Man on the Moon, starring Jim Carrey, explores the dark and brilliant edges of a renegade hero. From 'Cuckoo's Nest' to 'Larry Flynt,' director MILOS FORMAN has been down this road before.
December 10, 1999
By Jeff Jensen
Forman lights up at a Central Park memorial near his Manhattan apartment.
Milos Forman greets you at the door of his Manhattan apartment, eager to ply you with his unique brand of Czech hospitality. "What can I get you to drink?" the two‑time Oscar‑winning director asks in his Bela Lugosi voice. You're parched, so you politely request a glass of water. "Good," he replies. "I have this Czech beer that you will just love." At 9:30 in the morning? No, no, water would be fine. "Great," he says. "I'll get you that beer." Beer before breakfast? Well, when you think about it, Forman, 67, has never been a stickler for strict adherence to social conventions. This is a man whose lofty cinema is filled with some of the most memorable counterculture rogues in movie history. See Jack Nicholson's loony‑bin insurrectionist in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, or Tom Hulce's giggly, flatulent Mozart in Amadeus, or Woody Harrelson's porn‑purveying First Amendment hero in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Of the eight actors who have earned Oscar nominations under Forman, five have played characters who risked their lives bucking the system. His newest film, Man on the Moon, due Dec. 22, may yield a sixth: Jim Carrey's uncanny channeling of the late, great, and exceedingly grating comedian Andy Kaufman.
Forman was turned on to Moon by Danny DeVito, who costarred with Kaufman in Taxi. The film covers all of Kaufman's infamous bits, including his abrasive alter ego, lounge lizard Tony Clifton; his controversial stint as a misogynist wrestler; and the mysterious circumstances of his death at age 35 of cancer. But don't expect a film that reveals what made Kaufman tick. "He was impossible to explain," says the director. "I talked to the people very close to him, and they couldn't tell me who Andy really was."
Yet that riddle provided Forman and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who both worked with the director on Flynt) with their angle. Moon is a playfully suspect biopic, the kind Kaufman might have made about himself. On the set, Carrey contributed to this head trip by never breaking character ‑or is that characters? "Every day I was dealing with a different person," says Forman. "It took me a few days to get used to it, but then I really had fun and enjoyed playing the game with him." So much so that when Forman's second wife, Martina Zborilova, gave birth to twins during the shoot, he named them Jim and Andy.
Ironically, Carrey's dead‑on performance created a dilemma: Test audiences wanted less of the abusive Clifton. It's the first time Forman ‑who has directed 11 features, including this one- has used the test screenings to inform a final cut. "It was helpful," he admits, "but the dangerous thing is that it can lead to a film that's a one‑size‑fits‑all."
This hesitancy to play by the rules may stem from Forman's upbringing in Czechoslovakia, which went from democracy to Nazi occupation (his parents were killed in concentration camps) to Communist regime all before he turned 18. "I guess my films are a subconscious response to the society I grew up in," says Forman, "where the abuse of the individual was just devastating."
If you've seen a Forman flick, though, you know that he leavens such heaviness with a hearty dose of hilarity. Hanging out with Forman, you experience far more of the latter. "He's a gregarious, friendly guy," says Alexander. "He's made all of these serious, important movies, but he's totally unpretentious. A real man of the people."
Ah, so that explains the beer.
Forman on Forman
The first film Milos Forman ever saw was 1937's Snow White. But it was the second film he saw ‑a silent version of a Czech opera‑ that marked him: "The curtain went up. You saw the bride start to sing. And at that moment, the whole theater started to sing along. That's what I thought the movies were about ‑to sing along. It fascinated me." His own work has been consistently fascinating (if not always commercial) for more than 30 years. Here, he sings about some of the highlights. ‑JJ
BLACK PETER (1964), LOVES OF A BLONDE (1965), THE FIREMEN'S BALL (1967)
Forman's first Czech features ‑coming‑of‑age tales that established his recurring fixations with generational divides and antiestablishment themes‑ made him an international critics' darling. But with Ball, a satire critical of his country's governmental bureaucracy, Forman revealed he was after something more subversive than bittersweet slices of life: “The Czech ideology was that film had to reflect life it should be. We wanted to show life as it is. That required some fancy strutting around the censors, and subjects which on the surface were innocent. But between the lines, the audience could read something more.” (Not for long. After the Soviet crackdown in '68, Ball was banned in Czechoslovakia for 20 years.)
