The Oscar-winner director, who arrived from Czechoslovakia in 1969, never had any doubt that if he was patient enough and lucky enough, he would be able to find projects that he’d be able to do better than anyone else.
Her hair looks bomb-razed. He wears a spiked leather collar. They are a fascist-chic couple and they are fighting about love. Who’s getting it, who’s giving it, and why it’s never enough. Director Milos Forman sits a few feet away in a collapsible chair watching, occasionally twitching. Something is wrong The dialogue isn’t playing. This is theater and “it’s got to have an edge!” So pronounces Forman the Oscar winner, in a contrabass so low you can’t get under it. “Punk kids talking punk is boring,” he punctuates, and all at once a Socratic dialogue between Milos (the “s” is pronounced “sh”) and his performing students is launched. Forman as educator. As chairman of Columbia University’s film department, he gets into his black Porsche every Friday and makes the trek from his home in northwest Connecticut to this outpost of learning in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan to teach courses in directing and screen writing. “Two hours, door-to-door,” he says of the commute into the Big Apple.
Forman began his career as a screenwriter in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and moved on to directing before coming to the States in 1969. Once here he would eventually prove himself a director of the first magnitude with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (five Oscars), Hair, Ragtime and Amadeus (eight Oscars). Now the Slavic power-wielder has just completed a role—his acting debut —in Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, directed by buddy and Connecticut neighbor Mike Nichols. “It’s just a minuscule part,” Forman says of his two scenes, but claims the experience a kick, what with good friend and tennis pal Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep (a “most impressive” actress) in starring roles.
As for Forman himself, he’s a gyroscope. He keeps moving around to stay in the center. Moves around so much it was luck to pin him down to an interview. Even the word “interview” makes him physically sick, he says. If he wanted to make it his business, he would “become a professional interviewee.” Nevertheless, toss out a few questions and he’ll talk.
Photos of Forman catch him well: He is august. He could play defensive tackle for the Rams. And his voice mirrors his size. He wears some serious opticals, heavy black-framed specs that parody those mail-order X-ray glasses advertised in the back pages of comic books years ago. The glasses make him look like some quintessential visionary, make him look like he can see everything, which in fact, a good director does. Actually, Forman’s looks are all about the edges he tries to create in his scenes. He is the image of a colossus who can, as one critic noted, “float an $18 million movie, Amadeus, on the backs of unknowns.” He’s paterfamilias, authority you don’t mess with. He also seems a vulnerable man and some of this Superman jive may be an illusion. Especially if one looks at the big picture and considers the fact that he lost both parents in Nazi concentration camps when he was 7. It’s almost as if, as a result, he has learned to keep a lens cap over some particular part of his soul.
Bom in 1932 in Caslav, 45 miles from Prague, Forman married twice and fathered two sons before the Soviet tanks rolled in in 1968, cauterizing Prague’s artistic flow—a period captured in Forman’s Loves of a Blond (a 1965 political satire) and Fireman’s Ball (1967). The invasion provided the impetus that sent him off to America. He once said that he “was always dreaming of making films in Hollywood—Hollywood is for filmmakers what Paris was for painters.” Hasn’t his vision of Hollywood been shattered by the box-office-success mentality of movie making? Forman looks down at his Pumas and extrapolates, “When I say ‘Hollywood,’ I am using the word metaphorically. I am not talking about the studios. I am talking about the American way of making movies. The range of films says it all: spectacles like Dune, comedies like Splash and Beverly Hills Cop, avant-garde films like Stranger in Paradise. Hollywood is what Paris was, now even more so.”
After directing his first film, Taking Off—a commercial flop— in 1971, Forman decided not to go back immediately to Czechoslovakia “poorer, and perhaps to be laughed at.” Instead, he found himself flat broke, living in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, courtesy of the landlord, borrowing $100 here and there to make do. “It probably will sound arrogant,” he says, “but 1 never had any doubt that if I was patient enough and lucky enough, I would be able to find projects which I would be able to do better than anyone else.”
Rumor has it that Forman at one time was to have worked on a Kafka adaptation. His face lights up at the reference. “Kafka had written this extraordinary novel about America (Amerika) which I read before I arrived here. I was amazed to discover how accurate he had been in his description of this ‘ideal society.’ And he had written the book without ever having seen this country. I had wanted to do the same—make a film about the country soon after arriving, while everything was still fresh. But the time for that has long come and gone.”
