Milos vs the people
`One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest', `Amadeus' and `Ragtime' all focused on defiant outsiders. Now Milos Forman has embraced a pornographer. He tells Jasper Rees why
Thursday 13 March 1997
The People vs Larry Flynt tells of an actual relaxation in America's stiff moral fibre, rather than the chimerical one in the story of the street-walking secretaries. The tale of the wheelchair-bound pornographer who extracted from the Supreme Court a ruling that censorship in America cannot be imposed on grounds of taste is Forman's first film since Valmont was beaten hands down at the box-office by Dangerous Liaisons in 1989. The intervening period is rather less than the time span he needed to shoot the three films - Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and The Fireman's Ball - which made his name in and out of Czechoslovakia and allowed him to put his face about at western film festivals in the Sixties.
Forman would appear to be obeying the impulse to decelerate, which he approvingly notes in Chaplin's output, and yet the interval was unintentional. Two projects have bitten the dust in the interim: a film about sumo wrestling, which collapsed days before shooting began because permission to film in Japan's hallowed sumo precincts was refused; and a script by Norman Mailer for which Forman couldn't get the stars who would meet his own artistic needs and a studio's commercial ones. "They just didn't like the part or the script," he says. "It's based on a true story at the time of the American Civil War about a general who tried to climb on every person with a skirt. Finally, his wife is unfaithful to him and he kills her lover. The irony is that the society didn't condemn him for killing the man but condemned him for allowing his wife to come back to him."
Finding someone to play Larry Flynt, the patron saint of fallopian photography, offered no such hurdle. Woody Harrelson, a leaner, lither, rather disingenuously airbrushed simulacrum of the bloated toad he plays, evidently found it as easy to see the cuddly side of the freedom-loving pornographer as Forman himself. When the script by the Ed Wood duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski plopped on the director's doormat in rural Connecticut the name Flynt initially put him off - the same way it appears to have deterred American audiences, who stayed away in droves when the film was unappetisingly released just after Christmas.
"I never expected to like the man," says Forman, "and I must tell you, I kind of like him. The first meeting was awful, awful because he was in such a bad shape. I couldn't understand a word he was saying and also he was drooling. He didn't have any right to influence the script or film at all and I was expecting him to say things like, `Why are you showing this? Milos, between you and me, take it out' - there are a lot of things that are rather unflattering and embarrassing to him. But not at all.
I was even curious and asked him, `Larry, do you mind if this is in the film?' And he said, `Yes, I do mind very much, it's embarrassing. But it's true, what can I do?' And that was the moment I started to kind of like him."
It's clear where Forman's affinity with Flynt comes from. He grew up in the shadow cast by Nazism, which claimed the lives of both his parents, then found life equally circumscribed by communism, so was always going to find this tale more appealing than an American who takes his artistic liberty for granted. And yet Forman's own career under communism was actually not a minefield of censorship and obstruction. For all the privations he underwent in a nomadic childhood (which would make a marvellous movie, though he says he'd rather film Josef Skvorecky's The Cowards), he was born at precisely the right time to capitalise on the more relaxed atmosphere that prevailed in Sixties Czechoslovakia. In the Fifties, when the heat was really on, "I was still studying, and the irony was that nobody could have had more inspiring professors than my generation because all these great writers and film-makers were suddenly banned and they couldn't work and influence the public with their disruptive decadent morality; so somehow, to let them survive, they put them in schools to teach."
The film-school teacher who sent him in the direction of Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses was Milan Kundera. They're still in contact, as Forman is with most of the great voices of modern Czech art. He recently dined with Kundera in Paris and President Vaclav Havel in Prague, and speaks frequently on the phone with Skvorecky. He was also a pal of Bohumil Hrabal, the grand old man of Czech letters whose death this year, says Forman, was "like from his book: he died falling out of the window in the hospital feeding pigeons. Incredible." It was Hrabal's novella Closely Observed Trains that was transformed into the Czech New Wave's most impressive monument by the director Jiri Menzel. Menzel succeeded, where Forman twice failed, in picking up a Best Foreign Film Oscar. Forman would have to wait till One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus to bask in the Academy's acclaim. (He's up for another Oscar this month, and would doubtless trade in his Golden Globe and Golden Bear to net it.)
