Trying to Capture the Spirit on Screen

By the late '70s, the Flower Power movement had long wilted. Jimmy Carter was now president and OPEC--not the Viet Cong--was the enemy.

But that was the least of the challenges director Milos Forman and writer Michael Weller faced as they began the task of adapting the stage musical "Hair" for the wide screen.

"The story line was practically nonexistent on the stage," Forman recalled recently, "so there were only two ways: either to photograph the play or to use the play as a springboard to a new vision."

In the critically welcomed but commercially unsuccessful 1979 film, that new vision included Weller's introduction of Claude (John Savage) as a naive Oklahoma farm boy and draftee who leaves home for his induction in New York and falls in with a group of Central Park hippies, including Berger (Treat Williams). They take him through a counterculture looking glass into an upended world of love, freedom and drugs that featured a lively encounter with a flaky debutante (Beverly D'Angelo).

That awakening--sexual, social and political--to some extent mirrored Forman's experience as a young Czech filmmaker who, on his first visit to New York, happened to attend the very first Broadway preview of "Hair." As a citizen of a repressive totalitarian society, he was struck by the anarchic and explosive stagecraft, the colorful and permissive attitudes that offered such a contrast with the drab life of Central Europe.

"My English was very poor, but I just loved the songs," Forman said. "They were so exciting and this whole spirit of freedom and expression of feeling by young people was very appealing. I wanted not only to retain this spirit but to enhance it in the movie. It was important to get some story line that would open up the play and make it realistic, even as a musical."

Using Central Park as the stage and the surrounding city as the audience, the movie musical traces Claude's exhilarating journey to liberation, but with all of his conflicted feelings of brashness and insecurity.

"On one hand, it's exciting, but on the other hand, it is foreign and disturbing for Claude," Forman said, "because there are no rules. Suddenly, you're facing this culture of draft dodgers and drugs. If you don't join in, you're a coward; if you do, there are consequences."

Weller, as an American student in England, had seen little of the hippie culture when, on a visit to New York, he also took in "Hair" with his father. "I was mainly waiting for the naked bit," said the writer, who would make his theatrical mark a few years later with "Moonchildren." "In England, the counterculture expressed itself more in left-wing politics than in smoking dope. I remember asking my father at intermission, 'Is this what hippies are supposed to be like?' And he said, 'This is a musical. This is to hippies what Marines were to 'South Pacific.'

"When we came to do the movie, I was struck by capturing what Milos Forman had experienced--this more realistic statement of liberation from a totalitarian way of thinking."

Michael Butler, producer of the original musical who shared producer credit for the film with Lester Persky and associate producer Robert Greenhut, said the movie was delayed by studio upheavals at United Artists, and noted that at one time the creative team was slated to include the "Harold and Maude" team of Hal Ashby as director and Colin Higgins as writer.

Butler expressed disappointment with Forman's "Hair," particularly the radically different ending that has to do with an inadvertent sacrifice by Berger on behalf of Claude, compared with the more direct ending in the musical. "That was a big mistake, because you didn't really feel for Claude," Butler said. Forman responded to the criticism by observing that the action taken by Berger is in character and representative to some extent of a youth culture that declared its prerogatives heedlessly, without taking into account the consequences.

"[Berger] takes another risk, as he has been doing all his life, and he takes it because of the friendship developed between him and Claude," Forman says. "But when he takes it, like so much of what he does, he's blind to what it may lead to. And when you are dealing with a repressive system, that can be dangerous."

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