Two-time Oscar winning Czech director Milos Forman has died at the age of 86, according to Reuters and reports. Forman’s wife Martina informed Czech news agency CTK that the filmmaker passed after a brief illness in the US.
Part of the Czech new wave, Forman graduated from the Prague Film Faculty of the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and caught global attention with such titles as Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965) and The Firemen’s Ball(1967). The latter two were Oscar nominees for best foreign film.
In 1968, he fled Czechoslovakia during the Prague spring for the US. The Fireman’s Ball, about an ill-fated event in a provincial town, was a knock on Eastern European Communism and created a stir in his homeland with the regime. His 1971 comedy, Taking Off, his first American title, won the 1971 Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and starred Buck Henry and Lynn Carlin as parents whose daughter runs away. They soon begin to bond with other parents whose kids have also fled from home. Before making a name for himself in features, Forman cut his teeth in docs, with one notable title being Audition, about two competing singers.
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Forman was known for his fierce dramas, getting both explosive and nuanced performances out of his actors, specifically Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, a young Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif in his feature adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, about a mental patient played by Nicholson who challenges the hospital’s status quo ruled by Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched. The movie earned five Oscar wins for best picture, director, actress, actor and adapted screenplay; the first five premium sweep since 1934’s It Happened One Night. In addition to being an Oscar winner, Cuckoo’s Nest was a hit at the box office in 1975, making close to $109M.
Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review wrote, “Milos Forman appears to have recognized the strong realistic material within Kesey’s conception. We all fear being locked up among the insane, helpless to prove our sanity, perhaps being driven mad; this fear is almost as basic as that of being buried alive. And we can’t formulate a clear-cut difference between sane and insane… the story and the acting make the movie emotionally powerful.”
Forman fan and Baby Driver director Edgar Wright tweeted tonight: “He had a tremendous filmography that documented the rebel heart and human spirit.”
Forman’s take on the hit musical Hair in 1979, as well as his feature adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s bestseller Ragtime, starring James Cagney in one of his final roles as Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo, were not commercial successes, with the latter eight-Oscar nominee only grossing $11M in 1981. However, the director returned to both critical and B.O. resonance with his take on the Peter Shaffer/Tony-winning play Amadeus, which won eight Oscars, including best picture and director for Forman, and grossed a solid $52M back in 1984.
Forman returned to Czechoslovakia in 1983 to shoot Amadeus and encountered a strict Soviet-bloc country. In the early millennium DVD of the film, late actor Vincent Schiavelli talks about having his room bugged, and how he wowed natives there with a pineapple (the fruit, according to the actor, wasn’t readily available in the country at the time; just in the can). Forman tapped Animal House‘s Tom Hulce as the puckish Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and cast newcomer F. Murray Abraham as his jealous rival Antonio Salieri. Abraham walked home with a best actor Oscar win. Forman shot scenes in the Count Nostitz Theatre in Prague, where Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito played two centuries before. While Forman was clearly a master of historical epics, he was able to capture the stunning dramatic tension between a grave, overlooked composer and a playboy genius.
Forman was a huge fan of late absurdist stand-up and Taxi star Andy Kaufman, having once caught his act in an LA club. He took the directing reigns of the comedian’s 1999 biopic Man on the Moon and cast a wide net to find the quintessential Kaufman. Edward Norton and Nicolas Cage submitted audition tapes; however, it was Jim Carrey’s sublime take on the tortured exhibitionist that won him the role. Carrey would win the best actor Golden Globe award in the comedy/musical category and a Screen Actors Guild nod, but he was overlooked by AMPAS for a nomination.
Annette Bening, who broke out in Forman’s Valmont, a late ’80s feature version of Les Liaisons dangereuses, which made it to the big screen in the shadow of Stephen Frears’ three-time Oscar winning film on the same play, shared with us that the Czech director “taught me so much. At the time, I’d only done one movie. He was incredibly tough and we all bonded together—Meg Tilly, Colin Firth and I. Milos wasn’t from the touchy-feely school of directing. If you were doing something phony, you’d hear about it. I auditioned for him over months. I read with many people in his apartment: I read with Val Kilmer; I did a test with Kevin Spacey. When we would rehearse, you’d say a line like, ‘My, that tree is beautiful over there,’ and Milos would say, ‘No, just be natural.’ Then he would say the line and give you a way of doing it. He was right. It was a period thing and we were stiff. He was always right and knew the elements of the story that needed to be told and seen. He knew a story’s point of view; he ultimately has to cut the action of the person. Valmont was being made in the wake of Dangerous Liaisons. I was up for that movie, too. Valmont didn’t do well at the box office, except in Finland. It was really hard for Milos, but we put our heart and soul into it and he never blamed anyone. Our shoot took forever, and when I got back to America, Dangerous Liaisons was already in the theater.”
His 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt, about the porno publisher and free speech defender, earned Forman his third directing Oscar nom and catapulted Cheers star Woody Harrelson into consideration as a serious actor. He was nominated for a lead actor Oscar. Tweeted Man on the Moon and Larry Flynt co-scribe Larry Karaszewski tonight:
Following 1999’s Man on the Moon, Forman would not direct again until 2006’s Goya’s Ghosts, about Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) and the scandal he faced with his muse (Natalie Portman). Javier Bardem and Randy Quaid also starred.
Forman directed his son Petr in A Walk Worthwhile, his final feature in Czech, and a remake of an earlier work he did for Czech TV during the late 1960s.
The filmmaker was born on Feb. 18, 1932 in Caslav, Czechoslovakia. His mother died in Auschwitz and he was raised by family. Forman later learned that his real biological father, Otto Kohn, survived the Holocaust.
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