TAKING OFF (1971) While bringing Ball to the New York Film Festival in 1968, Forman read a newspaper account of a murdered teenager who had been skipping school to explore New York's hippie scene unbeknownst to her parents, who had secret lives of their own. This true‑life American Beauty was the basis of Forman's first American film. Critics were kind, but the film flopped. “I was trying to do another Czech film here. As silly as is it would have been to do an American thriller in Czechoslovakia it was just ridiculous to try to make a small Czech film here in America. I wanted to go back, but the country was occupied by the Russians. I realized if went back I would not be able to work. I also didn’t want to go home a loser. So I stayed.”
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (1975) Forman spent his self‑imposed exile in New York City's Chelsea Hotel, waiting for the chance to prove he was a winner. It came when Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz asked him to adapt Ken Kesey's counterculture classic. Starring Jack Nicholson, the film grossed an estimated $ll2 million and won five Oscars, including Best Director and Picture. It also reunited him with his first set of twin sons, Petr and Matej (by first wife Vera Kresadlova). "Several times before, I asked the Czech government to let my children come see me, and they never did. But when they learned this film was nominated for all these Academy Awards, they suddenly gave them permission to visit me. It’s the paradox of a society that blames capitalism for the evil of this world, but nothing, nothing impresses them more than success in the capitalist world.”
HAIR (1979) Capitalist success eluded him with his movie version of the 1960s Broadway musical, starring Treat Williams as a scrungy hippie messiah. Forman attributes Hair's woeful box office to America's "cultural hangover" from its failed flower‑power revolution. At least his actors didn't freeze to death during the film's set piece: the Central Park "be‑in." "It was scheduled for Dec. 8. The production manager said "Don't worry, that's Indian summer,' Dec. 8 comes. Snow everywhere. Water vapor was coming out of everyone's mouths. 'Don't worry. the production manager says. Before we shoot, just give the dancers some ice to put in their mouths. When you say action, spit it out and for seven seconds, there will be no vapor' coming out.' Forman decided to wait for a warmer day to shoot the park scene. In the meantime, he took his cast and crew to Nevada to shoot Hair's military sequences. “That was my lesson in democracy, We asked the Pentagon for help ‑soldiers, equipment, tanks‑ and a letter came turning us down. They didn't want to support a film showing the military in an unfavorable light. So I called Arthur Krim, who was the chairman of United Artists. I don't know who Krim called, but the next day, we had the full cooperation of the Army."
Forman's stately staging of E.L. Doctorow's novel didn't pack 'em in either, but it did receive eight Oscar noms. Forced to cut an entire subplot (about 20 minutes of film) by producer Dino De Laurentiis to get the film down to 156 minutes, he hopes a DVD will one day restore it. Left untouched, thankfully, was James Cagney's final screen performance. “He was retired for 20 years. I said, 'James, pick any part, it's yours.' He said, ‘The commissioner. That's a nice part, I'll do that.' But it was complicated; he said, I'm not signing anything. Il you want to take a risk, I will not decide until one day before shooting.' So I was very careful to pick a double in case James suddenly said, 'I don't feel like it.' But thank God he said yes. When he first entered the studio, for the scene where the commissioner addresses the Pinkertons, there was 20 minutes of applause. James just stood there, tears rolling down his cheeks. That man was 81 years old. Every disease you can name, he had it. He was constantly in pain. But every time you said action, his talent was there, ‑absolutely untouched."
By now Hollywood's adaptation auteur du jour, Forman hooked up with producer Zaentz again to help ignite Mozart mania with his version of Peter Shaffer's hit play. The film won Best Picture, scored Forman his second Best Director award, and grossed $54.8 million. Shot partially in Prague, the film marked Forman's long‑awaited return to Czechoslovakia, a deeply emotional experience marred by many familiar frustrations. “We visited the archbishop of Prague because we wanted to shoot in the cardinal's palace. We got permission ‑but then came a message that he had changed his mind. We contacted the cardinal and found out the Communist apparatchiks told the cardinal that we were planning to secretly shoot a porno. So through secret channels, we had to convince him that we were not shooting a porno, but that as a matter of fact, we were shooting very honorable scenes there.”
THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT (1996) Forman has made only three films since Amadeus. Valmont, his 1989 adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, was overlooked by audiences and critics, as it hit theaters one year after Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears' Oscar‑nominated hit from the same material. Then came Flynt, the ribald biopic of the infamous Hustler publisher. The film earned Woody Harrelson a Best Actor nod and Forman his third directing nomination, but it was attacked by women's rights groups for glorifying Flynt. It grossed a disappointing $20.3 million. "If you ask me which film I like most, I must say you develop the most emotional attachment to the work which was most damaged by outside forces. From that point of view, it was Firemen’s Ball, which was banned for 20 years. But second is Flynt. The film just died. That pains me because I think t was very unjust. The film never committed the crimes for which it was accused. In general, I believe in the arguments supporting what Flynt does. But I've never bought a Hustler magazine, and I'm not planning to."