who really excited us about reading books, and that's always important for a professor to do—to inspire the students to read, to actually look at a book. Reading is still enormously important, especially during this period when visual media are bombarding us all the time. He was the one who introduced me to Laclos, to Les Liaisons Dangereuses, when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. I fell in love with that book, and even then I thought of making a movie of it.

Why do you think there was such an explosion of talent in Czechoslovakia during the Sixties?

I finished film school in 1955. Before the war, Czech cinema was producing thirty or forty full-length features, a lot for a country of ten million people. In the Fifties and early Sixties, when the film school was producing new graduates, there was no work for us for several years because production dwindled to two or three full-length features a year. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin and produced the famous thaw, the door suddenly opened a crack. There were so many people standing before that crack that we just burst in, and it took an invasion of Russian soldiers to crush this rejuvenation of Czech society. I did not believe it was possible to reform Communism and have socialism with a human face. But we could at least use a certain relaxation and we did.

You were already here in the U.S., weren't you, when the Soviet invasion took place?

At that moment I was in Paris, but I was already, with the permission of my government, working on Taking Off, my first American project. I couldn't really function as a writer in a language I don't fully understand. I like that film, but I understand why the audience really didn't like it. It was a very European film, an open-ended story. The American audience wanted to know what it was all about.

Your current film seems to have contributed to the rehabilitation of Larry Flynt's reputation.

I already explained to various people that if they have a different opinion of Larry Flynt after seeing the film, I don't necessarily want them to have a different opinion of Hustler magazine. I never bought a copy of Hustler in my life. I don't particularly like it. I think it's tasteless. But it's very important for him to be able to publish it, and for whoever who wants to read it to have the opportunity to buy it. It shouldn't be banned. That's censorship, and once that starts you never know where it will end.

Charles Paul Freund (essay date January 1997)

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SOURCE: Freund, Charles Paul. “Market Culture: Bashed and Unabashed.” Reason 28, no. 8 (January 1997): 54.

[In the following essay, Freund examines the issues of capitalism and left-wing vs. right-wing politics in response to The People vs. Larry Flynt.]

Quick: Name an icon of “capitalism at its most unabashed.” Who'd you come up with? Somebody like Bill Gates from the exploding information economy? A Daddy Warbucks from Wall Street? Some old-time, public-be-damned robber baron?

The correct answer—at least the one given by The New York Times—is pornographer Larry Flynt. [He is] portrayed by Woody Harrelson in Milos Forman's movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt.The Times reviewed the film when it played the New York Film Festival, praising the characterization of Flynt as “a maverick vulgarian who embodies capitalism at its most unabashed.”

Critic Janet Maslin thought the film's opening sequence particularly good: It shows the young Flynt, then a Kentucky moonshiner, selling whiskey to a helpless old drunk in exchange for his last two bucks. “It's free enterprise even if it isn't pretty,” she wrote. Pornography and the ruin of drunks; that pretty much sums up capitalism, unless you want to include genocide.

And The Times did. Frank Rich, the paper's former drama critic and now a columnist, applauded the film on the op-ed page. To Rich, making the Flynt film was a matter of “urgency.” Indeed, the result is “the most timely and patriotic movie of the year.” Why? Because these days, “even the word ‘liberal’ is considered obscene.” Rich's concern is not economic; it is that the curtain of totalitarianism is descending, lowered by the right's cultural commissars. He quotes director Forman on the stakes involved: “The Nazis and Communists began by attacking pornography, homosexuals—it always starts very innocently.”

Quite a chorus. Not only are such ready-made blurbs from the nation's most prestigious paper a publicist's dream become ink, they are a first-rate example of just how much rhetorical content can be stuffed into a few phrases of cultural discourse. These few lines of praise and hype also double as validations of historical, social, and economic points of view long associated with the cultural elite; they are like bits of a Frankfurt School lecture overheard on an Upper East Side bus.

The movie itself is not at issue here; it had not been released at press time anyway. Milos Forman is a formidable director having made films of power and consequence in both Prague and Hollywood, from Loves of a Blonde to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (as well as such duds as Hair). He is a filmmaker to whom it is worth paying attention. But this time the matter at hand is not his film; it is the discourse it sparked even before it was released. Here, then, is some counter-discourse to munch on, along with your popcorn.

First, this project is a typical piece of Hollywood courage: The key court case in the film's script was brought against Flynt by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell. First Amendment dramas that derive from hate-speech codes, lists of forbidden terminology based in the cant of diversity-think, or censorious feminist ideology have yet to find their multi-million dollar budgets or cultural champions. Columnist Rich, it should be noted, made some effort to bow in all these directions at the same time, citing Flynt's “nasty debasements of women” in particular, and “the grotesque excesses of our culture” in general. This very straddling, however, highlights the tension at the core of his op-ed lecture: his equating of “liberal” attitudes with the defense of the First Amendment. T'ain't so.

Second, Flynt's a has-been panderer. Like most figures who make their fortunes shocking the bourgeoisie, he eventually came to bore them instead. As a has-been, he ceases to be a threat to liberal sensibilities, and becomes available as a bludgeon for the left to use against the right in their continuing culture wars. Insofar as what he actually produced in the past remains offensive to those sensibilities, well, that's where capitalism comes in. Flynt's free speech rights are dear; if he used them to express garbage, then that's what unabashed market culture is all about. The argument becomes seamless.

Third, porn and alcohol predate capitalism by several millennia, and associating them through Flynt is at best superficial. Markets certainly facilitate the efficient production and distribution of both, but then the alternative is neither virtue nor sobriety. When the Soviets suppressed alcohol in the name of the collective Radiant Future, people drank after-shave; it was a command economy even if it wasn't pretty.

But even if one insists on viewing the world through Flynt's peephole, capitalism—though it did not create sin—has another, more pertinent, role to play. Market culture, because it vastly increased material wealth, rearranged social power, and created numerous avenues for information exchange, sparked a wave of emancipatory and reform movements in the industrializing societies where it took root. Among the new voices being heard were those of the founding feminists; their heirs are of course the secular opposition to Flynt and others like him. The free press through which they advance their arguments appears to have a certain connection to the free market. Perhaps this is all capitalism in one of its more abashed forms.

Fourth, it is painful to see a serious figure like Forman stupefy his own sense of the past to hype his movie with references to Nazis. Born in 1932 in Czechoslovakia, Forman experienced the Nazis and Stalinism firsthand. Indeed, the 1965 film that first brought him world attention, Loves of a Blonde, was an important part of the mid-'60s cultural run-up to the Prague Spring. That film focused on the all-female work force of a Czech factory and the state's bumbling attempts to introduce men into their environment. It was understood as a tale of the state's inability to solve anyone's personal problems.

Now Forman is willing to invoke Nazis and communists to fan interest in a story of an American pornographer in civil court. That Flynt won his Supreme Court appeal in the Falwell suit is a good thing indeed, though the fact that the decision in his favor was unanimous, and that it was written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist—about whom the left has little good to say—would seem to vitiate the Nazi parallel.

Finally, this movie was co-produced by Oliver Stone, who as a mongerer of paranoia, a narrator of pseudo-history, and an exploiter of violence as pseudo-protest, knows something about the lack of abashment.

David Holmstrom (essay date 12 February 1997)

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SOURCE: Holmstrom, David. “Director Defends The People vs. Larry Flynt.Christian Science Monitor (12 February 1997): 57.

[In the following essay, Holmstrom discusses Forman's response to the negative critical reaction to The People vs. Larry Flynt.]

Milos Forman already won the Golden Globe Award as best director for his controversial new movie, The People vs. Larry Flynt. And just yesterday, he also earned an Oscar nomination for the same film. Entertainment Weekly magazine predicts Mr. Forman is a “shoo-in” for the Academy Award.

But Forman, honored twice before with Oscars (best director for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975 and Amadeus in 1984) is upset about the attacks around the country over the content of his newest film. Since its release late last year, the movie has been heavily criticized by feminists for falsely portraying Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, as only a mildly offensive pornography “rogue,” who champions free speech.

Writer Gloria Steinem and others have said that the film sanitizes Mr. Flynt and leaves out any mention of the magazine's well-known “images of women being beaten, tortured, and raped, women subject to degradations from bestiality to sexual slavery.” They ask, why should a man who publishes images of violently abused women be treated like a star, as someone who embodies the American dream?

