Milos Forman, who died last week at 86, directed only 12 dramatic features, a startlingly compact résumé when you consider that his career spanned 60 years and more than a few filmmaking epochs, from the Czech New Wave of the ’60s to the New Hollywood ’70s to the post-indie ’90s. Yet almost every one of those movies looms large. That’s because Forman — auteur, actor, professor, expatriate, bon vivant — chose each new project with majestic commitment and care. His two most famous films, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) and “Amadeus” (1984), both dominated the Academy Awards, lending Forman a cachet that helped to sustain his career. Yet even after the triumph of “Amadeus,” he didn’t direct another movie for five years. His films, at a glance, are strikingly eclectic, but what unites them is an overwhelming sly proclivity: Forman, coming out of Czechoslovakia just as it was being crushed by Soviet Communism, had a lifelong thing for rebels, scoundrels, troublemakers and ebullient outsiders.
His 1967 Czech comedy “The Fireman’s Ball” was enough of a nose-thumbing allegory to land him in hot water with Czech Communist officials. But once he arrived in Hollywood, Forman, for all his ardent devotion to upstarts and antiheroes, ceased to be a rebellious filmmaker. He became a passionate spinner of mainstream yarns who worked in a sharply observant and nearly becalmed mode of open-eyed classicism. And that, in an odd way, was the key to the humanity of his artistry. The characters he was drawn to —R.P. McMurphy, Antonio Salieri, Coalhouse Walker Jr., Larry Flynt — were always fighting something in society, but Forman fixated on the fight in their souls, the one between their dreams and their circumstances.
That was the power and beauty of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It was based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, which prophesized the druggy dislocations of the 1960s, but the film came out in 1975, when the ’60s were long gone and the New Hollywood was winding down, and it featured the last of Jack Nicholson’s vintage ’70s cockeyed-renegade movie-star performances. Forman staged R.P. McMurphy’s war against the saintly repressed schoolmarm Nurse Ratched as what it had now become: not a counterculture crusade but a tragicomic power game egged on by a loony-bin peanut gallery.
What held it all together was the director’s 20-20 empathy. In Nicholson, Forman tapped a performance as fierce and funny and sad and triumphant as the great Jack had ever given, and the director viewed the inmates, in their very insanity, as desperately specific individuals. Most tellingly, he directed Louise Fletcher, as Nurse Ratched, to give a performance that courted villainy, yet if you looked close enough you could see it from her side as well — this woman of infuriating wholesomeness who was doing what she’d been taught (keep order and play by the rules), channeling an oppression she was scarcely aware of.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” became the first film since “It Happened One Night,” in 1934, to sweep the “big five” Academy Awards (best picture, director, screenplay, actor and actress). And that was a testament to the cleansing truth and drama of how Forman staged every scene. He turned the death of rebellion into the ultimate tribute to it.
A lot of directors, at that point, would have capitalized on their success by trying to become the new king of Hollywood, but not Forman; he liked his life too much. His next film, an earnest but misbegotten adaptation of the hippie musical “Hair,” wasn’t released until 1979, and he began to teach at Columbia University — where his students included James Mangold — in 1978.
Yet the sheer fervor with which Forman approached filmmaking never stopped burning bright. It’s there in the way he draws us to F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri in “Amadeus,” putting us right on the side of this wormy art sociopath. It’s there in the scandalous wit and pageantry of his most overlooked movie — “Valmont” (1989), a luscious adaptation of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” that had the misfortune to come out one year after “Dangerous Liaisons” had already vacuumed up all the glory and popularity that story was going to sustain.
And it’s there, quite spectacularly, in the two extraordinary films Forman made in collaboration with the reality-is-greater-than-fiction screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996) and “Man on the Moon” (1999). In Larry Flynt, the Hustler magazine mogul who fashioned the sleaze of his empire into a stress test for freedom, Forman found a rebel he could revel in, even as he transformed Flynt’s marriage to Althea Leasure, played by a revelatory Courtney Love, into the spikiest tale of l’amour fou since “Sid and Nancy.” And in Andy Kaufman, the visionary comedian played by Jim Carrey in “Man on the Moon,” who turned what is reality? stunts into the purest of theater, Forman found what may have been his ultimate kindred spirit: a grown-up bad boy who never stopped shifting shape, all as a way to make our eyes go wide.