Some of the most iconic American images have been created by artists who were born in other countries, and Milos Forman, the Czech-born director who died Friday at the age of 86, was especially devoted to the cause. Forman first came to prominence as a key figure in the Czech New Wave, with 1965’s The Loves of Blonde and 1967’s The Firemen’s Ball both nominated for foreign-language Oscars. But it was as a self-conscious chronicler of American society that he made his biggest mark. Taking Off, an affectionate, amiably shaggy satire of hippie counterculture, failed to connect with its intended audience and quickly vanished. (It’s never been available on home video or via streaming in the U.S. but is worth tracking down, and not only for the early glimpse of Kathy Bates when she was still going by the first name “Bobo.”) But with 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman joined the top ranks of Hollywood directors: The movie won five Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, and was nominated for four more. In his acceptance speech, Forman said, “When I want to think what possible reasons I am here now I can find two. The first is that this year the academy members recognized the fact that last year I spent more time in mental institution than the others. And the second might be that, well, that America still is big, beautiful, hospitable and open country.”
More like Billy Wilder than Frank Capra, Forman was attuned to the U.S.’s dark side as well as its promise, which may be why his take on Hair’s free-love celebration felt stilted, and the scope of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime stymied the looseness of Forman’s best movies. But he hit the target again with Amadeus, a decidedly un-fusty period piece whose star, Tom Hulce, watched footage of John McEnroe to enliven his performance as the young, boundlessly ambitious Mozart. A second Best Director Oscar followed, as did another Best Picture win.
After Valmont, an adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that was overshadowed by the contemporaneous release of Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, Forman returned to the Oscars with The People vs. Larry Flynt, an impassioned defense of the First Amendment that got Forman one final Oscar nomination, although he lost to The English Patient’s Anthony Minghella. He followed that with Man on the Moon, a portrait of the increasingly eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman that seemed to bear out William Carlos Williams’ dictum that “the pure products of America go crazy.” His last major release was 2006’s Goya’s Ghost, although he also remade his own, early A Well Paid Walk in 2009 as A Walk Worthwhile, sharing directing duties with his son, Petr.
Forman’s later movies are readily available through streaming services and on DVD/Blu-ray, and you can stream The Firemen’s Ball through Amazon Prime; Forman’s segment of the 1972 Olympics omnibus documentary Visions of Eight is available on FilmStruck.