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Remembering Milos Forman, Director Of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'

Apr 20, 2018
Originally published on April 26, 2018 10:32 am
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today, we remember Academy Award-winning director Milos Forman. He died a week ago at the age of 86. His American films include "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," "Hair," "Ragtime," "Amadeus" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt." Earlier this month, his film "Amadeus" was screened at Lincoln Center with the New York Philharmonic providing live orchestral accompaniment. Forman began his film career working under the Communist bureaucracy in his native country of Czechoslovakia. His Czech movie "Fireman's Ball" played at the New York Film Festival in 1967 and was his ticket to the U.S.

Terry first interviewed Forman in 1994 about his memoir called "Turnaround." Milos Forman was a child during World War II when the Gestapo was in charge. After the war, in 1948, the Communists took over. Both of Forman's parents died in Nazi death camps. One of the Nazis responsible for the death of Forman's parents had been one of their employees years before.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MILOS FORMAN: My parents built a very small 50-room panzio - or little hotel, if you want - in the former Sudetenland, which was the part of Czechoslovakia which was taken over by the Nazis first - by the Germans first. And as a kind of foreman on the building of this panzio in 1920-something, I was not even born, was a German citizen there who - and I know that my parents were very fair people and they treated him fairly.

But when the Nazis came to power, suddenly this man, of course, was somehow humiliated that he worked for some Czechs, which is, you know, not a race or nation, which is, you know, up to the Nazis or German statute (ph). And by sheer coincidence, this man ended up in the Gestapo in Corleen (ph), which was the town under which - Chanslaff (ph), a little town in the middle of Bohemia was under. And when he got all these names, and he saw the names of my parents - first my father and then my mother - he just slammed the paper with a stamp which said the return undesirable, and that's it. And then they perished.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Your mother was taken by the Gestapo after they came to search your house. What was it like? You were, I think, 7 years old or something?

FORMAN: With mother I was 8 and a half, yeah. I was 8 and a half years old. I was sick that day, and I was - I had a fever. I had a flu. I was in bed. And I heard, you know, that - some voices downstairs because we were living in a little house, you know, one-story house in Chanslaff and for a long time. And I knew that something is strange because I heard strange noises from downstairs. And then I hear steps coming upstairs. And then the door open a crack, and my mother is there. And she's handing me a cup of water and a pill and says, now take the pill. And I said, but I shouldn't be taking the pill until the afternoon. The Gestapo is here. And she just gave me that.

So I took the pill, and I, you know, the door closed. And I saw a man standing behind her there. And then I realized why she's telling me that because I was - my bedroom was a tiny little room behind which was another tiny little room to which the door were covered by a cupboard. And to keep the fresh air in, the cupboard was always a little bit away from the front door. And I realized that she wants me to push the cupboard back to the wall so that it covers the door. And when they come to my bedroom for search, they will not find it. But I was too weak, and the cupboard was oak wood and very, very heavy. I took all the things out. And I was trying to push it back and I didn't succeed.

That was the most horrible feeling because I felt like I failed my family. The irony is that then when they came in and found out, you know, this other room there, they went in. They looked around. They went out. They were even smiling at me. And then they went down again with my mother. But then I hear the door click, and then there was silence. And this was, you know, they came like 8 o'clock in the morning, and this was like 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And there was silence. And I hear the car going away in the street. And there is a total silence. They just didn't even let my mother go upstairs and say goodbye. And I am alone, absolutely alone in the whole house. And there was nobody in the town of Chanslaff would come home.

GROSS: So that's the last time you ever saw your mother?

FORMAN: No. Then we had a very, you know, sort of - it's - everything is such a paradox, you know. About a year later, suddenly we were allowed visits with our mother. Me, my brother and my uncle, my mother's brother. So we went to Prague. We were taken down to the catacombs of a former bank, which was now Gestapo headquarters in Prague. And they, you know, locked us in, closed the door. And we are sitting there - my brother, my uncle - for about two hours. And then the door opens, and in the door they brought in my mother. And from - in the first moment I realized, she didn't know why - where they are taking her. She didn't - they obviously didn't tell her that she's not going to be interrogated or whatever, that she's going to meet her family. And we had 10 minutes allowed with her.