Forman tried to return to visit Czechoslovakia several times in the decade after he left—he had friends and family there—but was denied permission. In 1982, however, the Czech government gave the expatriate (who had become a U.S. citizen in 1977) special permission to return there to film Amadeus. Though 18th-century Vienna was the backdrop for Peter Shaffer’s original play, Forman chose Prague, with its well-preserved streets and magnificent palaces, to recreate the setting for his film. Another Forman decision—choosing Americans to play the principal characters—created discussion. “I got echoes from reviewers and critics attacking us for the mixture of accents in the film. You must realize one thing: Vienna at the time was the equivalent of any major American city today,” Forman says. “It was a melting pot, a mixture of accents. I preferred just to throw today’s people in and not bother them with learning some funny-sounding archaic way of speaking. This allowed the performances to be more natural, closer to life.”
Natural and closer to life is more or less a Forman credo. The language in Shaffer’s play is exquisitely crafted. Poetic. Does Forman think there is any place for this kind of language in film? Tugging on a Monte-cruz, he exhales a plume of smoke. “Language is different in film. Once you go with a camera into a real place, into the real street, everything is real. This demands that the people behave according to the reality around them. And, for me, the way people talk in a film is part of their behavior.” Truman Capote once said that “when God gives you a gift, he also gives you a whip which is intended for self-flagellation only.” The same notion seemed realized in the characterization of Mozart in Amadeus. What are Forman’s views on talent?
“It is a mystery from where talent comes. Is it in the genes? No, it’s not, because we know many talented parents whose kids don’t show any talent. On the other hand, we have very talented kids coming from parents who are not talented in any special way, so it is not in the genes. Neither is it in education, because if it was, we would be able to develop and educate as many great artists as we wanted. Finally, it’s not just a question of hard work, because I know so many people who work hard whose work is no good. From where talent comes is a question that continues to haunt mankind. Some say it’s a chemical coincidence in the brain. Fine, but until someone proves it, I am having reservations. Some say it’s from God. Perhaps, whatever God means for them and if the whip comes with it, well, we just have to look at history to tell us talent very often doesn’t bring happiness. As a matter of fact, very talented people often end up miserable.”
The talk turns to love. Both of Forman’s failed marriages were to actresses. He is legally separated from his second wife, Vera Kresadlova, who lives in Czechoslovakia. Forman has been quoted as saying that he always “looks for relationships that are slightly superficial, not so demanding to detract from my work.” Forman explains: “You see, when I am working on a film, it is completely absorbing. I am giving 100 percent and whomever I am involved with at the time has to understand that I am spending sometimes 20 hours a day on that film and I cannot have personal demands made upon me under those conditions. I realize I’m sort of cheating, not physically, but my mind is somewhere else, and that’s what I mean when I say that what I am capable of offering is superficial. I am not talking about the relationship itself or saying that the other person has to be superficial. Not at all. As a matter of fact, I can survive only when I am working with a person who will accept the superficiality of a personal relationship.”
Relationships are mentioned frequently in the press, but there’s no murmur nor sign of a current lady in Forman’s life in his Connecticut barn, a masculine stronghold, a bachelor spread. Set on 39 acres, set back from the road, it is very private, like its owner. The huge living room is comfortably furnished with a mix of Early American pieces and state-of-the-art technology. On a shelf here—over an electronic chessboard and a stash of tapes—stand Forman’s prestigious awards: a Golden Globe, French, Italian, British and American Oscars. Forman himself dominates the entire space. Always a presence. He talks of life in the country, where he shops, dines out, plays tennis (his own courts) and skis (Mohawk Mountain in Cornwall). After seven years in the area, he has become a Connecticut “local.” The face-behind-the-camera goes unrecognized.
The barn, the comer of Connecticut, the privacy are ideal for the heavy reading of books and scripts that goes on—and on— in a director’s life. “It takes time to decide on a project,” Forman says. “As a director, you’re deciding on how you’re going to spend two or three years of your life. It’s not like an actor, who has a much shorter commitment.” There’s no hint of which film will come next, but there’s still space on the shelf of Oscars for a few more.