Obituary: Milos Forman
Czech emigre film director who triumphed with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus
Milos Forman, who has died aged 86, directed only nine films in the 50 years in which he lived in the United States after leaving his native Czechoslovakia in 1968, but two of them were Oscar-winning smashes as uplifting as anything seen in the cinema - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984).
Forman's early years under Communism made him an outsider who resisted the system, and this became the theme of much of his work. It was perhaps most obviously embodied in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, one of the seminal films of the 1970s.
Jack Nicholson plays a rebellious criminal who fakes mental illness, believing an asylum will be an easier place than prison to serve his sentence. His nemesis is Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who encapsulates the abuse of power driven by the conviction that the ends justify the means. Madness, affording a kind of liberty, would become another motif in Forman's work. "To me it was not just literature but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia," he said of Ken Kesey's 1962 novel, the source for the film. "The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do... even who I was and was not."
Despite his affinity for the material, he revealed that the producer Michael Douglas had chosen him chiefly because he was little-known and therefore affordable. In fact, Kirk Douglas, who owned the rights, had sent him the book some years previously, having seen one of his early subversive films, but it had been intercepted by the Czech authorities.
Forman defined cinema as the search for "unrepeatable moments", and on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest he achieved this by devices such as insisting that the cast stay in character even at lunch, and by using two cameras so that they never knew when they were in shot (and so were more relaxed). He also mixed among them genuine patients from the Oregon psychiatric hospital at which much of it was filmed.
Turned down by every big studio, and made on a budget of $3m, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest subsequently took in $100m and became only the second film (after It Happened One Night in 1935) to sweep the board of all the main Academy Awards, including Best Director for Forman and Best Picture.
He was born Jan Tomas Forman on February 18, 1932 in Caslav, a town east of Prague. His father, as he thought, was Rudolf Forman, a teacher who during the war joined a Resistance group and died in a concentration camp.
His mother, Anna, who ran a hotel, was denounced to the Gestapo as a possible distributor of anti-Nazi leaflets, by a grocer hoping to save himself; she perished in Auschwitz. Much later, Forman learnt from a woman who had known his mother in the camp that he was in fact the product of an affair she had had with an architect, Otto Kohn.
The orphaned Milos was brought up by relations and then by friends. He was educated at what was thought to be the best school in Czechoslovakia, on the grounds that it was funded by political donations. A fellow pupil was Vaclav Havel. Forman was eventually expelled for making fun of the son of a Communist Party official, and so was not accepted by acting school.
Accordingly, he studied screenwriting at Prague's Performing Arts Academy, a hotbed of intellectuals opposed to the regime; his literature teacher was Milan Kundera. Forman had been smitten by the cinema when on his first visit aged six he saw an adaptation of Smetana's opera The Bartered Bride, the audience singing along since everyone knew the words. Later influences were Charlie Chaplin - to whom Forman sent a script as a student - and Vittorio De Sica's secular parable Miracle in Milan (1951).
Italian neo-realism was the chief begetter of the Czech New Wave cinema, of which Forman became the leading light in the 1960s. Its films were distinguished by their naturalistic, improvised style, often featuring non-professional actors - a hallmark of Forman's career - and criticism of the state.
Forman first gained international attention with Loves of a Blonde (1965), the story of a one-night stand and its consequences; it was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign film. He followed it in 1967 with The Firemen's Ball, a comedy about a fundraising event gone wrong in a provincial town, but considered so sharp a political satire that it was banned.
Forman was in Paris when the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968. He chose to flee to America, and eventually was able to take his family. In 1971, he made his first US film, Taking Off, a generation-gap comedy exploring the impact of the Sixties. As with many of his movies, it was well-received but made little impact at the box office; he ended up owing the studio $500.
Depressed, he retreated to the ramshackle Chelsea Hotel in New York. He was said to spend the days sleeping, confiding only in Czech friends, who would then go to the psychiatrist on his behalf. They nicknamed him Byk, meaning ox, on account of his imposing figure, square head and big hands. He could be roguish and enjoyed good living, though in the lean years he subsisted on a dollar a day, with which he would buy a bottle of beer and a tin of chili con carne.
He needed, perhaps, to feel successful to be at his best: "Everything I did in my life because I wanted to win." The ecstatic reception of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest transformed his life. He was appointed professor of film at Columbia University in 1978, and taught there for 40 years. His next picture, in 1979, was the definitive Sixties musical, Hair. But its time had passed and it fared modestly.
Ragtime (1981) was an adaptation of EL Doctorow's historical novel and the first of three period pieces derived from literary originals that Forman would make. It received eight Oscar nominations, but won none. Forman thought it the only one of his films with which he was unhappy, the producer Dino De Laurentiis having forced him to cut it. When Forman appealed to Doctorow, the writer backed De Laurentiis; Forman learnt later that the producer had optioned one of his other books the day before.
His career was probably saved by Amadeus (1984), the story of another anti-establishment figure - Mozart. It was one of those rare instances when everything went right for a film, including Forman's insistence on not casting stars in the major roles. Tom Hulce was the composer (Simon Callow had played the part in Peter Shaffer's play), while F Murray Abraham gave the definitive portrayal of diabolical screen jealousy as Salieri.
Although, in the era of MTV pop videos, none of the main studios had wanted to touch the project, it won eight Oscars and, under Neville Marriner's direction, made Mozart's music a bestseller once more. Forman loved the film above all for enabling him to return to Prague for the shoot, the Czech government agreeing only because it needed the hard currency.
Valmont (1989), with Colin Firth, was unluckily overshadowed by the earlier release of Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich; but the critic David Thomson judged Valmont "the better film, the one that grasps tragedy as well as irony in the Laclos story".
Forman did not make another movie for seven years, until The People vs Larry Flynt (1996), the true story of the Hustler pornographer's legal battle against the evangelist Jerry Falwell for the right to publish his magazines.
The film was a vehement defence of American freedoms from a director who confessed to harbouring "an immigrant's uncritical love for America". It did not play well with audiences, but both Forman and Woody Harrelson, as Flynt, received Oscar nominations.
With Man on the Moon (1996), starring Jim Carrey as the iconoclastic comic Andy Kaufman, Forman again showed his talent for conjuring remarkable performances from unsuspected sources. He met his third wife, then a film student, on the production and they named their twin sons Jim and Andy (James and Andrew).
His last release of note was Goya's Ghosts, with Natalie Portman, in 2006, loosely based on the painter's life; it received mixed reviews and did little business. Forman had also hoped to adapt Sandor Marai's novel Embers but the project fell through when its star Sean Connery pulled out of negotiations. Another unrealised ambition was a film about the Munich Agreement (arising from Germany's annexation of parts of Czechoslovakia) scripted by Havel.
Milos Forman, who died on April 13, married first, in 1958 (dissolved 1962), the actress Jana Brejchova. In 1964, he married another actress, Vera Kresadlova. They separated in 1969, and divorced in 1999, when he married Martina Zborilova. She survives him with their sons, and his twin sons, Petr and Matej, by his second marriage.