The legendary director discusses his long, varied filmography

By Jeff Jensen
December 10, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

The first film Milos Forman ever saw was 1937’s Snow White. But it was the second film he saw—a silent version of a Czech opera—that marked him: ”The curtain went up. You saw the bride start to sing. And at that moment, the whole theater started to sing along. That’s what I thought the movies were about—to sing along. It fascinated me.” His own work has been consistently fascinating (if not always commercial) for more than 30 years. Here, he sings about some of the highlights.

BLACK PETER (1964), LOVES OF A BLONDE (1965), THE FIREMEN’S BALL (1967) Forman’s first Czech features—coming-of-age tales that established his recurring fixations with generational divides and antiestablishment themes—made him an international critics’ darling. But with Ball, a satire critical of his country’s governmental bureaucracy, Forman revealed he was after something more subversive than bittersweet slices of life:

”The Czech ideology was that film had to reflect life as it should be. We wanted to show life as it is. That required some fancy strutting around the censors, and subjects which on the surface were innocent. But between the lines, the audience could read something more.” (Not for long. After the Soviet crackdown in ’68, Ball was banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years.)

TAKING OFF (1971) While bringing Ball to the New York Film Festival in 1968, Forman read a newspaper account of a murdered teenager who had been skipping school to explore New York’s hippie scene unbeknownst to her parents, who had secret lives of their own. This true-life American Beauty was the basis of Forman’s first American film. Critics were kind, but the film flopped.

”I was trying to do another Czech film here. As silly as it would have been to do an American thriller in Czechoslovakia, it was just as ridiculous to try to make a small Czech film here in America. I wanted to go back, but the country was occupied by the Russians. I realized if I went back, I would not be able to work. I also didn’t want to go home a loser. So I stayed.”

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) Forman spent his self-imposed exile in New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, waiting for the chance to prove he was a winner. It came when Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz asked him to adapt Ken Kesey’s counterculture classic. Starring Jack Nicholson, the film grossed an estimated $112 million and won five Oscars, including Best Director and Picture. It also reunited him with his first set of twin sons, Petr and Matej (by first wife Vera Kresadlova).

”Several times before, I asked the Czech government to let my children come see me, and they never did. But when they learned this film was nominated for all these Academy Awards, they suddenly gave them permission to visit me. It’s the paradox of a society that blames capitalism for the evil of this world, but nothing, nothing impresses them more than success in the capitalist world.”

HAIR (1979) Capitalist success eluded him with his movie version of the 1960s Broadway musical, starring Treat Williams as a scrungy hippie messiah. Forman attributes Hair’s woeful box office to America’s ”cultural hangover” from its failed flower-power revolution. At least his actors didn’t freeze to death during the film’s set piece: the Central Park ”be-in.”

“It was scheduled for Dec. 8. The production manager said, ‘Don’t worry, that’s Indian summer.’ Dec. 8 comes. Snow everywhere. Water vapor was coming out of everyone’s mouths. ‘Don’t worry,’ the production manager says. ‘Before we shoot, just give the dancers some ice to put in their mouths. When you say action, they’ll spit it out, and for seven seconds, there will be no vapor coming out.'”

Forman decided to wait for a warmer day to shoot the park scene. In the meantime, he took his cast and crew to Nevada to shoot Hair’s military sequences.

“That was my lesson in democracy. We asked the Pentagon for help—soldiers, equipment, tanks—and a letter came turning us down. They didn’t want to support a film showing the military in an unfavorable light. So I called Arthur Krim, who was the chairman of United Artists. I don’t know who Krim called, but the next day, we had the full cooperation of the Army.”