So how did he end up being one of the most celebrated American filmmakers of his generation?
A key element in Forman’s transformation is his ability to transcend issues of nationality. Though born a Czech (and now a U.S. citizen), he is also a citizen of the world.
As a young filmmaker he looked beyond the provincial nearsightedness of his country’s politically-driven cultural overlords. This attitude regularly got him in trouble as a student, TV personality (he had his own Thursday night show hosting movies), and filmmaker.
Overt criticism of the Communist regime was impossible to get past the censors. But Forman was clever enough to find ways around that barrier.
A classic example is his 1967 comedy The Firemen’s Ball, in which members of a small town fire department bungle their way through their annual dance and beauty contest.
Forman maintained (ingenuously?) that the film had no hidden symbols or double meanings. But its depiction of bureaucratic bungling led the Communist censors to view it as a political allegory.
The film ran for three weeks during the administration of liberal Czech leader Alexander Dubcek, but after a Soviet invasion put an end to this “Prague Spring” in August 1968, Fireman’s Ball was “banned forever."
Just as dangerous to Forman, the film was disowned by Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who pulled his promised financing. With the Czech government now picking up the tab for the movie’s cost, Forman faced a possible 10-year prison sentence for “economic damage to the state.”
Forman went to Paris in a desperate attempt to get financing from the French. That’s where he was when Soviet Bloc troops invaded Czechoslovakia.
He decided to stay in the West.
But his dreams of Hollywood success were slow in coming.
In 1970 Forman scraped together enough financing to make Taking Off, a loose, largely improvised film about American parents and their rebellious children.
“I didn’t sufficiently respect the difficulties of working in another language, in a different film tradition, and in a world whose messy life I didn’t know even superficially, much less intimately,” he wrote in his memoir Turnaround.
“When it was over I knew if I really wanted to make films in Hollywood, I’d have to change my whole style of working. I’d have to swallow my impatience and acknowledge it would take years to absorb American culture.”
And so Forman devoted the next three years to immersing himself in the history and cultural life of his new home. Apparently he was a quick learner, for in 1975 he debuted his first American-made feature film.
Milos Forman had arrived. Thereafter his movies would know no national boundaires. He would excel not only with American stories (Hair, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Ragtime, Man on the Moon) but also with tales unfolding in 18th-century Vienna (Amadeus), pre-Revolutionary France (Valmont), and Spain during the Inquisition (Goya’s Ghosts).
Before it was over he would win a second best director Oscar (for Amadeus) and enjoy a remarkable run of critically lauded and popular films.
Forman turned 80 earlier this year, and to observe this milestone the Kansas City Public Library is offering a two-month-long film series, Mondays with Milos, screening on Mondays at 6:30p.m. throughout September and October, 2012 in the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Admission is free. The schedule:
September 10 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): Based on Ken Kesey’s novel, this film about a fun-loving miscreant who rallies the patients of a mental institution swept the Oscars in ’75. NOTE: Cuckoo will be presented simultaneously at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., with remarks by renowned film critic David Thomson. Rating: R. 133 minutes.
September 17 Ragtime (1981): Forman’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel offers a mix of fictional and historic characters colliding in turn-of-the-century New York. With James Cagney, Mandy Patinkin, Howard E. Rollins, Jr. Rating: PG. 155 minutes.
October 1 Amadeus (1984): Peter Shaffer’s stage smash about young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the envious composer Salieri became a stupendously popular film in Forman’s hands, winning an Oscar for actor F. Murray Abraham and a second directing statuette for Forman. Rating: PG. 160 minutes.
October 8 The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996): Smut peddler Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson) takes on the Supreme Court ... and becomes a First Amendment hero? Well, yes, at least in Forman’s Oscar-nominated drama. Rating: R. 129 minutes.
October 15 Loves of a Blonde (1965): Made three years before he left Czechoslovakia, this gentle drama follows a small-town factory girl who has an affair with a visiting musician and then follows him back to Prague, hoping to keep the relationship alive. Not rated. 90 minutes,
October 22 Man on the Moon (1999): Jim Carrey plays unconventional comic genius Andy Kaufman in this biopic that won Forman best director honors at the Berlin International Film Festival. Rating: R. 118 minutes.
October 29 Goya’s Ghosts (2006: R): The great Spanish painter Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) paints a portrait of a priest of the Inquisition (Javier Bardem) while fending off accusations of heresy and protecting one of his models (Natalie Portman), who is suspected of being Jewish. Rating: R. 113 minutes.
Free parking is available at the Library District Parking Garage at 10th & Baltimore.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.