Milos Forman is a storyteller. The 75-year-old director decided to become one while listening to tales being told by his elders while growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.
“I was always fascinated as a kid when I was sitting in the company of older people who were telling stories,” he says. “I always wanted to do something in show business with the glitter of the theater and the sophistication of literature.”
This month, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, will honor Forman’s 50-plus years of creating stories for the big screen with a retrospective Feb.
Forman began his career accidentally. He wanted to attend the prestigious Academy of Performing Arts in Prague to study theater. After being denied entry, he scrambled to get into the film school, where he wound up studying screenwriting. “There were only three universities which were still accepting late applications: mining, law and film,” he says.
Forman wrote and directed his first feature film, Black Peter, in 1964. It follows a young man as he learns about the oppressive world of work under a Communist regime. “Everyone in that film is either my relative or my friends. There are no professionals,” he says. “I studied screenwriting, not directing, so I had no experience handling actors. Which turned out to be an advantage because I thought everything was possible.”
Several popular films followed, including The Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’ Ball (1967), both of which were nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Forman came to the U.S. in 1969 after Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union. He became a citizen in 1975.
His first film here was Taking Off, a 1971 comedy about how parents react when their daughter runs away. It was well received by critics (The New York Times said, “Taking Off is not a major movie experience, but it is — a good deal of the time — a charming one.”), but Forman calls it an “instant flop commercially.”
Flop or not, Royal Crown Cola saw the movie and liked it so much the company asked Forman to make a $1 million spot playing off a humorous scene in which a large group of women audition for a director by singing a song at the same time.
Spots for RC Cola and a toy company he can’t remember are the only two commercials Forman ever directed. And, he says, he would not do it again. “I wouldn’t dare to. I don’t underestimate the art of making a commercial that is original in a short space of time. And to do hack work does not interest me.”
There’s no denying Forman’s next feature film was a success. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, won five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. This would not be Forman’s only Oscar win. Amadeus (1984)won eight Academy Awards.
His next mainstream film was The People vs. Larry Flynt, a 1996 biography of the wheelchair-bound pornographer, co-starring rocker Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife Althea. Love, at the time, was infamous for her erratic behavior.
“At first the studio didn’t want her at all because of her past history with drugs and alcohol. Nobody would insure her,” Forman says. “I found an insurer, and it was very expensive. Woody Harrelson, Oliver Stone (producer), Michael Hausman (producer), myself and Courtney all chipped in to pay the $1 million insurance,” Forman says. “I told her, ‘I will fight for you if you give me your word you will not betray me.’ She was clean from the beginning to the end and after.”
These days Forman, who has two sets of twins from different wives and is on his third marriage, spends his time reading scripts, books and teaching his 9-year-olds to play chess. Last year he co-directed A Walk Worthwhile in Prague, a jazz opera from the 1960s. “It was very exciting and very nerve-wracking because I never really worked in theater like that,” Forman says. “You rehearse something until it’s good and then you put it on film and it’s there forever. In theater, you rehearse, you go away and come back and it’s different.”
Born in 1932 in Caslav, Czechoslovakia.
Childhood: Orphaned in 1942 when his father, a member of the underground, and mother die in Nazi camps.
Education: Enters the film school at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague in 1950. Studies screenwriting.
Films: Taking Off (1971), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Hair (1979), Ragtime (1981), Amadeus (1984), Valmont (1989), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1991), Man on the Moon (1999), Goya’s Ghosts (2006).
Stage: In 2007, co-directed, with his son Peter, the jazz opera A Walk Worthwhile at the National Theater in Prague.