“This is not a film about the dividing line between what is acceptable or unacceptable pornography,” Forman said at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government last week just before participating in a debate about the film's content.

“If I had put the worst images in, the studios would never have made the film,” he says. “I made this film out of admiration for the beauty and wisdom of the American Constitution, which allows this country to rise to its best when provoked by the worst,” he says.

Forman's film is a loosely biographical love story focusing mostly on Flynt's bizarre relationship with his bisexual, drug-addicted wife. Included are his many court battles, and the famous 1987 US Supreme Court case that ultimately protected Flynt's right to outrageously parody the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, in a pseudo liquor ad in the pages of Hustler.

The ad said Mr. Falwell's first sexual encounter was with his mother. Falwell sued Flynt for libel, invasion of privacy, and demanded $45 million for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A lower court awarded Falwell $200,000, but threw out the other two charges.

The Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the damage award. It ruled that the First. Amendment protected speech that “could not reasonably have been interpreted as stating actual facts about the public figure involved.” In other words, the ad was not “believable,” and a reasonable person would know the ad was a parody or a caricature. It is the same interpretation of free speech that today protects political cartoonists and all political satire.

Forman, a Czechoslovakian by birth, lived for 20 years under a communist regime and lost his parents in Nazi concentration camps.

“Free speech was lost incrementally,” he says. “Each regime opened the door a crack for censorship, just to get rid of smut, they said. It never stays just a little bit, and soon the freedom is gone.”

To Forman, pornography is boring, something he thinks appeals mostly to lonely people. What intrigued him as a movie director about Flynt was the ambiguity of a man who would describe himself as a “scumbag” and yet realize that free speech rights had to include him. “If the film was just the life story of Flynt, I certainly wouldn't make it,” says Forman. “For me it was very passionate testimony to the importance of the First Amendment.”

For Wendy Kaimer, a public-policy fellow at Radcliffe College, and on the panel debating Forman, the movie fails to put Flynt in a larger cultural context. “The film makes the defense of the First Amendment look easy by portraying Flynt as a forth-right rascal squared off against the sanctimonious, hypocritical Falwell,” she says.

“The challenge for civil libertarians is to convince people to extend rights to people they hate. I think the movie shrinks from that job to the extent that it does romanticize Flynt,” she says, “and lacks the courage of its convictions.”

When Forman challenges Ms. Kaimer to illustrate a “romanticized” scene, she calls attention to a scene in which Flynt, played charmingly by actor Woody Harrelson, stands before a crowd and a huge screen alternating between slides of the horrors of war and nude women. “Which is obscene?” asks Flynt of the images.

“Of course the war images were more obscene,” says Kaimer, “but if some of the more vicious pictures from Hustler were shown, it would have been a harder question.”

Forman says that what precedes the scene is a disclosure that Flynt has paid for the audience to be there. “He is a demagogue,” says Forman, his voice rising, “and the most dangerous demagogues are always the most charming, otherwise why would so many people believe them?”

The People vs. Larry Flynt was made for $34 million, a fairly modest sum by Hollywood standards. In its first five weeks the film has earned less than $14 million compared with a less controversial film like Jerry Maguire, which has earned $104 million in six weeks.

Stella Bruzzi (review date March 1997)

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SOURCE: Bruzzi, Stella. Review of The People vs. Larry Flynt, by Milos Forman. Sight and Sound 7, no. 3 (March 1997): 58-9.

[In the following review, Bruzzi argues that Forman glosses over the darker side of Larry Flynt's persona in The People vs. Larry Flynt, therefore lessening the importance of Flynt's First Amendment battles with the U.S. Supreme Court.]

Kentucky, 1952. Two boys, one of them Larry Flynt, manufacture and sell moonshine liquor. Twenty years later, Larry is running the Hustler go-go club, where he meets Althea Leasure, a dancer he later marries, after the Hustler ‘newsletter’ has become a commercial porn magazine and made him a millionaire. In 1972 Larry is arrested on charges of pandering obscenity and organised crime, and is defended by Alan Isaacman, who represents him in all his courtroom battles.

At his first trial, Larry is found guilty and sentenced to 25 years, but is cleared five months later. Under the persuasion of Ruth Carter Stapleton, President Jimmy Carter's sister, he undergoes a religious conversion and is baptised, only to be arrested again in 1978 for selling Hustler. Outside the Georgia courthouse, Larry and Isaacman are shot, Larry remaining paralysed from the waist down and renouncing his Christianity. He and Althea move to Hollywood where, between 1979 and 1983, they abandon the running of the magazine and descend into drug addiction. After an operation that at least rids him of pain, Larry gives up drugs and goes back to work.

In 1981 he is subpoenaed to reveal the source of a tape showing FBI agents striking a cocaine deal with John Delorean, but Flynt refuses and is sent to psychiatric prison for contempt of court. Althea discovers she has Aids. The Rev. Jerry Falwell sues Flynt for $40 million after Hustler runs a satirical Campari ad, but Larry counter-sues and the case comes to trial in 1984, where the lesser verdict of inflicting emotional distress is reached. Althea dies, and in 1987 Larry takes his case to the Supreme Court, who find in favour of him and freedom of speech.

The People vs. Larry Flynt never resolves its fundamental dilemma: how to make a Hollywood film about a hard core pornographer. What ensues, therefore, is an often witty and dramatic sanitisation exercise during which any potentially disruptive or dangerous elements are spruced up and subsumed into the pervasive purity of the mainstream form. These tensions are expressed in one early scene. Flynt, after castigating Playboy for mocking its readership by printing serious articles that no one, in a porn mag, is ever going to read, attends a Hustler photo shoot during which he instructs the photographer (who is striving to do something tasteful with flowers) to downplay the art and make the model's pose more explicit, concluding that, “a woman's vagina has as much morality as her face.” This, like much of the dialogue in The People vs. Larry Flynt, is very funny, but firstly, you don't get to see the morally inclined pudenda, it's tastefully smudged out; and secondly, are we really meant to believe that, in 1972, Larry Flynt would have used the word vagina? The spectre of 90s political correctness lumbers into frame.

So, what are the options left open to a classical narrative film about the king of raunchy porn? Plucked from Hollywood's vault of intellectual ideas to vulgarise and simplify comes the Marxist critic Lukács' notion of representative individuals, dramatic characters through whose conflicts greater significant socio-historical collisions can be symbolised (indeed, Forman's best US film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, is exemplary of this tactic). The 90s incarnation of Lukács' schema is the historical chronicle, and in its use of an individual's life to lend coherence to the oscillations and upheavals of the last 25 years, Larry Flynt is not unlike Forrest Gump. Although, mercifully, America's recent evolution is not charted in Forman's film via the coincidental actions of a divine fool but through an astute, engaging showman's restless fight against prudery, Flynt's life intersects with all the major political debates of the time: sexual liberation, feminism, Reaganism, evangelism, censorship. The effect of using Flynt as representative is to deproblematise his individuality, as every act of subversion (wearing the stars and stripes as a diaper in court, highlighting the humbug hypocrisy of Jerry Falwell by running an ad suggesting he has had sex with his mother) is diluted down to the same insipid message, namely that freedom of expression is the only issue.

Milos Forman's direction is heavy-handed and predictable (except for the idiosyncratic attention paid to feet skipping up courthouse stairs), and alternates between wide descriptive shots and extreme, involving close-ups. Although the film is economically structured around the two repeated scenarios of Flynt's court appearances and the Hustler editorial meetings, its monolithic uniformity elides several narrative inconsistencies. In the pursuit of homogeneity and justice the film loses track of the strong and touching love story between Larry and Althea and fails to utilise its obsession with the cheesy 70s clothes and lifestyle paraphernalia of characters who make Priest in Superfly look conservative. The excesses of design such as the rhino head, heavy baroque drapes and neurotic safe-like door that embellish Larry's millionaire's bedrooms could convey more about Hustler, Flynt and the political climate than any lawyer labouring the point of the right to free speech. The acting suffers particularly badly. For the most part Courtney Love gives an outstanding performance as the bawdy, provocative, intelligent Althea, but runs out of quirky mannerisms as her part is reduced to a stumbling, grubby, infantile cliché of a dying junkie.

