Milos Forman celebrated the non-conformist, lionizing the likes of Randle McMurphy, Larry Flynt, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and others who just couldn’t be bothered to give a damn about convention. But what made the director’s films great was that he also showed the toll that kind of iconoclasm takes on revolutionaries.
It was something that he knew firsthand. Forman, who died Saturday at the age of 86, spent his formative years in Communist-dominated Czechoslovakia. He made a name for himself with 1967’s “The Fireman’s Ball,” a satire of small-town grift that also, by proxy, lampooned the corruption of the East European Communist system. Forman would go into exile a year later after the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia to crush the period of political liberalization known as the Prague Spring.
That sense of the power of institutions to crush radicals and truth-tellers permeated the rest of Forman’s work and may be the reason that, with the exception of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Amadeus,” most of his films faltered at the box office. People like to see heroes succeed. Forman didn’t do triumphant endings or Hollywood uplift.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” ends with a lobotomized McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), his battle with the draconian Nurse Ratched having left him in a vegetated state. “Amadeus” closes with its boy genius (Tom Hulce) grown prematurely enfeebled and penniless, his great work unfinished and his beautiful music unappreciated by a public that prefers something more conventional and drab. And, while “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” allows its protagonist, a good-taste eviscerating pornographer portrayed with red-necked relish by Woody Harrelson, some measure of success, it’s something of a Pyrrhic victory. Flynt may have triumphed in his 1st Amendment battle at the Supreme Court, but he’s wheelchair-bound after a failed assassination attempt. He spends his days watching videos of his wife, a stripper who contracted AIDS and drowned in a bathtub, in a soulless Xanadu-like mansion where loneliness is permanently entwined with opulence.
When Forman adapted E.L Doctorow’s sprawling novel “Ragtime,” he zeroed in on the story of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a black musician who turns to violence after bigoted firemen vandalize his Model-T because he has no legal recourse and no politician will touch his cause. Even before he barricades himself in the Pierpont Morgan Library during a protracted police standoff, Walker shows little regard for the racial politics of the early 20th century. He carries himself with confidence, fully aware of his talents and disinclined to be subservient. “Ragtime” is perhaps Forman’s sharpest depiction of the way that society, through bureaucratic inaction or malfeasance, can sniff out its strivers and seekers. Alas, when it came out in 1981 it proved to be too bitter a tonic for moviegoers, who stayed away, and handed Forman one of the biggest bombs of his career.
“We need institutions,” Forman said in a 2008 interview. “We create them, we pay for them with our taxes, to serve us. So why do we always seem to wind up serving them? I think this was, is, and always will be the most substantial conflict of mankind.”
Not everything Forman touched worked. “Hair” missed the zeitgeist by a good decade, arriving in 1979 at a time when people were transitioning from the Summer of Love culture of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out” to a new Reagan-era materialism. And the less said about “Goya’s Ghost” or “Valmont,” the better. Yet, at their best, Forman’s films exist as prayers to the wild at heart kept in cages and odes to flames that burn brightly, but are extinguished with brutality.