In this weekend's Omnibus profile, Menzel claims that Forman is the only great European auteur to manage the creative emigration to America on his own terms. In truth, his move to America did require artistic compromise. He's fond of referring to Taking Off, made in New York in 1970, as "my last Czech film", because it deployed many of the techniques that had worked so well in earlier work: casting non-actors, withholding all but a vague sketch of the script from the actors as they shot crucial scenes. Only this time the film was an instructive flop. Cuckoo's Nest, which came four years later, instigated his American career proper, when he picked up the theme of the defiant, unjustly victimised outsider and ran with it through Hair, Ragtime and Amadeus all the way to The People vs Larry Flynt.
You could argue that these films are no more furtively about the individual's struggle with the totalitarian state than his Czech work. What Larry Flynt in particular has revived is Forman's fascination for ad-libbing. The more intimate scenes between Harrelson and Courtney Love as his wife, Althea - particularly one shot in the jacuzzi - look as extemporised as anything by the bucolic firefighters in The Fireman's Ball. Endearingly, Forman hadn't heard of Love when she was up for audition. "I love my casting director, because she knows me a little bit. Afterwards, I told her, `This girl we have to call back, she fascinates me.' Then she laughed and she told me, `I was wondering whether to tell you, but I decided not tobecause I know what you think about rock 'n' roll stars and their snobbish desires to become legitimate and respected as actors - you would have been prejudiced.' " How the Academy contrived to overlook Love's thoroughly unaffected performance is a matter for its conscience. Perhaps they excluded her because they couldn't find a clip of her wearing enough clothes to beam round the planet from the ceremony.
The film also gives new vent to Forman's frank admiration of the female form (but, crucially, not too frank: "then it would not be Columbia Pictures, it would be... I don't know what. Maybe Larry Flynt himself would finance it"). In Loves of a Blonde, Forman was the first to show nudity on film in Czechoslovakia. Czechs are notably liberal in this area, and "nobody attacked it. When I started to do this film, somebody sent me etchings from Prague in 1870 from Czech publications of that time. I'll tell you, Larry Flynt would blush seeing them. Unbelievable. And you know what's funny? Today these etchings look really like art"n
`The People vs Larry Flynt' opens 11 April
Milos Forman's early films: a Czech list
The Band Has Won (unfilmed). An adaptation of Josef Skvorecky's Eine Kleine Jazzmusik. It was scrapped when the Czech president heard that Forman would be filming a story by a notorious literary decadent.
Audition (1962). About a shop girl who flunks an audition and a rock singer who misses it. A shorter documentary, If Only They Ain't Had Them Bands, was added to bring it up to feature length. Shot in black and white by Mirek Ondricek, the cinematographer on all Forman's subsequent works apart from Black Peter, Cuckoo's Nest and Larry Flynt (above).
Black Peter (1963). An apprentice grocer refuses to inform on an old lady shoplifter. Taken from an unpublished novella by sculptor Jaroslav Papousek, who co-adapted it with Forman. It beat Godard and Antonioni to first prize at the Locarno Film Festival. It was shown at the New York Film Festival, introducing Forman to America.
Loves Of A Blonde (1964). At a welcoming dance for a garrison stationed in a factory town, a girl meets a pianist and goes to Prague to visit him where his parents refuse to let them sleep together. She returns home telling fanciful stories of her fiance. Won State Prize, opened New York Film Festival, also went to Cannes and London. Nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscar.
The Fireman's Ball (1967). Forman's first film in colour about a fire department dance where all the raffle prizes are stolen. It was banned by the Party and released only a few days before the Soviet invasion. Closed New York Film Festival, nominated for Oscar.
The Cowards (unfilmed). Skvorecky and Forman co-wrote the script from the novelist's debut about the last days of the Nazi occupation in a small bohemian town. It would have been filmed in 1969, but by then both had emigrated. Forman still says, "I am not giving up the possibility to do The Cowards"n Jasper Rees
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