When I was 10, my classical music fanatic father took me to see a repertory screening of Amadeus. As most kids are at that age, I was a contrarian little shit who instantly denounced whatever my parents were into. Yet even then I couldn’t help but become wholly captivated by the lusciously photographed drama, one that made the music come alive and finally mean something to me. Our love for Amadeus was a constant bonding experience between my father and me, and I have Milos Forman to thank for those memories.
Forman, who tragically passed away April 13th, was as versatile a filmmaker as they come, capable of producing prestige dramas, screwball comedies and musicals with equal precision and finesse. Even though his films could have wildly differing genres, themes and tones, his love for dreamers, rule breakers, rabble-rousers and misunderstood geniuses was as clear as his scorn for bullies, hypocrites, sheepish company men and draconian systems that worked tirelessly to stifle freedom and creativity.
No surprise there, since he came to prominence as a unique and unbridled talent in a part of the world where those qualities were not only scorned, but systematically crushed: the then-Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. Not every project he helmed was a masterpiece, some even had glaring issues—Valmont, anyone?—but when he made a great film, boy was it formidable. In honor of his memory, let’s celebrate Milos Forman’s five best films from his career as a great director of his generation:
The Fireman’s Ball is a breezy, broad, 73-minute broad comedy of errors about a small-town Czechoslovakian fire brigade trying to put on a pluckily “glamorous” ball in honor of one of their retiring members, only to see the whole thing first metaphorically, then literally, go down in flames. Yet, even the shallowest dig under the film’s surface reveals a brutal satire of the political corruption that destroyed Forman’s once-beloved Czechoslovakia. Fearing the wrath of the censors, Forman made sure that his film worked as a simple comedy first, and then peppered in the scornful social commentary. His government eventually got wind of his intentions, and the film was banned in Czechoslovakia. After The Fireman’s Ball, Forman wouldn’t direct a movie in his home country for 40 years.
When I was a freshman in a Turkish film school, a Czechoslovakian film scholar told our class that The People vs. Larry Flynt was “a movie so American, that only a European could have made it.” Only an observant Forman, especially considering his oppressive Czechoslovakian background, could offer a strong critique of untethered ambition while also fully comprehending the vital importance of free speech—two strongly American traits. His take on Larry Flynt, brought to life by a scorched-earth, career-best performance by Woody Harrelson, is not one of a deified knight for free speech, nor is it a morally superior takedown of a “sleazy” pornographer. Through screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s succinct distillation of a lifetime full of success, trouble and regret, Forman zones in on the simple truth about a deeply flawed man who wanted to be rich via his love for the naked female form, and found himself a crusader for those without the power to stand up against systemic oppression.
An unbridled energy that celebrates freedom, love and life itself is the component that undeniably turns what could have been a quick cash grab adaptation of the hit Broadway play into one of the most unforgettable movie musicals of all time. Forman uses real New York locations for even the grandest of his musical numbers, giving them a tactile feel while never undermining the spectacle. The simple story of a group of hippies, led by Treat Williams’ rambunctious George Berger, trying to show a Vietnam-bound soldier (John Savage) that there’s more to life than dying sheepishly for a corrupt and needless war, is propped up by the balance Forman finds between the exuberantly psychedelic and the tragically grounded.
Forman’s grand masterpiece about human frailty, privilege and obsession, how those qualities can destroy lives before inevitably switching to self-destruct, Amadeus looks beyond the visual glamour of even the most Oscar-baity prestige projects to dig into the simple truths about its characters, while staying epic in scope. In Salieri (F. Murray Abraham deserved every ounce of his Best Actor statuette), Forman sculpts not a superficial antagonist who’s out to get his rival, the buffoonish but almost supernaturally gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), but a tragic figure who’s surprisingly relatable, an unwilling representation of vanity and entitlement.
Is it a tragicomic story about a rebellious man (Jack Nicholson) who’s sent to a mental health institution in order to get away from the dull responsibilities of square life, only to find himself entangled with the oppressive tactics of a ruthless nurse (Louise Fletcher, playing the patron saint of passive-aggressive villains)? Or is it a playful allegory about the definition of “crazy behavior,” positing whether or not the insane are actually the sane ones? An angry and embittered takedown of a system that punishes dissent while methodically dulling the minds of its subjects, enough to turn them into oblivious cogs without the ability to control their own fate? An allegory on communism? A blasphemous critique of organized religion? All of it, and none of it. The many readings of Forman’s tale of sanity in an insane world, and vice versa, are part of what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a timeless piece of subversive art. Just like the way the patients in the film are meticulously institutionalized, so is the audience, as Forman gradually normalizes their existence for us. That’s why its iconic emotional wrecking ball of an ending makes such an indelible impression: No matter how constrained we feel, there’s always a way out.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He works as a reader for some of the leading screenplay coverage companies in Hollywood, and is also a film critic for The Playlist, DVD Talk and Beyazperde. He has a BA in Film Theory and an MFA in Screenwriting. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.