Grafting the founder of Hustler onto a flag-waving exercise produces an awkward compromise, and the film is at its best when it temporarily forgets its liberal straightjacket. This largely occurs early on (before the imperialistic fetishisation of the American constitution really kicks in), when the magazine's editorial board discusses running a pornographic version of the Wizard of Oz (to which one member mumbles “some things are sacred”), or in Larry's deadpan description under cross-examination of the Hustler's Santa cartoon in which that favoured purveyor of Christmas presents brandishes his tumescent penis at Mrs Claus and says “this is what I've got to ho ho ho about.” Flynt flaunts his crudity. He is not like the middle-class editors of the British underground magazine Oz who at their 1971 trial (for amongst other things a ‘sacrilegious’ cartoon of Rupert Bear) thoughtfully gloss the prosecution lawyer's use of the word perversions as “aspects of human sexual behaviour which are rather sad.” His celebratory appropriation of tackiness is what salvages Larry. When he returns, after the wilderness drugfogged years following his paralysis, to the Hustler offices in his wheelchair wearing a jazzy lemon suit he exclaims “the pervert is back,” an announcement which the hapless receptionist reiterates in official monotone over the corporate tannoy. For all the reservations, this biopic works because Flynt's life can't be anything other than fascinating, but it's a pity that Forman marginalises the radicalism of this anarchic, frustrated pornographer who free-wheelchaired his way right up to the Supreme Court.

Adam Newey (review date 18 April 1997)

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SOURCE: Newey, Adam. “Trials of the Smut-Pedlar Who Cared.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4907 (18 April 1997): 18.

[In the following review, Newey questions the reality behind Forman's “softening” of Larry Flynt's character in The People vs. Larry Flynt.]

From the opening credits of The People vs Larry Flynt, it is clear that the real hero of this film is the American flag. The stars and stripes form a near-constant backdrop to Milos Forman's biopic of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, the king of blue-collar porn; the New York Times has even described the film as “the most patriotic movie of the year.”

Forman's aims are straightforward enough. By painting his film in red, white and blue, he hopes to rehabilitate Flynt as an all-American hero and to replenish America's faith in the values enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. This is no easy task, because, even by Hollywood's standards, Flynt's life has been a bizarre one. After establishing a small string of strip joints in the Midwest in the early 1970s, he began publishing the Hustler Newsletter as a way of increasing the clubs' clientele, but soon realized there was a huge gap in the magazine market. By avowedly catering for a readership that found Playboy too challenging, Flynt amassed a fortune with Hustler magazine and became one of America's most reviled citizens.

Along the way, he also served sentences for pandering and obscenity, had a Damascene conversion aboard his private jet, was shot and paralysed by a white supremacist who objected to Hustler's portrayal of miscegenation, ran for president on the slogan “a smut-pedlar who cares,” and lent his name to a landmark legal ruling by the Supreme Court. Given such material, it is a pity that Forman has decided to rely so heavily on the stock-in-trade of love story and courtroom drama. Through most of the film, Flynt's relationship with his wife (a former stripper called Althea Leasure, wonderfully played by Courtney Love) is interwoven with his various brushes with the law. Flynt's motivation to keep chipping away at America's sexual taboos, both personally and professionally, is underwritten by Althea's unquestioning admiration. So, while their outward lives contain all the trappings of the 1970s counter-culture, the subtext is that their values—sexual, moral, cultural—are just one set of choices from among the broad range of lifestyle options that modern America has to offer the ethical consumer.

Herein lies the fudge: Forman's film purports to show that the freedom of the press is a sufficiently important commodity to make the occasional abuse of that freedom a price worth paying. This is why it leans so heavily on the symbolism of the flag. At the same time, the film wants to suggest that all Flynt is guilty of is “bad taste.” The screenwriters' approach to characterization makes the task of rehabilitation much easier. Forman's Flynt is more likeable and self-parodic than his real-life counterpart (a highly engaging performance from Woody Harrelson helps); and the stuffed shirts who try to close Flynt down, from the Ohio financier and moral crusader Charles Keating to the “televangelist” Jerry Falwell, are, here at least, bigoted caricatures. Yet there are serious objections to Hustler and to its publisher. It is a peculiarly unpleasant product, even of its type. What freedom, after all, is there to defend in a magazine that has featured a naked woman being fed into a meat-grinder on its cover? Is Flynt a hero because of, or despite, the fact that he pushes the bounds of tolerability? Forman never quite makes up his mind, and is therefore unable to tackle the idea that publishing a magazine like Hustler might actually be wrong, whatever the law says.

Forman is on surer ground in delineating the gravitational pull that a publicity-hungry individual like Flynt exercised on his colleagues and on American society. With his Bel-Air mansion under siege from federal marshals and press helicopters hovering outside his bedroom window, Flynt exclaims ecstatically: “I'm turning the whole world into a tabloid!” This episode, which has its real-life corollary in the chase and arrest of O. J. Simpson, is a useful reminder that tabloid “infotainment,” like pornography, blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. But by the same token, glamorizing Flynt's life on film inevitably accords the man a greater measure of purpose and self-knowledge than he in fact possesses. That we are invited to collude in this deception is the real disturbance at the heart of Forman's polished, often very funny film.

Kathryn H. Fuller (review date December 1997)

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SOURCE: Fuller, Kathryn H. Review of The People vs. Larry Flynt, by Milos Forman. Journal of American History 84, no. 3 (December 1997): 1185-86.

[In the following review, Fuller analyzes the public reaction to The People vs. Larry Flynt and expresses surprise that the majority of debate came from liberal and feminist groups.]

The People vs. Larry Flynt is a recent addition to the surprisingly small store of Hollywood films dealing with censorship, freedom of speech, and First Amendment controversies. Previous films featured likable, unassuming, Everyman protagonists such as Edward G. Robinson's journalist in Dispatch from Reuter's (1940), Henry Fonda's college professor in The Male Animal (1942), Bette Davis's librarian in Storm Center (1956), Spencer Tracy's lawyer in Inherit the Wind (1960), and Woody Allen's screenwriter in The Front (1976). In dramatic courtroom and lecture hall confrontations, the heroes rise above community approbation to uphold free speech and democracy. The flag-waving finales reassured moviegoers of the triumph of the American way.

The iconoclastic Everyman that viewers are asked to cheer in The People vs. Larry Flynt is the boorish, crude publisher of Hustler and other pornographic magazines and the defendant in a famous First Amendment case heard before the Supreme Court in 1987-1988, Hustler Magazine v. Rev. Jerry Falwell. Larry Flynt may be the antithesis of his filmic forebears, but the film tells us he is fighting for the same causes and so should be respected. Flynt even says, “If the First Amendment can protect a scumbag like me, then it will protect all of you, because I'm the worst.” Herein lies the film's problem: the disparity between our revulsion at Flynt's business and our sympathy for his fight for justice could and should have made this film into a powerful vehicle for viewers to reconsider the importance of guarding our constitutional rights. In true Hollywood fashion, however, Milos Forman presents Larry Flynt, not as a monster, but as a charmingly coarse “good ol' boy” portrayed by the engaging Woody Harrelson. The militantly tawdry Hustler is represented as a middle-class, genteel soft-porn magazine filled with pink drapery and models wearing pearls.

The downplaying of the most distasteful qualities of Flynt and Hustler may have been meant to secure the film a wider audience (when an X or NR-17 rating brings the kiss of death at the box office) or make Flynt seem more acceptably mainstream (Flynt himself was promoting the publication of his autobiography, An Unseemly Man, at the time of the film's release). Despite this attempt at rehabilitation of Flynt and his magazine, and in fact because of the film's depiction of what one reviewer termed Flynt's “tragic nobility,” the film, which initially was praised, soon met with sharp critical reception. The irony is, the trashing was not from the far Right, but from liberal critics. This evolving public reception of the film should interest historians of mass media and culture in the 1990s.