And the funny part is that, you know, what do you - now when I recall it, all we are talking about - mother was asking, how were the prunes this year? And did you did you have enough sugar to make a jam? And obviously, Mrs. Praskovya (ph), it was absolute. And she was just holding me all these 10 minutes, you know. And then the man said, you know, goodbye and say goodbye. So my mother left and never saw her again.

GROSS: So what was it like for you to go through the rest of the war without parents?

FORMAN: Well, that's another big paradox. You know, a child doesn't really perceive the tragedy like that, especially, you know, I probably would be much more stricken by grief if my parents died yesterday than when they died when I was a child because a child doesn't really perceive the finality of life. The death is - especially in this case is because they were away. They were somewhere.

GROSS: You didn't know they were going to die.

FORMAN: So you don't know they are going to die. They are somewhere. And then one day, somebody tells you - in this case, it was my uncle - told me, listen, my sister, your mother, died. But in my daily life, nothing changed, you know.

GROSS: So you had family - extended family to bring you up, uncles...

FORMAN: Oh, my relatives were taking care of me, yes.

GROSS: I want you to recall a specific day during the war, and this is a day that must have had special significance for you. It's the day that the Germans decreed that all the art houses had to close - the theater, the ballet, the orchestra, the movies. Were you already interested in the arts when that happened?

FORMAN: I was very much - not interested, I was seduced because I was a child. Again, you know, I was 10 years old or 11 years old. And my brother, who is 12 years older than I am, he was like 23 years old, he was a set designer for a travelling small group - theater group company which was playing operettas. And every time when they came to town where I was living with my relatives, you know, I was - every day, I was backstage. And, you know, I was just mesmerized by the atmosphere of the theater. Because I was a little kid, you know, nobody kicked me out from the ladies' dressing room.

So it was very, very exciting. And then, you know, I didn't really - I didn't know anything, you know, why it's happening. It was the most weird experience because I - this was - I remember very well "Polish Blood" is the name of the operetta. It's a very fluffy, light operetta. And this was 1944. And suddenly, in the third act during a very merry kind of a song, it was like a quartet or quintet and the ballet dancers on the stage. Suddenly, the singers stopped singing and started to cry, tears running down. And the orchestra stopped, conductor stopped. The people in the theater are sitting silently, quietly, sort of upset or surprised. I just didn't know what's happening.

Then the conductor tried to start the aria or the quintet again. They started to try to sing again this very merry, happy song. And again, in the middle of the song, they broke down in tears and cried. And then the man came on the stage and said, ladies and gentlemen, I hope you understand that the emotional state of the artists, will not be able to finish their performance today. Thank you for coming. It was so nice. Good night. And the curtain went down. And that was the end of culture. I didn't know that the day before, the Germans just canceled culture. The next day, every single singer, every single dancer, every single musician had to go and enlist himself or herself in factories, do work for the victory of the Third Reich.

GROSS: You ended up trying to go to theater school. You were rejected from theater school and ended up in film school, which I suppose was really lucky. (Laughter).

FORMAN: For me, definitely.

GROSS: Lucky break. Yeah. Had you seen a lot of movies growing up?

FORMAN: Yeah. In the film school. It was another paradox of communist society because it was the best school I could ever be going into. Because after the Communists took over, they purged from public life the best writers, the best filmmakers, the best artists in the country because they were not enough in creating in the vein of socialist realities for them. So they purged them. But they couldn't, you know, they couldn't kill them. They had to give them some chance to make a living. So make a meager living in teaching. So the result was that at the film school we had the best minds, the greatest artists, you know, which were teaching us, which we could talk to.

GROSS: Milan Kundera, who wrote...

FORMAN: Milan Kundera was one of them.

GROSS: Yeah. Who wrote "The Unbearable Lightness Of Being" was one of your teachers.

FORMAN: Yes. "The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting," "The Joke." You know, wonderful books.

GROSS: One of the things that you did - I think this is while you were in film school or just afterwards - you hosted what you describe as a sort of Czech, Socialist, Realist Thursday-night-at-the-movies show on TV. So what would you say to introduce a film? Do you remember any of the introductions you did?

