Milos Forman, the anti-authoritarian director who left his native Czechoslovakia for creative freedom in the U.S. and captured Oscars for the masterpieces One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, has died. He was 86.
Forman, also known for two biopics about controversial Americans — The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and Man on the Moon (1999) — died Friday in the U.S. after a short illness, according to his wife, Martina, who broke the news to the Czech news agency CTK.
His manager, Dennis Aspland, confirmed Forman’s death and noted that the filmmaker had a home in Warren, Connecticut.
Forman first attracted international attention with such features as Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965) — an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film — and The Firemen’s Ball (1967), which put him in hot water with the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
Forman had a unique sensitivity to American themes, which he prismed through a sly, satiric sensibility. His films generally appealed to sophisticated audiences, though he could reach the mainstream with his savvy flourishes.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, dealt with life inside an Oregon mental institution. Starring Jack Nicholson as an insurgent patient, it was a sensation at the Oscars, winning five major categories (picture, director, actor, actress and adapted screenplay).
Amadeus (1984), starring Tom Hulce as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, raked in 11 Oscar noms and eight wins, including those for best picture and director.
In a 2002 interview, Forman talked about accepting an invitation to take in a play in London, not knowing it was the first public preview of the Peter Shaffer play Amadeus.
“I was used to seeing the Russian and Czech films about composers, and they were the most boring films,” he said. “Communists love to make films about composers, because composers compose music and don’t talk subversive things.
“And I am sitting in the theater waiting to fall asleep, and suddenly I see this wonderful drama, which would be wonderful even if it was not Mozart and [Antonio] Salieri. … I was glued to the seat to the very end. And right there after the show, I met for the first time Peter Shaffer, and I told him that if he would ever consider making a movie, I would be very interested.”
Forman, by then an American citizen, returned to film the drama almost entirely in Czechoslovakia.
He earned his third and last Oscar nom for The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), a drama about the founder of Hustler magazine that was framed around First Amendment issues. And his Man on the Moon (1999) attempted to distill the tormented comic creativity of Andy Kaufman.
He was born Jan Tomas Forman on Feb. 18, 1932, the youngest of three brothers, in Caslav, a town outside of Prague. His parents were killed in Auschwitz, and he spent much of his youth in a boarding school for war orphans.
In the early 1950s, he enrolled in the newly founded Film Institute at the University of Prague; it was to prove a nourishing ground for talented youngsters who went on to create a “Golden Age of Czech Cinema.”
After he graduated, Forman directed a number of short documentaries, including Audition (1964), followed by Black Peter and The Loves of a Blonde, two autobiographical films set in small Czech towns.
“When we started to make our films, they were really Czech films about Czech society and Czech little people — and who cares about Czech little people?” Forman said in a 2004 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “So it was satisfying to have people in other countries respond.”
His humor and anti-establishment sensibility jelled best in his next feature, The Firemen’s Ball. A veiled criticism of his country’s bureaucracy, it did not amuse the politicians, and it was banned from theaters following the Soviet invasion in August 1968.
At the time, Forman was in Paris, in negotiations for Taking Off, a U.S. production about the youth protest movement. His homeland was now under the brute boot of the Soviet Union’s thuggish communist bureaucracy, so he decided to emigrate to New York.
Taking Off (1971), distributed by Universal and featuring Lynn Carlin, Buck Henry, Ike & Tina Turner, Carly Simon and Kathy Bates, was a financial disaster, but it won an enthusiastic, countercultural audience, especially in university towns.
Among the collegians who was admiring his work back then was Michael Douglas, then a University of California Santa Barbara student, who would hire Forman to direct his long-labored One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. (Later, Forman learned that Michael’s father, Kirk Douglas, had sent him an offer to helm the film in the 1960s, but it was probably confiscated by the secret police.)
In Firemen’s Ball, “Milos juggled all these multiple characters so well,” Douglas once said, “and he brought out the foibles and the vulnerabilities and the humor within them, without laughing at them. And I think that’s the essence of Cuckoo’s Nest too.”
Forman, who became an American citizen in 1975, continued his success in 1979 with Hair, based on the popular hippie Broadway musical, and E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1981), set in New York City in the early 1900s. (The latter, James Cagney’s final feature, was nominated for eight Oscars but won none.)
He played a minor role in Heartburn (1986), which was directed by another European emigre, Mike Nichols, and reunited him with Nicholson.
In 1989, Forman wrote and directed Valmont, which starred Colin Firth and Annette Bening in an adaptation of the 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Coming out soon after Dangerous Liaisons, another film based on the book, Valmont was coolly received by critics.
Forman served as a professor of film and co-chair of the film division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and he wrote an autobiography, Turnaround, which was published in 1994.
He married Martina Zborilova, his third wife, in 1999. Their twin sons Andrew and James were named after Kaufman and Jim Carrey, who portrayed the madcap comic in Man on the Moon.