Influential critics such as Frank Rich of the New York Times, who reviewed the film in pre-release (October 12, 1996), gave the film high praise for its courageous, truthful, and very honest championing of First Amendment rights. Rich wrote that the film “deserves a huge adult audience because it is the most timely and patriotic movie of the year.” The film's advertising trumpeted the rave reviews. But dissenting opinions emerged upon the film's general release, most prominently in Gloria Steinem's devastating review (also in the New York Times), “Hollywood Cleans Up Hustler” (January 7, 1997). She asserted that the film deliberately ignored “the magazine's images of women being beaten, tortured and raped, women subjected to degradation from bestiality to sexual slavery.” This article and others unleashed a growing outcry from other (mostly liberal and feminist) reviewers about what they perceived as the dangers of the inaccurate and dishonest portrayal of Flynt and Hustler. The whole public discussion of the film quickly shifted from the First Amendment theme to the debate on whether heterosexual, male-oriented pornography inevitably victimized women.

A bitter battle over pornography's impact on men and women has been raging for more than a decade between antipornography groups and the Christian far Right, on the one hand, and civil libertarians on the other. The issue has deeply divided feminist scholars. Some, such as Catharine MacKinnon, view all pornography as damaging. Others, such as Linda Williams and Laura Kipnis, have seen avenues for women to use media, even pornography itself, to take charge of their own sexuality. Kipnis had previously praised Flynt's and Hustler's successful working-class challenge to circumscribed bourgeois ideals of sexual expression. Now even she is confused by the film and by Flynt's attempts to recast himself as a respectable citizen.

The director and producer were taken aback by this criticism from unexpected quarters. “It's all so puzzling,” said Forman. It was interesting that in all this debate in the national press, criticisms of the film from the religious Right were largely absent, even though they were the targets of Flynt's wrath and satire in the film and are painted in the film as the real bad guys (uptight bluenoses who can't take a joke).

The apogee of the controversy in print came when an anonymous source reprinted Steinem's review in a full-page ad lambasting The People vs. Larry Flynt in Variety, the film industry trade paper. The Southern California chapter of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) responded with a Variety ad of its own, defending the film. Talk about a First Amendment flap. While it is unclear to what extent this debate impacted the film's reception by the public, despite the excellent initial reviews and the pull of its popular director and stars, it was nominated for only two major Academy awards and won neither. Also, the film did much more poorly at the box office than its producers anticipated. The film's release in European markets has been dogged by similar problems.

On the surface, then, The People vs. Larry Flynt is a rousing tale of an unlikely Everyman of the 1970s and 1980s fighting for freedom of speech and expression, and it may be useful in the classroom. On another level, the critical reception surrounding the film makes for a fascinating case study of cultural controversies about sexuality and gender politics in American society in the 1990s, which may be even more illuminating.

Joanna E. Rapf (essay date January 1998)

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SOURCE: Rapf, Joanna E. “Volatile Forms: The Transgressive Energy of Ragtime as a Novel and Film.” Literature-Film Quarterly 26, no. 1 (January 1998): 16-22.

[In the following essay, Rapf explores the dynamics of the novel Ragtime and examines the elements that were lost and retained in its film adaptation.]

Father kept himself under control by writing in his journal. This was a system too, the system of language and conceptualization. It proposed that human beings, by the act of making witness, warranted times and places for their existence other than the time and place they were living through.

—E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime

E. L. Doctorow's novel, Ragtime, is certainly about “making witness.” Its serpentine structure, drifting from one subject and one point-of-view to another, with its allusive narrator who seems by the end to be a little boy reflecting on the past of his youth, is about the creation and re-creation of history, a discipline, Doctorow seems to suggest, that is itself about making order out of disorder, about “control.” While he is in the Arctic, Father “kept himself under control by writing in his journal.” This process of ordering, of fixing, is crucial in Doctorow's work. Ragtime is all about things going out of control as the nineteenth century marches into the twentieth: race riots (Coalhouse), the automobile (Ford), Communist agitation and women's rights (Emma Goldman), labor strikes, and world war. The tranquility of the opening chapter—with Father's house, patriotism as “a reliable sentiment in the early 1900s,” vaudeville, and “no Negroes” and “no immigrants,” when Winslow Homer was still painting, capturing the fleeting image of a certain kind of light—is all shattered in the few short years chronicled by the novel. By the end of Part II, “Father wondered at this moment if their lives might no longer be under their control” (240), and by the end of Part IV, Winslow Homer is dead, along with Father, Grandfather, and Younger Brother. Emma Goldman has been deported, Evelyn Nesbit has lost her looks, and “the era of Ragtime had run out, with the heavy breath of the machine, “as if history were no more than a tune on a player piano” (369). And indeed, this is Doctorow's vision of history, being composed and re-composed, so that the human sense of order might be liberating and creative rather than oppressive, restrictive, and stifling of spirit. He has said:

since history can be composed, you see, then you want to have as many people active in the composition as possible. A kind of democracy of perception … a multiplicity of witnesses.

If you don't constantly recompose and re-interpret history, then it begins to tighten its grip on your throat as myth and you find yourself in some kind of totalitarian society, either secular or religious.

(“A Multiplicity of Witness” 184)

The whole subtext of Ragtime is about telling, making witness and narrating history. The little boy, as a grown man looking back, seems to narrate the novel we read. Anthony B. Dawson has called him “the privileged consciousness of the novel” (208). He tells its history, but within that novel, Father keeps a journal to tell his history, and so does Younger Brother:

Our knowledge of this clandestine history comes to us by Younger Brother's own hand. He kept a diary from the day of his arrival in Harlem to the day of his death in Mexico a little more than a year later.


And Grandfather narrates stories of transformation, people who become animals or trees, just as Ragtime itself is a narration of transformation, about people who become something they were not at the beginning of the book. The immigrant silhouette artist, Tateh, becomes a moviemaker; the meek Younger Brother becomes a lover and a revolutionary; the musician, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., becomes an angry symbol of the struggle for dignity and human rights. The patchwork of these stories suggests, as the boy narrates, that “forms of life were volatile and that everything in the world could as easily become something else” (132-33). He found, he says, “proof in his own experience of the instability of both things and people.” The recurring figure in the novel of the magician/escape artist Harry Houdini is a running metaphor of this experience, a man who does not even use his own name—“He was a Jew. His real name was Erich Weiss” (39)—and whose only source of order in a volatile world is his mother. Even in death she continues to order his life: “Every feat enacted Houdini's desire for his dead mother. He was buried and reborn, buried and reborn” (234): the theme of reincarnation so crucial to J. P. Morgan's failed quest in the novel. The pattern always is one of an attempt to fix the volatility of life, to order, to “re-compose.”

Two other metaphors in the book that seem to usurp nineteenth-century orderings and renew them in twentieth-century forms are baseball and the movies. Father's instinct at the time of losing control, when “it was clear the crisis was driving the spirit from their lives,” is to take his son to a baseball game. A baseball game presents excitement within an order, a structure, that repeats itself again and again. Doctorow writes:

Father sank into his chair. As the afternoon wore on he entertained the illusion that what he saw was not baseball but an elaborate representation of his own problems accounted, for his secret understanding, in the coded clarity of numbers that could be seen from a distance.

(266, italics mine)

Baseball encompasses a “re-presentation,” the problems of his life “accounted,” with its metaphor of the ordering of numbers, the tidy summation of a ledger making sense of disorder while creating an understanding. When Father asks the boy what he likes about the game, the boy replies, “The same thing happens over and over,” just as he had said in an earlier chapter that he liked to listen to the same record over and over again on the Victrola “as if to test the endurance of a duplicated event,” and that he liked to look at himself in the mirror “not from vanity but because he discovered the mirror as a means of self-duplication” (133-34). The fragility of this ordering, its illusory nature, is reiterated by Doctorow at the end of the baseball chapter when the outcast player, Charles Victor Faust, actually gets a chance to pitch one inning for the Giants, but then is sent on his way. Out of the ordering of baseball, he ends up in an insane asylum and dies.

But as long as we can maintain an illusion, and thereby our sanity, “understanding” is possible. Doctorow's second metaphor for this understanding is the movies. When the little boy in Chapter 15 is worrying about the volatility of things we have what seems like two sentences put together that have no clear connection with each other:

If he raised the window in his room it might shut itself at the moment he thought the room was getting cold. He liked to go to the moving picture shows downtown at the New Rochelle Theatre on Main Street.


In a style typical of Doctorow, he leaves the reader to make the crucial connection between the two sentences, which are skillfully linked together like a form cut in a movie. There is the visual image of the frame, the window frame and the movie frame, and the mental image of a problem—discontinuity—and its solution—finding continuity at the movies.