FORMAN: All the introductions had to - you know, I was always trying to show on the television films which had some, you know, which were not just the propaganda films. But then of course you had to present them in the way which the Communists would accept. If it was filmed from France, for example, if, I don't know. "Children Of Paradise" - beautiful, romantic film. But you had to stress that this film is showing the cruelty of bourgeoisie, how it's suppressing the working-class people, you know?

GROSS: Did you believe any of that?

FORMAN: Of course not. Because everybody knew it's nonsense. It's a game. It's a game, you know?

GROSS: When you started writing and directing movies, did you have to avoid what government officials would have defined as bourgeois subject matter?

FORMAN: I was lucky because for some reasons, they think - you know, my first films were comedies, basically, films in Czechoslovakia. And they perceive comedies as something not as important. Something light, you know? Make it, you know, just funny. It's just like that. So I was able to do these films very much the way I wanted to do them.

GROSS: One of the best known of your Czechoslovakian films was "Firemen's Ball," and this was a comedy. And in the version that's in circulation now, I don't know when you put this part in. I mean, I know you put it in in the late '60s. The film opens with you in front of the camera explaining that, first of all, "Firemen's Ball" was released just before the Dubcek leadership took over and that the film had a very surprising reaction. Forty-thousand resigned in protest against this film.

FORMAN: Well, they were ordered to resign. This film, it was banned. This film was banned right away when it was finished, and it was banned officially for eternity.

GROSS: Why was it banned? You said comedies weren't considered as dangerous. This is a comedy.

FORMAN: Well, they thought it's a metaphor on the politburo and the Communist Party. You know, that Firemen's Ball committee, right, that it's a metaphor for the whole leadership of the country. So they banned the film. You know, that it was orchestrated by the government people, this strike or threat of practically all the volunteer firemen, the whole country because they needed - you know, the people were so apathetic already. You know, they didn't give a damn. But, of, course if the people read in the newspapers that, well, tomorrow if your house is on fire, just kiss the house goodbye because the firemen are on strike, likely because they are upset about this film. So, you know, that turns people's anger against the artists, against the film's filmmakers, you know?

GROSS: Were there any fires that you were accused of being personally responsible for, and did you feel responsible for any of it?

FORMAN: No, no, no. They didn't go on strike.

GROSS: They didn't really go on strike?

FORMAN: They provoked this threat so that the government can say that they have a right to ban the film. So when the government banned the film, the firemen said, all right. So now we know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Film director Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOAN JEANRENAUD'S "AXIS")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with film director Milos Forman, who died a week ago at the age of 86. His 1975 film, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Let's hear a clip from the film, which starred Jack Nicholson as the rebellious mental patient McMurphy, and Louise Fletcher as his nemesis, the no nonsense Nurse Ratched. McMurphy has entered the psych ward as a ploy to avoid prison, but the constant Muzak is beginning to drive him crazy for real.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Excuse me, miss. Do you think it might be possible to turn that music down so maybe a couple of the boys could talk?

LOUISE FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) That music is for everyone, Mr. McMurphy.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Yeah. I know. But do you think we might ease it down a little bit so maybe the boys didn't have to shout? Huh?

FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) What you probably don't realize is that we have a lot of old men on this ward who couldn't hear the music if we turned it lower. That music is all they have. Your hand is staining my window.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Sorry, man. Really sorry.

MIMI SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Mr. McMurphy?

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Huh?

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Your medication.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) What's in the horse pill?

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) It's just medicine. It's good for you.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) Yeah. But I don't like the idea of taking something if I don't know what it is.

SARKISIAN: (As Nurse Pilbow) Don't get upset, Mr. McMurphy.

NICHOLSON: (As McMurphy) I'm not getting upset, Miss Pilbow. It's just that I don't want anyone to try and slip me saltpeter.

FLETCHER: (As Nurse Ratched) It's all right, Nurse Pilbow. If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way. But I don't think you'd like it, Mr. McMurphy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: The second film you made in the United States, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," is one of your most famous films. It got a bunch of Academy Awards. You keep stressing the absurdity of stories that surrounded life under communism in Czechoslovakia, and you found out that you had been sent a copy of the novel "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" years before you actually made the movie, but you never got it.

