Contemplating the possible reasons for his presence at the 48th Academy Awards, Miloš Forman wittily suggested that academy members had recognised his directorial work because “Last year I spent more time in a mental institution than the others [nominees]”.
Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest managed the great achievement of the Oscar ‘Big 5’ (Best Picture, Director, Actress, Actor and Screenplay), over four decades after the same feat was achieved by It Happened One Night. His adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel continues to influence pop culture through loving homages in The Simpsons, the early Simon Pegg TV series Spaced, as well as Canadian stoner comedy Trailer Park Boys. Roger Ebert praised the anarchic Randal P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) as “that cleansing spirit that comes along now and again to renew us”. Forman had adapted a hero – and a villain – that would be remembered for many years to come.
Jan Tomáš Forman was born in 1932 to Anna Svabova in Caslav, Czechoslovakia. When WWII arrived, his mother and Rudolph Forman – the man Miloš presumed was his biological father – were taken away by Nazis following accusations of participation in the underground resistance. Both subsequently died in concentration camps. Milos was left in the custody of his two uncles, and later discovered that his biological father was the architect and Holocaust survivor Otto Kohn.
The director sowed the seeds of an eclectic comedy style that would continue to grow in his Hollywood movies…
Following the war, Forman attended the prestigious King George boarding school in Podebrady, then studied at the Prague Film Academy (F.A.M.U.). He began his commercial film career in Czechoslovakia with Black Peter (1964), The Loves of a Blonde (1965), and The Firemen’s Ball (1967). The director sowed the seeds of an eclectic comedy style that would continue to grow in his Hollywood movies. However, his rebellious satire in The Fireman’s Ball caused unwanted attention from the authorities, in this case Czech communist officials, who declared that the film was “banned forever” in the country after the Soviet invasion of 1968.
Facing the possibility of 10 years imprisonment for supposed “economic damage to the state”, Forman emigrated to the United States, and would not return to his home country for 16 years, when he filmed Amadeus (1984). Inspired by Peter Shaffer’s play about the jealousy of Salieri towards the far more talented, and far more immature Mozart, with Jack Nicholson’s earlier riotous laughter replaced by Tom Hulce’s manic, unrestrained giggling. The film also managed to surpass the Oscar success of Cuckoo’s Nest, achieving best picture, actor, director, and screenplay, as well as best art direction, sound, costume and makeup. During his Best Director speech, Forman praised the many Czechoslovakian colleagues he had collaborated with, emphasising the Academy’s recognition of such an international, co-operative project.
Despite Amadeus’ success, Forman didn’t direct another feature for five years. He remarked that, while he preferred his Czech movies, which attempted “to show the life of the country as it is”, most of his American works are “wonderful fairy tales”. As vibrant and comedic as many of his Hollywood entries are, Forman felt they lacked the biting political satire of his more daring Czechoslovakian films.
Following the achievements of his adoptive father, Forman held the title of Professor Emeritus at Columbia University, where he taught film. He also began writing poetry in his later years, and 2006’s Goya’s Ghosts marked his final directorial feature, although he continued to act for several years, ending a cinematic career spanning over six decades with his role as Jaromil in the 2011 film The Beloved.
In a 1989 interview with American Masters Film, Forman discussed the nature of life, and whether man wants to live in the jungle of creativity or the zoo of conformity: “if you want the beauty, if you want freedom, the jungle is…that’s your world”. Cuckoo’s Nest’s triumphant escape sequence where Chief breaks out of the “zoo” of the mental asylum into unknown territory epitomises Miloš Forman’s joyous, rebellious spirit, which continued to thrive even within the confines of Hollywood cinema.