Milos Forman has worked with larger-than-life performers such as Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and Jim Carrey in “Man on the Moon.”
But as he assesses a career that includes a pair of directing Oscars -- for 1975’s “Cuckoo’s Nest” and 1984’s “Amadeus,” both best picture winners -- he’s struck by his work with an actor of a different vintage.
“I don’t think I was ever as fascinated or have had so much respect for anybody like James Cagney,” says Forman, who brought the screen legend out of a 20-year retirement in 1981 for a starring role as a wily New York police commissioner in Forman’s “Ragtime.” “That man was amazing. I knew him socially and I was joking about him to come out of retirement and he would not budge. Then a very strange, odd thing happened.”
Cagney, Forman says, had no movie memorabilia in his house. “No photos, no posters of his own films even,” he recalls by phone recently. “Then suddenly, he gave me the poster of the very first off-Broadway production of ‘Hair,’ which was in 1967. He said, ‘I never saw it. I never had a desire to see it. I don’t know how I got it. I don’t know why I kept it. But it’s yours.’” (Forman had directed the movie version of the seminal rock musical.)
Cagney, in his early 80s at the time, was portly and having a hard time getting about.
“He was under pressure from his doctors do something,” Forman recalls. “They were saying, ‘James, if you just keep sitting in your armchair, you are going to die.’ With the combination of this pressure by his doctors and this strange, weird coincidence that I made the film ‘Hair,’ he said yes [to ‘Ragtime’].”
Such stories are likely to be plentiful Wednesday evening when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences salutes the director with a screening of his 1966 Oscar-nominated Czech-language comedy, “Loves of a Blonde,” and a conversation between Forman and academy Executive Director Bruce Davis about the filmmaker’s career. Forman is working with Jean-Claude Carriere on a script.
Forman’s roots are in the renaissance of European cinema in the 1950s and ‘60s. France’s New Wave filmmakers may have made the loudest noise on the international scene, but young Eastern European directors such as Forman in Czechoslovakia were also enjoying international success despite the strictures of communism.
“When we started to make our films they were really Czech films about Czech society and Czech little people -- and who cares about Czech little people?” Forman says. “So it was satisfying to have people in other countries respond.”
His country was enjoying increasing artistic freedom when Forman, now 72, made his first films, 1963’s “Black Peter” and “Loves of a Blonde.” So although he was impressed with Hollywood when he came here for the 1966 Oscar ceremony, Forman had no intention of leaving Prague. “Things were going well,” he says. “We had evolved and thought some kind of democratization would follow.”
But his next film, “The Fireman’s Ball,” which spoofed the country’s fire-fighting bureaucracy, was shown only briefly in his homeland in July 1968. The following month, Soviet troops invaded the country and squelched any semblance of artistic freedom.
“That is when the film, together with three other films from my generation, were banned forever,” he said. “It was finally shown in ’89 when communism fell.”
When the Russian tanks were bearing down on Prague, Forman was in Paris working on negotiations for his first American film, “Taking Off”
“I was invited to make a movie in the United States officially,” he says, and the Czech government allowed it.
“When I finished ‘Taking Off,’ I didn’t want to go back, and the Czechs wouldn’t extend my exit visa, so I became an emigrant. 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.”
A Salute to Milos Forman
When: Wednesday at 8 p.m.
Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills
Contact: (310) 247-3600 or www.oscars.org