FORMAN: Well, there was Kirk Douglas, who bought the rights for the book, you know, when it was - even before it was published. And he loved the book, and he wanted to make a movie but never succeeded to get the money to do it. But in that time, he was still hoping to do it. And he was in Prague on a goodwill mission which was originated by President Kennedy. And he came to Prague because he did the adaptation of "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" for Broadway, Kirk Douglas. And he starred in it on Broadway.

And even there, you know, this adaptation at that time flopped. So suddenly he had time on his hands so he accepted to go to Eastern Europe and Central Europe. So he went to Prague. They showed him one of my films. He liked it. Then he asked me at the party if he can send me a book and if I would read it. And I tell him, you know, of course, of course, of course. And, you know, the book never came. So I thought, well, that he was another American big shot...

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORMAN: ...And the moment he left the room, he already forgot. OK. Ten years later, I'm over here in the United States and I get a book in an envelope sent by the producers and Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas' son. If I would read it, and that was "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." And, well, of course I said yes. It was the most fascinating, intelligent piece of literature in that time. So it was offered, and I read. And when little, you know, few weeks later I met Kirk, he said, you Czechs, you son of a bitches. I said, whoa, whoa, whoa, why are you saying that?

Well, listen. I was sending you 10 years ago this book, and you don't have the courtesy to say, you know, kiss off, or something like that. And I told him, well, listen. This is, you know, the same thing I thought about you. Well, what happened was, he sent the book but the censors at the customs confiscated the book as a subversive literature without informing Kirk Douglas that the book - or sending it back to Kirk Douglas and without informing me.

GROSS: So did Michael Douglas, when he sent you the book, did he know that his father had sent it to you 10 years before?

FORMAN: That's the funny thing. No, he didn't. It was some kind of a strange fate that the book came back again to me by Kirk's son.

BIANCULLI: Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. He died a week ago at age 86. After a break, we'll listen to another of their conversations, from 1996. We'll also pay tribute to Harry Anderson, the sitcom star and amateur magician who died earlier this week at age 65. And we have a review of the new Amy Schumer comedy, "I Feel Pretty." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF MOZART'S "SYMPHONY NO. 25 IN G MINOR")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. Today we're listening back to conversations with film director Milos Forman, who died a week ago at the age of 86. Terry spoke with him a second time in 1996 about his film, "The People Vs. Larry Flynt," starring Woody Harrelson as the publisher of Hustler magazine. The film follows Flynt's rise from small-time strip joint owner to pornography mogul. It also follows Flynt in and out of court as he uses the First Amendment to defend himself against obscenity charges. During one of his obscenity trials, he was shot outside the courthouse, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.

In this scene, he's about to board a plane in defiance of a court order preventing him from leaving Los Angeles. His lawyer, played by Edward Norton, is fed up with Flynt's courtroom antics and his continued defiance of judges.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT")

EDWARD NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Larry. Hey. Larry. Hey. Larry, you're not getting on that plane.

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yes, I am.

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) No, you are not. Don't do it. Do you think this is some kind of a game we're playing?

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yeah. You're right. You're right. It's a [expletive] joke. 5 1/2 years since they - since they shot me, and now the government hadn't...

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Hey, I was there too, all right? You remember? You don't see me running around, pissing off everybody we're trying to get to help us.

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Yeah. Well, you can walk, and you can [expletive]. And I'm in this chair. And I've got money. OK? I got money, and that gives me the power to shake up this system. Dougie (ph).

NORTON: (As Alan Isaacman) Well, find somebody else to help you, then, because this is not what I signed on for. I don't even know what we're engaged in anymore, Larry. If you get on that plane, I quit.

HARRELSON: (As Larry Flynt) Alan, don't be so melodramatic. You don't want to quit me. I'm your dream client. I'm the most fun. I'm rich. And I'm always in trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: You've said that one of the reasons why you were interested in the movie is because you're interested in freedom of expression. And you lived under two totalitarian regimes growing up in Czechoslovakia, first the Nazis and then the communists. And I'm wondering if some of Larry Flynt's uses of the right to free speech seemed trivial to you, both the pornography and things like nude photographs of Jackie Onassis. Having been deprived of free speech, did this seem like such a trivial way of taking advantage of it?

