Milos Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest director, dies aged 86

Film director, a key figure of the Czech new wave before emigrating to US, also had Hollywood success with Amadeus

Czech-born filmmaker Milos Forman:  won a deluge of Academy Awards, including best director Oscars. Photograph: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

Czech-born filmmaker Milos Forman: won a deluge of Academy Awards, including best director Oscars. Photograph: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

 

Miloš Forman, the Czech-born director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, has died at the age of 86.

Czech news agency CTK reported that Forman died on Friday in the United States after a short illness. His wife, Martina, told CTK: “His departure was calm and he was surrounded the whole time by his family and his closest friends.”

Forman was born in the Czech town of Caslav in 1932; after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, his mother died in concentration camps. After being raised by relatives, Forman joined the Prague Film Academy, and began writing scripts in the late 1950s, gradually moving up the ranks in the postwar Czechoslovak industry.

His debut as director, Black Peter, about a teenager in his first job, incurred the dislike of the Communist authorities for its irreverent attitude, but after its prizewinning appearance at the Locarno film festival enabled Forman to continue directing.

Milos Forman after winning the best director Oscar for holds up his Oscar for his film Amadeus in 1985. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Milos Forman after winning the best director Oscar for holds up his Oscar for his film Amadeus in 1985. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

His next film, A Blonde in Love – inspired by a real-life incident in which Forman came across a young woman who had been duped and abandoned by a lover – established the free-wheeling, semi-documentary style that became his trademark in this period and made Forman a key figure in the burgeoning Czech new wave. It was nominated for the best foreign language film Oscar, as was the follow up, The Fireman’s Ball – a brilliantly scabrous account of a chaotic official social event that again incurred the wrath of the Communist authorities.

The Fireman’s Ball was released in 1967 and Forman was then invited to the US by Paramount Pictures to make a film in America. After attempting to get the rights to the musical Hair, Forman began work on an original screenplay, for the film Taking Off.

In August 1968 Czechslovakia was invaded by Warsaw Pact forces aiming to suppress Alexander Dubcek’s liberalising reforms; Forman opted to stay in the US, were he was joined by fellow director Ivan Passer.

Taking Off was a flop on its release in 1970, and Forman suffered a breakdown, living in the rundown Chelsea Hotel in New York but determined not to return to Czechslovakia. At his lowest point he was offered the chance to direct One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, another anti-authoritarian parable adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel.

With a cast led by Jack Nicholson at the height of his powers, Cuckoo’s Nest emerged as a massive success, a seminal product of the New Hollywood and winner of all top five Academy awards.

Forman returned to Hair for a follow-up, then moved on to Ragtime, an adaptation of EL Doctorow’s novel – the latter secured eight Oscar nominations (though failed to win any). Forman then had another huge success with Amadeus, a film version of Peter Shaffer’s play about the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri; it won eight Oscars, including Forman’s second for best director.

Valmont, Forman’s 1989 adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, proved something of an anticlimax as another version, directed by Stephen Frears and containing a star-making performance from John Malkovich, had been released the previous year.

Milos Forman poses after being presented with the ‘Giraldillo’ award for his life-long career achievements at Sevilla Festival Film Spain. in 2004. Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images
Milos Forman poses after being presented with the ‘Giraldillo’ award for his life-long career achievements at Sevilla Festival Film Spain. in 2004. Photograph: Cristina Quicler/AFP/Getty Images

However, Forman re-emerged with The People Vs Larry Flynt, a biopic of the pornography publisher that Forman framed as another anti-authority fable. His next film Man on the Moon, about eccentric comedian Andy Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey, was not a commercial success but has received considerable attention after the recent documentary Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond, which revealed Carrey’s unusual performance methods.

His final completed film, Goya’s Ghosts, was released in 2006, though he did continue to appear in films, including the 2011 French film The Beloved, which was the closing film of the Cannes film festival that year.

Forman was married three times – his first two, to Jana Brejchová and Vera Kresadlova-Formanova ended in divorce – and had four children. – Guardian Service, agencies)