“He was the best at mixing tragedy and comedy” – Miloš Forman remembered

Miloš Forman

The great Czech film director Miloš Forman would have been 90 on February 18. After creating some of the best films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, Forman enjoyed a second career in Hollywood, winning two Oscars. We speak to some people who knew him.

When Miloš Forman received the Oscar for Best Director for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976 his speech contained both wit and gratitude.

“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 recognise that I spent more time in a mental institution than the others… The second might be that, well, America is still a big, beautiful, hospitable and open country.”

'The Firemen’s Ball' | Photo: Jaromír Komárek,  © Barrandov Studio a.s.

Forman, who lost both of his parents in Nazi concentration camps, had a decade earlier been at the forefront of the Czechoslovak New Wave, creating such classics as Loves of a Blonde and Black Peter.

Leading contemporary Czech director Jan Hřebejk believes Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball is the greatest achievement in the entirety of Czech cinema – and says he was a unique artist.

“Of all the directors I know, I think he was the best at mixing tragedy and comedy. The films are extraordinarily entertaining.

"Whether it’s his Czech films or his most famous international ones, like Amadeus or Cuckoo’s Nest, they have lots of incredibly funny moments. But then they can also send a chill down your spine.”

Forman won his second Best Director Academy Award in 1985 for Amadeus and enjoyed success with several other titles, including The People vs. Larry Flint and Man on the Moon.

'Amadeus' | Foto: Orion Pictures

Though these were Hollywood productions, Hřebejk sees a through-line from the films Forman made prior to moving to the US from communist Czechoslovakia at the end of the 1960s.

“Perhaps his first films were seemingly more personal, or original. I think Taking Off, which I love and which I understand, is like an English-language Czech or European film.

"His later films – Cuckoo’s Nest, Ragtime, Hair and of course Amadeus – have a different narrative approach. But the themes, his mastery as an artist, are the same.”

Veronika Bednářová, a journalist with the magazine Reflex, interviewed Forman several times, at his apartment overlooking New York’s Central Park and at his place in Connecticut.

Though the director was known as a raconteur, she says he also expressed great interest in people from all walks of life.

Miloš Forman | Photo: Alinoe,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0

“He really liked people, which I know is something which is deeply rooted in the DNA of the United States – this kind of respect for freedom and for ordinary citizens.

"I think for him it was kind of a way to clean off all the traumas and Nazism and communism he had encountered in Europe.

"He kind of didn’t need any psychotherapy for that – he just felt good in the United States.

"That’s why it was an ideal place to live for him, and his Czech family eventually.”

Miloš Forman died in Connecticut at the age of 86 in April 2018.