Milos Forman, who died on April 14 at the age of 86, has left behind some of the most sharply observed portraits of human behavior in cinema.
When I think of Forman’s work, my mind doesn’t necessarily go first to his two Oscar-winning juggernauts — “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) or “Amadeus” (1984) — or the Czech films that garnered him worldwide acclaim in the 1960s, such as “Loves of a Blonde” (1965) or “The Firemen’s Ball” (1967). Rather, I think of the opening scene from his lesser-known comedy, “Taking Off” (1971): a series of static shots of young women, one after the other, performing songs for an off-screen producer.
Most of the women are earnest and serious; some seem awkward or shy, dressed in contemporary hippy-ish clothes; their hair is often long and frizzy. Some of these audition singers include Carly Simon, Kathy Bates (credited as Bobo Bates) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Jessica Harper. What is remarkable about these relatively straightforward snippets is that Forman isn’t nudging the audience for what to make of these young people, or their songs. He’s not telling the audience how to react; he’s simply presenting these young people as they are.
The first 5-10 minutes of this film paints a picture of these flower children of the Woodstock era that feels authentic, admiring and compassionate. And kind. It’s a quality in Forman’s cinema I can see throughout his career.
Forman sprang forth from the extraordinary group of filmmakers known as the Czech New Wave, most of whom were trained at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (including Věra Chytilová, Jaromil Jireš, Ján Kadár, Jan Němec and Ivan Passer), and, like his cinematic compatriots, Forman’s early films are often political in nature, portraying figures of authority as inept and corrupt. In “The Firemen’s Ball,” the volunteer fire department in a small town decides to organize a ball in honor of their recently retired chairman.
At the event, the firefighters’ committee decide to host a beauty contest and proceed to procure some of the unsuspecting young women to pose for them. The women appear hesitant, guarded, and a few are even somewhat amused by the ramshackle way they are being put on display by these old men. (Most of the actors were local to the area of Vrchlabí, where it was filmed.) The spunkiest of the young women seems to have an awareness of how ridiculous and sexist this is. She laughs and then runs off halfway through her walk for the judges, triggering a mass exodus by the other contestants, and the scene ends in comedic chaos.
Clearly, the characters who buck the system, like the young woman in “The Firemen’s Ball,” are what hold director’s greatest interest. Forman is fixed on the idea of the outsider as being the true hero of his work: Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, Treat Williams’ George Berger, Howard E. Rollins’ Coalhouse Walker Jr., Tom Hulce’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Woody Harrelson’s Larry Flynt and Jim Carrey’s Andy Kaufman are all individuals that won’t fit into society’s prescribed mold for them.
Forman’s rebels, though clearly stemming from his Czech roots, found fertile ground in America. His two most critically and financially successful films, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (adapted by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman from Ken Kesey’s novel) and “Amadeus” (Peter Shaffer adapting his own stage play), both impeccably produced by Saul Zaentz, together garnered 13 Oscars total, including two for Forman for directing.
At his best, Forman’s greatest work (I would include the woefully underrated musical adaptation of “Hair”) shows both compassion for his characters and wry humor in the predicaments in which these characters find themselves. His work with actors is exemplary, and his filmography is flooded with memorable performances and ensemble work: from Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in “Cuckoo’s Nest” to Rollins, Elizabeth McGovern and James Cagney in “Ragtime” (1981), F. Murray Abraham and Hulce in “Amadeus,” Harrelson and Courtney Love in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996), and back to Hana Brejchová in “Loves of a Blonde” and Lynn Carlin, Buck Henry, Georgia Engel and Audra Lindley in “Taking Off,” to name a few.
Cinematically, I’m just so impressed with the way he and his cinematographers captured these actors’ faces and performances. This is filmmaking that is not trying to impress you with flashy editing and swirling cameras (though the camerawork in the opening “Aquarius” number in “Hair,” accompanied by Twyla Tharp’s wonderful choreography, is a wonderful exception), it’s focused on its characters and story.
Possibly because of his lack of flash and cutting-edge technique, there is a danger that Forman’s work may not be immediately appreciated by younger filmmakers — though in this current era where young people are rising up to stand for their beliefs to their schools, their City Halls, and the world at large, Forman’s filmography is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of rebels.