It is in the transformation of Tateh (Hebrew for Father, so by name he represents a kind of reincarnation into the twentieth century of the first, nineteenth-century father of the book, who literally blows up and sinks with the Lusitania) from immigrant silhouette artist to successful immigrant moviemaker. Chapter 18 begins with this description: “Thus did the artist point his life along the lines of flow of American energy,” and goes on to report that “The value of the duplicable event was everywhere perceived” (153), not just in the movies, but in factories and soda fountains. But it is the movies that offer the possibility of understanding, like Father's accounting illusion of baseball. The reincarnated Tateh, as Baron Ashkenazy, frames life with his rectangular glass, giving it shape and form. “In the movie films, he said, we only look at what is there already. Life shines on the shadow screen, as from the darkness of one's mind,” a sentence that brings together the physical screen and also what Bruce Kawin has called the “mindscreen” involved in the perception of movies. The new Baron Ashkenazy goes on,

People want to know what is happening to them. For a few pennies they sit and see their selves in movement, running, racing in motorcars, fighting and, forgive me, embracing one another. This is most important today, in this country, where everybody is so new. There is such a need to understand.


Both in terms of its style and content, Ragtime looks to the twentieth-century art form of the movies for understanding, for its structuring of history. Doctorow once said that The Book of Daniel “was constructed like Laugh-In” (qtd. in McCaffery 41). This is because in an age where visual media have replaced print as primary agents of mass communication. Doctorow recognizes that we no longer read with the same expectations of continuity that characterize nineteenth century essays and fiction. “I don't know how anyone can write today without accommodating eighty or ninety years of film technology” (qtd. in McCaffery 40). Consequently, the effects of that technology are manifest not just referentially but also structurally in his work. From film, he says, “we've learned that we don't have to explain things.” The audience or the reader can fill in gaps and will accept jumps in time and space. “My writing,” he tells us, “is powered by discontinuity, switches in scene, tense, voice, the mystery of who's talking. … Anyone who's ever watched a news broadcast on television knows all about discontinuity” (qtd. in McCaffery 41).

It is commonplace to call Ragtime a “cinematic” novel. Its style is itself an attempt to find a “literary equivalent for the cinematic process,” while its content suggests that “only the motion picture offers an artistic solution for historical volatility.”1 For example, the jumps in time, place, and subject between chapters are often tied together by visual images, as they would be if one were editing a movie. Chapter 12 ends with Tateh and his daughter on an electric railway, “humming along dirt roads” on their way to Boston. Chapter 13 begins, “Tracks! Tracks! It seemed to the visionaries who wrote for the popular magazines that the future lay at the end of parallel rails” (109), a description that returns us to New York and Houdini, and for the time being we have dropped the subject of Tateh and his daughter. The technique goes back to Locke and his “association of ideas.” It's a form of stream-of-consciousness montage where it is not necessary to explain connections to the reader. And not only are chapters linked this way, but so are sentences within Doctorow's extended paragraphs. In Chapter 1, when Evelyn Nesbit is introduced, we actually get very little visual description of her. The long first paragraph of the novel ends this way:

Evelyn fainted. She had been a well-known artist's model at the age of fifteen. Her under-clothes were white. Her husband habitually whipped her. She happened once to meet Emma Goldman, the revolutionary. Goldman lashed her with her tongue. Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants. And though the newspapers called the shooting the Crime of the Century, Goldman knew it was only 1906 and there were ninety-four years to go.


Much of the book is encapsulated in these cryptic, imaginatively connected sentences. They seem to work this way: being an artist's model suggests undressing, hence the under-clothes; her husband, we will find out, does not approve of her being a model, so this idea brings him into the picture, along with whipping her, both for punishment and sexual gratification; the connection with Goldman is made through the image of whipping, for Goldman “lashed her with her tongue”; lashings bring to mind the images of blacks being lashed, which in turn suggest minorities, those outside the main stream, and hence “immigrants”; the final sentence pulls us out of these shots which have started with intimate close-ups of underclothes and gradually broadened their scope from the particular, Nesbit, then Goldman, to larger groups, Negroes, then immigrants, dollying back to a kind of establishing shot that reminds us of the small time period of the novel, only about ten years out of the one hundred of the twentieth century.

These short, factual sentences, working by means of association of ideas, pull together many of the strands of the novel: upper class life, middle class life, immigrant life, blacks, revolutionaries, and, most significantly, crimes, which we will see in various forms throughout the book. It focuses essentially on three family groups: Father/Mother and their family (middle class), Tateh and his daughter (immigrant life), and Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Sarah, and their child (black life), all of whom, during the course of the roughly ten-year span, interact with upper class life. In conclusion, as John Parks has noted, these strands are remarkably tied together as the three families become one with the marriage of Tateh and Mother who have adopted the child of Coalhouse and Sarah (63).

Doctorow's verbal style maintains a distance from his fictions. Indeed, the novel at times seems to be spoken rather than written.2 For example, chapters will begin with questions, as if the narrator suddenly realizes that the reader may have been wondering if some characters in the story have simply been forgotten. Chapter 12: “And what of Tateh and his little girl?” Chapter 32: “And what of Younger Brother?” Doctorow's technique here is similar to Lord Byron's, who uses this rhetorical device for transition between digressions in works such as Childe Harold—“But where is he, the Pilgrim of my song, / The being who upheld it through the past?” (Canto IV, 1477-1478)—or Don Juan. The ironic, conversational narrator who pretends to lose control of his story, who apologizes for digression when in fact digression is the heart of his “story,” is central to both Byron and Doctorow as social satirists. Both write pseudo-history, putting their fictional characters into a world populated by “real” historical people such as Catherine the Great (Byron) or Booker T. Washington (Doctorow), and play with our notions of truth and fiction. This delightful ironic voice depends on the narrator having a distance from the material being narrated. Charles Eidsvik writes. “It may be that Doctorow's commitment to social satire demands the inscrutable, impersonal detached voice, the almost mythic artist” (309).

For Eidsvik there are three techniques, all media related (although, of course, Byron was using these techniques for his social satire long before movies and television) that structure Doctorow's fiction: 1) an ironic use of real, historical, public figures; 2) a carnivalesque attitude toward these figures by putting together people who, in reality, would not be joined; and 3) wildly digressive shifts in plot. It is, then, the tension between the seriousness of Doctorow's materials and vision, and the playfulness of his structures that make him “an important voice in contemporary fiction” (309).

Because the structure of Ragtime is so cinematic and because, in many ways, it is about volatile forms and the function of cinema to order those forms and create “history,” it would seem at first to be a promising subject for adaptation to the screen. And indeed, the adaptation by Michael Weller and Milos Forman is successful in a number of respects. Gerhard Bach and Leonard and Barbara Quart are too hard on it. The Quarts suggest that the film lacks a governing vision and purpose (72). They see the cross-cutting of the film as “conventional,” and like Bach, they argue that it fails to pick up Doctorow's playful spirit of discontinuity, volatility, even surreality. In other words, that crucial tension between the medium and the message, to quote McCluhan, is missing in the film adaptation [Ragtime].

Although this may be true, it is not for the reasons that the Quarts and Bach suggest. The film does make a real effort to evoke the feeling of discontinuity so crucial to the novel. Especially in what might be considered the film's first act, its introduction, we find scenes or sequences edited together in an abrupt manner. For example, after Sarah's baby has been found and Mother and Father are arguing what to do about him (which is changed from the novel where Father is away when the baby is found), we have a pause, during which time Mother says, “Excuse us, for a moment, won't you,” and she and Father exit the room to talk, but the camera does not follow them and we are left “to fill in the gap” about their conversation. Instead, there is a CUT on the sound of the door closing to Henry Thaw, in what seems to be a complete non-sequitur, exclaiming to his lawyers that he wants the nude statue of his wife, Evelyn, taken down off Madison Square Garden. And this short scene also ends on incomplete action as Thaw threatens his lawyers by saying, “'cause if you don't, …” and we abruptly CUT to an exterior street scene with a horse and wagon moving right to left, the same direction Thaw was looking and pointing.

