Forman vs. Forman Review – A Fascinating Excursion Through the Life and Mind of One of the Great Filmmakers

Although he made a couple of short films during his time at the Chelsea Hotel, Forman was in a deep depression. He found after the failure of Taking Off he couldn’t write and direct in a language that was not his own and began to look for source material to base his work on. Through a meeting with Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz he was given the opportunity to work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on Ken Kesey’s novel. Forman feels he was given the piece to direct because he was used to explaining how he would approach a piece. The novel and script appealed to him because “The Communist Party was my big nurse [Ratched]… it was my life. The individual in conflict with an institution gave him a strong sense of connection and compassion for the individual – for Forman, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) gave him the opportunity to once again engage in the ‘social meaning’ of filmmaking. 

The film also garnered an impressive number of Oscars including Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Not only did it cement Forman’s reputation in American filmmaking, it also gave him the first opportunity to see his twin sons Petr and Matej since he parted ways with his family in Paris in the late 1960s.

Following One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest were the musical Hair and the adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel based on a true crime Ragtime. Although Hair and Ragtime were not quite as successful as his 1975 award winner, both had success. Ragtime was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1981 but did not win any. Forman mused that in his life in Czechoslovakia he had always been subject to ideological pressure but in America it was commercial pressure that pressed upon his freedom as a creator. “I was at the mercy of idiots [in communist Czechoslovakia] I prefer to be at the mercy of film goers [in the free market].

Freedom is a notion that preoccupied Forman for much of his life. In an interview shown in Forman vs. Forman he discusses his notion of it:

“I don’t know what freedom is really — it’s a funny word — it’s a word made out of clay because anybody moulds it, so it fits. I only know where freedom is and where it is not. Freedom is only where you can publicly and loudly doubt its presence, where you can say publicly and loudly ‘There is no freedom there,’ there is freedom.”

Living as an expatriate, or more specifically an exile, from his home country for most of his life weighed upon him. As noted above, it wasn’t until he was eventually able to film the profoundly successful Amadeus in Prague in 1983 that he was able to once again visit his home country. However, during that period he was watched carefully by the secret police. Amadeus based on the 1979 play by Peter Shaffer is considered one of the greatest films ever made. It was awarded eight Oscars and won a raft of other prestigious awards. Of the awards he won Forman said they were important for power and prestige. However, he did not appear to be greatly shaped by his success noting that although “Filmmakers are forced to play God” there is a point where in the screening room “the Godness (sic) shrinks.” 

The idea of a piece of entertainment about a musician at first did not appeal to Forman due to the nature of cinema he had grown up with under the communist regime. He believed that a film about a composer could not have anything to say. However, once he saw Shaffer’s play, he realised it was a story of great universality. Of the villain Salieri he said “I think what makes human. There is nothing wrong with mediocrity – not everyone can be Mozart, but for someone to not realise and accept that, I think that’s what causes wars, world wars! Someone can’t accept that he’s not a god.”

Forman’s next film, Valmont (1989), a version of the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was a commercial and critical failure. In 1988 Stephen Frears filmed the same story as Dangerous Liaisons with an all-star cast including Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich. Frears’ film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and was bound to overshadow Forman’s slighter version. Forman, however, didn’t dwell on his lack of success as a far greater joy appeared in his life, the Velvet Revolution of 1989 under which Czechoslovakia began to throw off the shackles of communism and elected for the first time a democratic leader in Forman’s friend and former schoolmate Václev Havel. In footage shown from 1990 Forman introduces his old friend in Washington as a “Playwright who stirs a revolution without firing a bullet… a miracle.”

Forman’s later works were on the whole very successful with the exception of Goya’s Ghosts. Both The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon returned to Forman’s themes of the triumph or freedom and the humanity of the individual against a system. In The People vs. Larry Flynt Forman notes it is constitutional freedom of speech that is the hero of the film.

For all his time in America, which includes up to the time of his death in 2018, the documentary shows that he was never completely able to give up his homeland. His family home in upstate New York he chose to resemble a Czech village and planted trees that reminded him of home. The tension of being permanently displaced despite spending most of his adult life in a capitalist society worked its way profoundly into Forman’s psyche. He was always Czech no matter how long he lived in America. His second wife was a Czech filmmaker who had also attended FAMU, and in what Forman saw as a bizarre twist of statistics he had twin sons with her as he had with his previous wife.

Forman vs Forman was made for Czech television and is narrated in part in Czechoslovakian by Petr Forman. It is an unexpectedly intimate vision of the director which is concerned with his interior life and philosophies as much as it is with his filmmaking. The documentary frames Forman’s journey through the turbulence of World War II and then communist Czechoslovakia as an essential aspect to how he approached all aspects of his creative process. Even when he was living in a capitalist society he still strove to tell stories that showed the individual working in a system or society that often alienated them. Like the suitcase he carried for thirty-five years, Forman’s position as permanent outsider was familiar baggage, but in his case baggage that influenced great works of art. A fascinating excursion through the life and mind of one of the great filmmakers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Director: Helena Treštikova

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