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Czech-born director Milos Forman understood the American experience

Czech-born director Milos Forman understood the American experience
Filmmaker Milos Forman is shown in Paris in October 2009. (Martin Bureau / AFP/Getty Images)

Director Milos Forman was shaped by European sensibilities but his films were shrewd and intimate portraits of the yearnings, transgressions, politics, sexual fascinations, rebelliousness and complicated conformities that soothed, rattled and challenged the American spirit.

Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Forman, who died Friday in Connecticut, looked at America, notably in films like "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and "Hair" with an eye that was at once empathetic, detached and fiercely curious. He led us through the hallways of our insane asylums, the passions and duplicities of our courtrooms, and into the blur of flying hair, free love, tie-dye and peace signs that marked our 1960s antiwar protests.

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Like the work of other foreign-born directors, including Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Ang Lee, Forman's movies were often quintessentially American, parsing our contradictions and sins and celebrating the humanism and myths that soften our brash and misguided impulses. In the "People vs. Larry Flynt," Forman held the crude and carnival-like nature of the porn industry up to the prism of one of our deepest convictions: free speech. The film, in essence, was a raucous civics lesson led by a foul-mouthed millionaire.

"Larry Flynt is a devil with angel's wings," Forman said of the Kentucky sharecropper's son (played by Woody Harrelson) who founded Hustler magazine. "Half the man is just sleaze and smut, but the other half is very noble and admirable."

His films navigated the American soul, much like Wilder, an Austrian émigré whose "Sunset Boulevard" veered into the obsession with fame by a fallen movie star, and Capra, born in Italy, whose "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" told of an everyman senator with a subversive agenda to clean up political corruption. The Taiwanese-born Lee fearlessly dove into America's sexual and class conflicts, whether through the lives of gay cowboys in "Brokeback Mountain" or the sordid affairs of upper-class Connecticut couples in the 1970s in "The Ice Storm."

More recently, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's Oscar-winning "The Shape of Water" paid homage to the Hollywood B-horror film in its meditation on good and evil through the eyes of a persecuted half-man/half-fish creature in Cold War-era Baltimore.

Life's perplexing dualities — and its absurdities and ironies — suited Forman's inclinations. His rebel aesthetic was an affront to a Czechoslovakia that in 1968 was invaded by Soviet troops, ending the brief "Prague Spring." The director's "The Firemen's Ball" (1967), which Czech authorities banned, examined small-town misadventure and bureaucracy in a comical satire on the East European communist state. It fit the barbed intellectualism of his compatriots, including playwright Vaclav Havel and novelist Milan Kundera, and marked him a dissident.

Jack Nicholson is shown in a scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," directed by Milos Forman.
Jack Nicholson is shown in a scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," directed by Milos Forman. (Associated Press)

"I became an emigrant," he once said. "It wasn't scary at all [starting a new life in America]. You are young and arrogant. You think you can do anything, and then you slowly learn how wrong you are."

After wrestling with depression and camping at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, Forman ended up in Hollywood, where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and introducing moviegoers to the infamous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), won the Academy Award for best picture. Nicholson, Fletcher and Forman also won Oscars.

Nicholson's character, Randle McMurphy, a habitual criminal sentenced to a mental institution, is, like Larry Flynt, the consummate antihero. They are flawed men who force reckonings, outsiders with a penchant to rouse and inspire. Similar insurgent traits and narratives echoed through the hippie movement in "Hair" (1979), the antics of comedian Andy Kaufman (Jim Carrey) in "Man on the Moon" (1999), and in the misfortunes of black pianist Coalhouse Walker Jr., set amid the chicanery and oppression of the early 1900s in "Ragtime" (1981).

It was as if he were gathering outcasts and iconoclasts to hold a mirror up to his adopted country. Critic Roger Ebert wrote that Forman had "an unusually keen eye for American society." He added that the director's perceptiveness in "Ragtime" resulted in a "film about black pride and rage and, not only white racism, which we sort of expect, but also white liberalism."

Forman embodied the American work ethic and its persistent need for success. His musings at times sounded as if they would fit neatly into a 1950s Hollywood epic about unsated desire: "Everything I did in my life I did because I wanted to win," he said. "The will to win belongs to my essential motivational powers. However, winning is quite exhausting so the next thing, which always comes to my mind, is this: Fine, I have won, but that's not it. Next time it's going to be even harder."

Forman's rebel leanings – and exquisite cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek – imbued "Amadeus" (1984), the adaption of Peter Shaffer's play about the jealousy composer Antonio Salieri held for Wolfgang Mozart. Like other Forman characters, Mozart has little regard for convention and is out to challenge the aristocracy and musical tastes of Europe. The film, which won eight Academy Awards, including for best picture and director, is a moving study of one man's genius and another's mediocrity.

"Amadeus" may be set in 18th-century Europe but its tale of the individual fighting the establishment speaks to American sensibilities. It is a testament to Forman's fascination with the foibles and sublimities of the human spirit, and how cunning and tenderness, along with enduring passion, play out against our cruelties and better angels. In its most profound passages, the film reveals Salieri's wonder at Mozart's talent, and in the same moment, shows his inability, despite all his efforts, to create something as beautiful.

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