Then there are a number of playful transitions, such as the freeze frame of the black-and-white face of Harry Houdini's mother from a newsreel dissolving into color live action of the same face, or the head that abruptly rises from the bottom of the frame, marking a transition from Coalhouse Walker, Jr. at Mother and Father's house saying, “Tell her I'll be back,” to Harry K. Thaw's trial. However, as the characters in the film begin to come together there is less and less of this disjunctive editing.

The film's narrative eliminates many of the patterns in Doctorow's quilt—Emma Goldman. Harry Houdini and his mother, Freud and Jung, Morgan and Ford—and concentrates with dramatic intensity on the Coalhouse Walker, Jr. story. But by exploiting our knowledge of film history, Forman and Weller attempt something like Doctorow's mixing of fact and fiction by casting Jimmy Cagney as Rheinlander Waldo (a character invented for the movie—in the novel he's District Attorney Whitman), Cagney's longtime buddy, off-screen and on, Pat O'Brien as the lawyer, Delmas, dancing legend Donald O'Connor as Nesbit's dancing instructor, and literary legend Norman Mailer as Stanford White. Such reflexivity does allow the film to do “what the novel does in some ways.”3 These cross-textual references also reflect what Eidsvik describes as the first two of Doctorow's media techniques, while the disjunctive editing is an example of the third. But what is still missing in the film is 1) the sense of ironic distance created by Doctorow's narrative voice and 2) the idea about the importance of creating history, of giving form to the disjunctive, chaotic experiences of life.

Narrating history, making witness, composing and re-composing are certainly suggested by the newsreel sequences in the film of Ragtime. Not only do these sequences allow Forman and Weller to bring in characters and the panorama of historical events from the novel that they do not specifically treat in the film—Houdini, Freud, Ford, Morgan, Teddy Roosevelt—but they suggest the “making of history,” not through writing but through filming, which of course has become increasingly important as the century in which Ragtime begins has passed through Emma Goldman's “ninety-four years to go.” The changing form and increasing importance of this kind of “making witness” is subtly suggested in a contrast between the two Harry Houdini newsreel scenes that are given to us in the film. This is a framing device that is used in the novel, and the film makes skillful, albeit subtle, use of it. One of the concluding visions of the novel is an image that composes itself in Houdini's mind as he is hanging upside down from a twelfth-floor window before escaping from a strait jacket. “The image was of a small boy looking at himself in the shiny brass headlamp of an automobile,” an echo of the image that concludes the first chapter of the novel where Houdini sees the boy “gazing at the distorted macrocephalic image of himself in the shiny brass fitting of the headlight,” a form of self-duplication for which the little boy in the novel is constantly questing. The camera, of course, can give us just this sort of enlarged image, and both the novel and film suggest that in the twentieth century the movies may be the way we deal with the volatility, and create our sense of history. Consequently, many of the characters of Ragtime are presented to us in Forman's film by means of newsreels. The Houdini feat of escaping from a strait jacket while hanging from a skyscraper we see in the second newsreel sequence in the film. Then, as if no time has passed, we see the scene again at the end of Ragtime, but this time it seems to be part of the actual diegesis of the film, because it is in color, and it gives us two important pieces of information: 1) WAR IS DECLARED, so we have moved from 1906 to 1914, and 2) we see one of the spectators taking a picture of Houdini with a camera. This is a subtly brilliant touch, a gentle, ironic moment that perfectly reflects Doctorow's vision about the recording of history. But it passes so fast it is almost unnoticeable.

The second missing ingredient in Ragtime the film, ironic distance, is harder to reproduce on screen just because a novel has at least three tenses—past, present, and future—that allow for hindsight, foresight, and distance from “the present,” while a film seems to unroll in a continuous present, and without a voice-over narrator it is very hard to create the distance necessary for ironic commentary on the unfolding action. Comedy, in particular black comedy, can be successful in doing this—Dr. Strangelove, for example, or a film like Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr., which like Ragtime comments on its own form and parodies human melodrama by naming its characters Father, the Boy, the Girl, and so on, so that these are “types” rather than individuals. Ragtime's characters, with the exception of those who have a historical or literary basis, are also identified as types, and both the film and the novel are structured as comedies, that is, their forms are circular and they end with a sense of renewal or the on-going process of life. But for the irony to come through on screen, the action itself within the comic frame or structure has to be caricatured—the exaggerations of Strangelove, the gags of Sherlock, Jr. The diegetic action of Ragtime the film, however, with the exception of the casting and film techniques mentioned above, is presented in a fairly straight-forward, dramatic manner, concentrating its intensity on the powerful story of injustice embodied in the person and experience of Coalhouse Walker, Jr., with whom we are allowed to sympathize. The camera does not keep us at a distance, like the narrator of the novel. For example, near the end of the book we are simply told, “Coalhouse never once went to the window to look at it [the Model T Ford]. He sat at Pierpont Morgan's desk in the West Room and composed his will” (342). In the film, on the other hand, we move in to a close-up of Walker as he sits at the desk, hands on the handle of a detonator, and prays: “Lord, I'd hoped I'd have the courage to know what I should do now.” He cries, and we cry with him. This is a powerfully emotional moment, unlike anything in the novel, and there is no satire here, no ironic voice. We are, however, saved the pain of his death. His shooting takes place in silence from the perspective of a high angle long shot, and as he falls on the steps on the Library, the camera holds in that shot; we do not come in any closer. Steam rises in front of the frame and we hear the ragtime music that segues into the closing shots of Father, Fire Chief Conklin, and, as we saw at the beginning of the film, Evelyn dancing in a swirling red skirt. The music and the repetition of this dancing sequence suggest that life goes on, like Harry K. Thaw marching “annually at Newport in the Armistice Day parade,” the closing line of the novel.

Unlike the Burt Kennedy film of Welcome to Hard Times, this adaptation of a Doctorow novel keeps the dominant metaphors: the ragtime music that carries us through the film and the duplicating images, in particular, the motion picture. Both novels deal with a present telling about the past, and so both are about the importance of telling, of recording, of making history. Like the windmill in Hard Times, the dancing figure of Evelyn, going round and round, suggests the cyclical nature of history, that it represents a moral process not progress. But that dancing figure of Evelyn gives a playful look at the camera as the film comes to a close, suggesting an awareness of the artificiality of all constructions of experience. Forman's film is filled with little moments like this, maybe not enough to embody fully a successful translation of novel to screen, but enough to share in that “democracy of perception.” It becomes yet another voice in the “multiplicity of witnesses” that keep history from becoming myth.


  1. See Dawson 209 and Parks 61.

  2. See Gerhard Bach, “Novel as History and Film as Fiction,” in Friedl and Schulz 167.

  3. See Michael Shields, “Look! It's James Cagney,” Friedl and Schulz 155.

Works Cited

Dawson, Anthony B. “Ragtime and the Movies: The Aura of the Duplicable.” Mosaic, XVI. 1-2 (Winter/Spring 1983). 205-14.

Doctorow, E. L., Ragtime. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

Eidsvik, Charles. “Playful Perceptions: E. L. Doctorow's Use of Media Structures and Conventions in Ragtime.Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch Im Auftrage der Görres-Gesellschadft 30 (1989). 301-309.

McCaffery, Larry. “A Spirit of Transgression.” E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Ed. Richard Trenner. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1983.

“A Multiplicity of Witness: E. L. Doctorow at Heidelberg.” E. L. Doctorow: A Democracy of Perception. Ed. Herwig Friedl and Dieter Schulz. Essen: Blau Eule, 1988.

Parks, John G. E. L. Doctorow. New York: Frederick Ungar Books, Continuum, 1991.

Quart, Leonard and Barbara Quart. “Ragtime Without a Melody.” Literature/Film Quarterly 10.2 (1982). 71-74.

Trenner, Richard, ed. E. L. Doctorow: Essays and Conversations. Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1983.

David Sterritt (review date spring 2000)

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SOURCE: Sterritt, David. Review of Man on the Moon, by Milos Forman. Cineaste 25, no. 2 (spring 2000): 52.

[In the following review, Sterritt dismisses the negative critical response to Man on the Moon, arguing that the film is both thought-provoking and mischievous.]