FORMAN: Yes. There's a lot of trivial things in what the - Larry Flynt is doing. And there is a lot of, you know, tasteless things in which - what he's doing. But, you know, freedom of the speech is much bigger than Larry Flynt himself, you know? It's a - you know, it's - this is a - you know, this country really never experienced censorship. And so you - you know, we are taking the freedom for granted, and we don't know what kind of terrible consequences the loss of freedom of speech can have.

Because, you know, it might, you know, ruffle some feathers when I say, yes, we have to strive for 100 percent freedom of the speech because once you open the door to censorship, it never stops with pornography. It never stops with smut. It start to spread. You know, who is going to decide what is obscene, and who is not obscene - what is not obscene?

GROSS: Was there pornography when you were growing up in Czechoslovakia?

FORMAN: No. No, there was not pornography. You know, that's the funny thing. You know, it's - probably for this, you know, sentiment, you know, moralists who are calling for censorship, the - you know, the totalitarian regime would be ideal. Because for 40 years, you wouldn't see any pornography on Czech television or in Czech movies or on the magazines' racks. You wouldn't see any, you know, violence, anything like that.

Everything was - and the good question is, do you think that any kind of a bad - things which we try to blame, you know, our moral relaxation for, that they didn't exist in those times? Oh, my God. (Laughter) They were as rampant as always before and always after, you know.

GROSS: Now, you have Larry Flynt playing a judge in Cincinnati who sentences Larry Flynt to 25 years in an obscenity case. Did Larry Flynt ask to play that part?

FORMAN: (Laughter) No. No, I was just joking one day. And I - you know, I had a kick to say, little Larry, do you want to sentence yourself to 25 years in prison? And he laughed and said, (imitating Larry Flynt) oh, why not?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FORMAN: So he's there. And we all had a - you know, it brought some kind of a wonderful feeling, an atmosphere on the set, because, you know, everybody had a kick out of it.

GROSS: Something I read that you said about pornography, you've said that pornography - that you were brought up in an environment where pornography was considered bad. And you've never shaken that attitude about pornography, and you also feel especially uncomfortable if someone sees you while you're looking at pornography. And I'd like you to explain why (laughter).

FORMAN: Well, it is something to do with my upbringing, I guess. You know? Because I am from a - I was born in a small town. My parents, my father was a teacher. My mother was a housewife. I don't really know. I was going to church. And all this made me feel like - that sex is bad except in marriage, you know, that it's something I should be ashamed of even to think about. You know?

When I was a - I never - as I said, I never bought Hustler. I bought Playboy maybe - I don't know - I know once, I bought Playboy when the - Jimmy Carter's interview was in the Playboy. And I was blushing when I was buying it at the corner of 57th Street and 6th Avenue. And I was - I had a feeling that everybody's looking at me, and everybody is looking at me, you know, with such a disdain. And so that's why I was, like, running home.

GROSS: (Laughter) You could tell me if this is too personal, OK? You grew up during World War II. Your parents were both killed in concentration camps in Czechoslovakia. So you were on your own by the time you were 8, I think. How did you learn about the facts of life without a family?

FORMAN: Well, I lived with other families afterwards. And - listen, how do you learn about these things? It's so ridiculous to think today that, you know, we have to just hide everything from our children, and then they will be wonderful citizens, you know. I remember that for us, when I was already 6 years old, I discovered a medical book, you know, in my father's library. Every time I was home alone, I was browsing, you know, through this book, watching this, you know, drawings of human body without cloth. That's how you discover things.

You know, also to believe that films or television - that they are so powerful that you are educating so beautifully your children for 15, 20 years, and then the poor son of mine sees one movie or one television show, and all this - my education goes down the drain, it's ridiculous, you know.

BIANCULLI: Milos Forman speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. He died a week ago at age 86. Coming up, we remember conman, magician and actor Harry Anderson. He's best known for his role as the judge in the NBC sitcom "Night Court." Anderson died Monday at age 65. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONNY ROLLINS' "SKYLARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.