Rebel for life

Tribute: Milos Forman

  • Published 17.04.18
Milos Forman

Milos Forman, the double Oscar-winning Czech-émigré director who died aged 86 on Friday, only made nine English-language features in five decades, but pushed Hollywood’s comfort zone as a teller of tales of rebellion.

The Woods picks its Forman favourites.

The Firemen’s Ball, 1967

The satiric comedy about bureaucratic mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency happened to be the last film Forman made in his native Czechoslovakia. The story centres around a group of firefighters organising a ball for their dying, former colleague but the evening turns into a disaster. The film was seen as a comment on the East European communist system and was “banned forever” after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Forman was in Paris at the time 
of the event and chose to stay out of his homeland.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975

After his first film made in the US, Taking Off (1971), bombed, Forman went into depression, living in cheap hotels as he scouted for work. His opportunity came a few years later when producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz asked him to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s tragicomic novel of revolt and repression in an Oregon mental institution.

Starring Jack Nicholson (in picture) as the irrepressible Randle McMurphy, a convict leading a patient rebellion, and Louise Fletcher as the draconian Nurse Ratched, One Flew… captured the essence of an anti-establishment America just on the eve of the collapse of its disastrous Vietnam campaign. The film won the top five Oscars — those for picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. Only two other movies have achieved that feat: It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs.

Ragtime, 1981

Based on E.L. Doctorow’s book of the same name and set in New York of the first decade of the 20th century, the film tells the turbulent story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr, a black piano player, who insists that justice be done after he is insulted by some bigoted firemen and his car is damaged. This triggers a series of unpredictable events that offer a glimpse of American society as it was then. The film marked the final screen appearance of James Cagney, who was making a comeback after 20 years. Ragtime was nominated for eight Oscars, but didn’t win any.

Amadeus, 1984

An adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s stage play, the film presented Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a genius who undermined authority with his art. The story was told from the embittered perspective of Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham in a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance. Salieri was Mozart’s greatest composing rival under the Hapsburgs, and the man who has been thought to have been responsible for Mozart’s untimely death. The film took home eight Oscars, including Best Picture and a second one for Forman for Best Director.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt, 1996

The film again cemented Forman’s reputation as a director of movies telling the story of rebels. Woody Harrelson played embattled Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, and his clash with religious institutions and the law, which led to a debate on the freedom of speech and the First Amendment.

Harrelson was nominated for Best Actor while Forman received his final nomination for Best Director. Neither won.