Man on the Moon joined the list of 1999's most misunderstood movies within hours of its first press screenings, as assorted critics started complaining they'd been cheated of the Andy Kaufman biopic they'd apparently come to see. The film's lukewarm box-office reception probably had a similar cause, abetted by lingering memories of Kaufman's actual career, which still conjures up extremely mixed vibes in the popular imagination. Universal Pictures didn't help, promoting the movie with publicity stunts designed to merge Jim Carrey's star power with Kaufman's own persona—a peculiar decision, considering Kaufman's rocky relationship with the public, not to mention the fact that Carrey's younger devotees aren't likely to have much awareness of Kaufman beyond Taxi reruns on late-night television. Nor did Universal give Man on the Moon an effective launch on the film-festival circuit. This was an obvious option, given the auteur eminence of director Milos Forman and the precedent of his previous picture, The People vs. Larry Flynt, opening the New York film-fest in 1997. But the studio apparently feared that any trace of ‘art-film’ stigmata might scare away Carrey fans before they had a chance to line up on opening weekend.

The result was a lackluster showing on all fronts for a serious, ambitious movie that deserves more thoughtful attention. To confront the most glaring misperception first, Man on the Moon is no more a biopic than Solaris is a space opera. It doesn't fail to show the ‘real’ Andy Kaufman and reveal what ‘made him tick.’ It takes virtually no interest in those tasks, focusing instead on the substance of his trailblazing work—his radical challenge of entertainment norms as a performance artist avant la lettre who had the audacity to conduct his experiments in the populist arenas of comedy clubs and commercial TV.

Since the movie's value rests on its faithfulness to the spirit (if not always the specifics) of Kaufman's career, a bit of synopsis is in order here. Kaufman climbed the comedy-club ladder in the early Seventies, gaining his first national attention on Saturday Night Live in 1975. Acquiring a following and an agent, he joined the fledgling Taxi sitcom, where he turned the Foreign Man character from his stand-up act into Latka Gravas, a mechanic who makes up in amiability what he lacks in language skills. This confirmed Kaufman as a mainstream success by industry standards but an Establishment sell-out by his own. He soon reasserted his orneriness by inventing “intergender wrestling” and becoming the self-declared bad guy of the sport, pushing the envelope of professional wrestling's already dubious show-biz conventions. He also played the nightclub circuit in the guise of Tony Clifton, his uproariously obnoxious alter ego. As satirical as they clearly were, these deliberately abrasive moves caused great con fusion among Kaufman's erstwhile admirers and nearly wrecked his career. He died in 1984 from large-cell carcinoma, an uncommon form of lung cancer. He was 35 and a nonsmoker.

Man on the Moon begins with a comic disclaimer vis-á-vis its fidelity to the facts: Speaking to the camera, Carrey/Kaufman/Foreign Man complains of changes made in the story “for dramatic purposes,” noting “all the baloney” these have brought into the picture. This won't persuade Kaufman loyalists to overlook the movie's most flagrant rearrangements of the record, but what matters in the film is less its journalistic accuracy than its commitment to the cultural resonances of his work. Here it excels by virtue of Forman's efficient stylistics, Carrey's surprisingly nuanced performance, and the ingenious mise-en-abime structure devised by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose previous pictures include Tim Burton's admirable Ed Wood and Forman's own Larry Flynt epic.

Just as Man on the Moon has been underrated by critics mistaking it for a biopic, Kaufman's career was undervalued by audiences mistaking him for a comedian. He resisted this, but the label he preferred—“song and dance man”—was even further off the mark, as he surely (and mischievously) knew. In actuality he was, as I've suggested above, a performance artist whose laboratory was the art-unfriendly world of mainstream entertainment, and whose obsessions were more far-reachingly subversive than that world could begin to comprehend, much less put up with.

His career had clear ties with comedy, of course, and one important aspect of his work was its bold refiguring of stand-up comedy conventions. The dominant style of middlebrow-to-highbrow comedy in the Fifties and Sixties, from Steve Allen and Mort Sahl to Jean Shepherd and Lenny Bruce, relied on making the audience into co-conspirators with the comedian, sharing a nebulous sort of hipness that contrasted with the out-group squareness of everyone not in the room. Kaufman discombobulated this pattern with a vengeance, largely by keeping his audience in a state of continual uncertainty as to what in the world he might do next. Questions of the most basic kind—Is he kidding? Is this part of the act? Is the show over yet?—moved from the margins to center stage, and stayed there for disconcertingly long stretches of time. Not surprisingly, this drove spectators crazy, and not surprisingly, Kaufman took that as a triumph. “This is the hippest audience in television,” says Kaufman's agent in Man on the Moon, telling his client that even Saturday Night Live viewers want nothing more to do with him. Kaufman gets the message, but the movie has taught us that he's secretly thrilled at such events. He's made people feel, and what they feel is almost beside the point.

Kaufman's desire to rework the dynamics of comedy is one facet of his interest in what performance theorists call “breaking frame,” which has a long pedigree, from Dada and Surrealism to performance art per se. This tradition was very much alive in the Sixties, when Kaufman was crystallizing his ideas as a teenager, and it produced an explosion of innovative concepts in the Seventies, the very decade when Kaufman made his first public impact. Its practices are often associated with boundary-blurring uses of the performative body, which is precisely what Kaufman specialized in as he confounded speech and action with silence and stillness; merged performance spaces with the outside world; and refused to distinguish a ‘real’ self from an ‘acting’ self, to the point where his most hyperbolic fans reportedly saw his death as the last and best prank of an unstoppable artist who'd turned indeterminacy into the ultimate expressive form.

I won't claim that Man on the Moon is as radical or resolute as the work it celebrates, but Alexander and Karaszewski have been remarkably successful at weaving Kaufman's sensibility into their screenplay, using intermittent appearances by his Tony Clifton character to muddle the lines between performative reality, biographical reality, socio-cultural reality, and various combinations thereof. Carrey provides brilliant support for their endeavor in at least three ways: his portrayal of Kaufman is uncannily accurate; his childish demeanor foregrounds Kaufman's subtextual messages about the persistence of infantile traits in adult thought and behavior; and his fitful efforts to broaden his own career (e.g., The Truman Show) lend poignancy to his depiction of a colleague who found a different kind of slippage between professional and personal goals. Lest his acting be dismissed as mere impersonation, I hasten to add that Carrey has crafted a genuinely creative portrait that interprets aspects of Kaufman's personality in unexpected ways. Compare his Tony Clifton with Kaufman's, for instance, and observe how Carrey adds a forward-thrusting neckline that combines with a fiercely jutting lower lip to suggest a grueling self-satisfaction that Kaufman himself didn't conjure up quite so ferociously.

I suspect much of the resistance to Man on the Moon has stemmed from its refusal to provide such conventional pleasures as a reassuring biopic format and production values as spiffy as the show-biz milieu that Kaufman inhabited. I further suspect Kaufman would have been pleased with it. It's often been noted that comedians are less interested in wooing their audiences than subduing them, and Kaufman carried this also to extremes, unmasking the sadomasochistic components of comic performance as few other American entertainers have done. He turned the well-timed tease (He's on the stage—why isn't he saying anything yet?) into the finely tuned torture (He's really insulting that guy—is it part of the act?) and savored the discomfort this brought on everyone concerned.

Man on the Moon seems methodically in league with his irascible agenda, from the sitcom-style flatness of Anastas Michos's cinematography to the over-the-top edginess of its wrestling sequences; even the ready-made nostalgia of the Taxi scenes are calculated to shrivel our romance-hungry souls with their views of a desperately aging Judd Hirsch and Christopher Lloyd cavorting on the tackiest set you ever saw. It's a spectacle only Tony Clifton could love, and here it is in a Jim Carrey picture that Universal itself couldn't figure out how to sell. Oh, yes, Kaufman would have cheered.

Leslie Felperin (review date April 2000)

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SOURCE: Felperin, Leslie. Review of Man on the Moon, by Milos Forman. Sight and Sound 10, no. 4 (April 2000): 58.

[In the following excerpt, Felperin asserts that Man on the Moon neither explains nor justifies Andy Kaufman's life and career.]

Clearly, if you're going to spend $52 million making a movie about a now-obscure comedian from the 70s, you have to believe his life is extraordinary in some way. (It's probably rule number one in the textbook for film-school courses called Advanced Screenwriting: Biopics.) Indeed on paper, Andy Kaufman's life story sounds thrillingly unlikely. Here's an introverted situationist manqué who rose to fame and fortune by singing along to the theme tune from Mighty Mouse, pretending to be a inept refugee and physically assaulting people. As every good biopic protagonist should, he duly died tragically young, of lung cancer at the age of 36. (Allegedly he didn't even smoke, which is in itself pretty funny.)

The problem is that while Kaufman's life story has its required quota of bizarre-yet-true events, it's doomed to failure as mainstream entertainment because Kaufman wasn't terribly likeable as a person. More importantly, he was the master of a comedy style that, as his agent George in the film tells him, is “only funny to two people in the universe.” He means Kaufman and his partner Bob Zmuda, although we should clearly include Man on the Moon's director Milos Forman and star Jim Carrey among the fans of Kaufman's particular brand of wit and whimsy.

It's to their and the film's credit that it only half-heartedly tries to sweeten these acrid pills. Kaufman, uncannily and superbly impersonated by Carrey right down the flaring eyelids and gratingly fey Latka voice, remains in the movie a bit of an arrogant prick, whose psychology the film either audaciously refuses to flesh out—or spinelessly can't because of the risk of litigation from surviving friends and relatives. (This makes Lynne Margulies, Kaufman's wife, no more than a functional straight man in a peasant blouse throughout.) In many ways, Kaufman is kin to the hero of Forman's last film, The People vs. Larry Flynt. Both Kaufman and porn-magnate-turned-first-amendment-champion Flynt are dodgy, deeply flawed characters whom Forman (a Czech refugee who has always revered his adopted country's ideal of self-realisation, no matter how obnoxious the result) delights in heroising. While Kaufman doesn't have the same historical importance as Flynt, he has supporters who champion to this day his ‘subversive’ performances, such as reading The Great Gatsby deadpan on stage for hours—stunts almost always more amusing when described than when observed.

Again you have to give the film credit for not wussing out and for letting Carrey's recreations of Kaufman's turns risk boring us. At a key point, Kaufman asks his transcendental-meditation guru what the secret of comedy is, to which comes the reply: “Silence.” As often as not, this finds a correlative in the sound of no hands clapping and no one laughing at his act, but it's linked to the way Kaufman would push comic timing to the limits of tolerance. In one excellent scene, we see him arguing with the network executives producing his special about exactly how many seconds the show can mimic the vertical-hold fritzing on viewers' televisions before it will set off a nationwide bout of set-banging.

Likewise, the movie tries to encapsulate Kaufman's subversiveness formally in little self-reflexive frills and trimmings. We see Kaufman in a montage working on the set of Taxi, with all its original cast members playing themselves (the years have been more unkind to some than to others), apart from Danny DeVito who is already playing George (he was the show's biggest discovery apart from Kaufman and Christopher Lloyd). Jerry Lawler and David Letterman re-enact a famous fight on the latter's show between Kaufman and Lawler, edited in such a way to maximise the revelation in the next scene that this too was just another pre-planned stunt. Man on the Moon opens with Kaufman telling us he thinks the film is so bad he's decided to cut straight to the end. So the final credits roll before Kaufman comes back to explain that was just to frighten off the people who wouldn't understand it. Unfortunately, there's not as much to understand as Kaufman, Forman, Carrey et al think.

Jonathan Romney (review date 8 May 2000)

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SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Out of this World.” New Statesman 129, no. 4485 (8 May 2000): 41-2.

[In the following review, Romney applauds Forman's casting choices in Man on the Moon, but finds that the film offers no further insight into Andy Kaufman's life.]

To American audiences in the 1970s and 1980s, the comedian Andy Kaufman was a legendary figure whose confrontational routines turned show-business conventions upside down. In Britain, where he was known mainly as the ingratiatingly kooky Latka in the TV sitcom Taxi, Milos Forman's biopic Man on the Moon won't mean quite so much. There's an uncomfortable sense of “you had to be there”: we must take it on trust that Kaufman was a media revolutionary, a pop situationist and a performance artist who used prime-time TV as his medium.

Nevertheless, Kaufman's career remains startling, however accustomed we are today to the wind-up strategies of a Chris Morris. Despite his success in Taxi, Kaufman professed to despise the sitcom itself and showbiz in general; yet he claimed to be a song-and-dance man at heart. He courted affection and loathing in equal measures, finally baiting his audience so thoroughly that he short-circuited his career almost entirely. On the one hand, he would play a childlike clown lip-syncing to the Mighty Mouse theme song; on the other, he spouted outrageous macho rhetoric challenging women to wrestling matches. He devised an alter ego, a foul behemoth of a lounge singer called Tony Clifton, who became an autonomous golem and turned up to disrupt the taping of Taxi. Today's imaginary stars, such as Ali G, barely approach such extremism. People came to assume that Kaufman was having them on when he wasn't. The supreme irony of his life, which the film treats with some poignancy, is that neither the public nor his parents believed him when he announced that he had terminal cancer (he died in 1984).

To reproduce Kaufman's life as a canon of notorious stunts inevitably reduces terrorist strikes to greatest hits. Forman's film does just that, although it feigns not to, presenting itself as a parody of biopic conventions. It plays, sometimes excruciatingly, on the tradition of highlighting significant moments, such as the discovery of Kaufman by the agent George Shapiro. (“Heh, heh, you're insane—but you could also be brilliant!”) But the fact that Shapiro is played by Danny DeVito, Kaufman's co-star in Taxi, is not so much anti-illusionistic as plain cosy. There are too many friends and associates involved—in cameos, as consultants and co-producers—to make this anything other than a friendly tribute.

Jim Carrey is a wildly narcissistic performer who trades on his constant awareness of being watched; this alone makes him an appropriate candidate to play Kaufman, who was similarly never off-air. As far as one can tell, Carrey genuinely transforms himself into Kaufman in both looks and mannerisms. Yet the closer Carrey gets, the more ambivalent the performance becomes: the more he vanishes into Kaufman, the more we see the feat of impersonation, obscuring Kaufman himself. One of Kaufman's best-known routines was as a nervous man of vague foreign origin, who turned out to be a dynamite Elvis impersonator. In the film, this act becomes dizzying: Carrey doing Kaufman doing the foreign man doing Elvis. But finally we just marvel at Carrey's plate-juggling ability to pull off three impersonations at once.

In effect, Carrey wears the Kaufman persona like “an expensive suit”—to quote Being John Malkovich, that incisive commentary on the lure of borrowed identity. In this respect, Man on the Moon is a film of its time: our current entertainment culture, starved for original turns, is morbidly obsessed with off-the-peg appropriations, living holograms of dead acts. The film is of a piece with the fad for pop revivals by proxy, tribute bands doing Abba or The Doors. It is close to, but not nearly as insightful as, Terry Johnson's recent stage and TV evocations of the Carry On team. And it is perhaps closest to the British artist Gavin Turk's sculptures of himself as Sid Vicious and Che Guevara: Forman effectively presents an animated waxwork of Carrey in Kaufman's clothes.

The screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are veterans of such reanimation, having written Tim Burton's Ed Wood and Forman's The People vs. Larry Flynt. The raison d'être of such biopics is ironic hindsight, as if nobody had understood at the time that these lives were exemplary American narratives. Man on the Moon successfully presents Kaufman as a tormented package of contradictions, a one-man deconstruction of showmanship and its discontents. Yet the film is neither very entertaining nor illuminating: you come out uncertain whether Kaufman was a genius or a disturbed time-waster. It invokes the inner child, but offers little insight into the adult: we learn that Kaufman was turned on by wrestling women and that he married a nice woman called Lynne (played like an afterthought by Courtney Love and, in real life, a creative consultant on the film). Nor does it reveal much about the folie à deux he shared with his accomplice Bob Zmuda (the co-executive producer).

This is the approved, authorised Kaufman story. He may have been most interesting when demolishing his own charm, but the stunt the film cherishes is a Carnegie Hall spectacular featuring the Rockettes, Santa Claus and milk and cookies for the whole audience. After celebrating his abrasive destroy-all-certainties ethic, the film concludes by revealing that Kaufman was a happy vaudevillian, after all. It's like a Sex Pistols biopic in which Johnny Rotten finally redeems himself as an entertaining guest on Blankety Blank.


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