5. Man On The Moon (1999)
Comedic legend Andy Kaufman’s short and controversial life was the subject of Forman’s 1999 film starring Jim Carrey. A straight-forward biopic that focused on Kaufman’s unconventional personality both on and off screen, Man On The Moon paints the Kaufman as a peculiar oddball that was misunderstood by his peer and even his loved ones.
Charting Andy Kaufman’s rise and fall, the film follows Andy’s path from TV stardom to his bizarre publicity stunts to his untimely death. In between, we see his relationship with fellow comedians, his romantic pursuits, and his controversial public performances. Throughout, Kaufman is portrayed as an unappreciated genius, whose practice of unorthodox and even crude humor was met with disapproval.
The film itself is a well paced, fun biopic; invigorated by a wealth of fantastic performances within. The biggest takeaway of the film is Jim Carrey’s incredible performance. Forman gives Carrey a role that plays to his frantic personality and screen presence when dealing with Kaufman’s stage life, while also giving Carrey room to display his dramatic chops during some of Kaufman’s somber personal ordeals.
Forman takes a very sympathetic stance on his portrayal of Kaufman, an enigmatic man that some saw as a bully while others saw as a visionary. The film picks and chooses which pieces of Kaufman’s personal history it wants to use for the sake of storytelling (an aspect which is even humorously acknowledged in the opening scene), but overall, Forman simply posits that Kaufman was a man who just liked a good joke. And through that, he delivers a pleasant portrait into a curious individual.
4. The Fireman’s Ball (1967)
Forman’s satire on small town politics is a delightfully funny film that really shows him flexing his creative muscles. Once again utilizing a cast of non-actors, Forman’s portrait of a well intentioned public gala delivers a constant stream of amusing and insightful moments as mishap after mishap strike the titular fireman’s ball.
When a local volunteer fire department decides to throw a ball in order to honor their retired chief, they organize a night of events that they assume the citizens of their small town will love to participate in; including a beauty pageant, a raffle drawing, and lots of alcohol. Once the festivities kick off, things slowly start going to hell with theft, bribery, and even a full blown fire slowly ruining the department’s grand plans. The bumbling fireman are ultimately left with egg on their faces as the denizens of the small town show them how they really feel.
Forman’s razor sharp wit and his masterful grasp of comedic timing really shine during The Fireman’s Ball. But even when the film is playing on the fire department’s humiliation for laughs, it doesn’t shy away from showing the toll local politicking can have on the average citizen. The fireman think they’re doing some good for the community by throwing a part honoring one of their own, but their poor handling of the climactic fire and what that failure means is made hauntingly clear in the film’s final shot.
Many have seen the film as an attack on the way Communism affected small town Eastern Europe, and while Forman has stated in interviews that he was never overtly aiming for such an allegory, it’s not hard to imagine that Forman could’ve been trying to make such a statement with this insightful piece.
3. Loves Of a Blonde (1965)
Revered as one of the finest examples of foreign cinema ever produced, Loves of a Blonde paints a portrait of small town dreamers and how their idealized notion of the real world can be crushed by the unsympathetic hand of life. In Andula; his protagonist, Forman explores the kind of hopes and desires than many young people in his native Czechoslovakia had, and the somber reality than can result from unsuccessfully pursuing said aspirations.
Andula is a young woman in a dying industrial town with a fondness for playing guitar and a desire to experience a grander life. After spending an intimate night with Milda, a traveling musician from Prague, Andula decides to take some initiative and head for the big city, hoping to reunite with Milda and start a new life. However, her experiences in this new world don’t sync up with her expectations.
Loves of a Blonde benefits from Forman’s experimentation in improvised acting; with a cast comprised of non-actors and seasoned thespians. The chemistry generated between the two styles creates very natural, human moments that linger long after the film has ended. From its endearing opening scene to its remarkably relatable ending, Loves of a Blonde still holds up as one of Forman’s seminal works.
2. Amadeus (1984)
Forman’s second Oscar was earned from his adaptation of another theatrical production; Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. A fictional take on the relationship between the legendary composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his contemporary, Antonio Salieri, Amadeus paints a haunting portrait of mortality and artistic struggle through the eyes of two artists fighting to be remembered in very different ways.
Antonio Salieri, an old, dying man in a mental ward, confesses his sins to a young priest. Salieri recounts how he was once a very popular composer who saw his success as a result of a vow to uphold a dedication to God in every aspect of his life.
Salieri’s beliefs are tested upon the emergence of Wolfgang Mozart; a remarkably gifted composer who, while not as publicly adored as Antonio, still sparks a flame of envy in Salieri; who sees his work as inferior to Mozart’s. Salieri begins conspiring to destroy Mozart’s life, not taking into account how his actions may affect Salieri himself.
By splitting the story between two characters, Forman is able to highlight the contrast in the way Salieri and Mozart strive to be remembered for their art. Mozart’s genius is undercut by his arrogance, his alcoholism, and the fact that his music is simply ahead of its time. Conversely, Salieri is depicted as a humble artist beloved by the public, but underneath he harbors petty jealousy and is unable to acknowledge any success because he feels it pales in comparison to the works of his rival.
But this rivalry alone is not what makes this film incredible, its Forman’s impressive exploration of what it means to be both a creator and a destroyer that is truly enthralling. The yin and yang of Salieri and Mozart exemplifies the complexity of what it means to be an artist, as well as the sacrifices that come as a result of such a vocation. The stakes are very personal for both Mozart and Salieri; and in the end, we see the highs and the lows that some will go to in order to see themselves immortalized.
1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Forman’s first Oscar win was for this legendary film. Deftly mixing dark comedy and human drama, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful story that also features one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic performances.
When convict Randel “Mac” McMurphy is transferred to a psychiatric institution, his rebellious personality instantly clashes with the staffs authoritarian practices, embodied by the ward’s strict, totalitarian head: Nurse Ratched. As Mac begins to plant seeds of dissonance amongst the patients, he slowly starts to unpend the methods Ratched has used to keep them in line.
As the two clash, Mac emboldens his fellow patients to embrace their individuality, and to strive for the freedom that they had long ago forgotten. Mac’s efforts do not go without consequence and, by the end, the price of this rebellion comes at a high cost to Mac and others.
Mac and Ratched’s battle for control of the ward is a consistent highlight of the film, with Nicholson and Louise Fletcher keeping every confrontation tense in their Oscar winning roles. Nicholson’s eccentric personality has, perhaps, never been more fully embodied than through Mac’s defiant spirit and manic energy. The film also features early performances from Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny DeVito, who portray several of Mac’s fellow patients
Cuckoo’s Nest was ahead of its time in some ways, particularly in its look into the treatment of the mentally ill. Mac and his fellow inmates are kept under thumb, with Ratched focused more on taming and containing them, instead of actually making them more fit for society. Her methods have severely damaging effects on several of her patients, and even though Mac strives valiantly to bolster the spirits of his new friends, they ultimately find themselves back at the mercy of Ratched.
It is only when Mac suffers the ultimate punishment that his compatriots are able to see their own potential fates, and the final shot of Chief’s flight is a heartwarming spec of light in the dark portrayal of these men’s lives.
Unquestionably Forman’s finest achievement to date, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest is a testament to Forman’s fascination with the human spirit, and how it can thrive even in the most dire of circumstances.
Author Bio: Tom Peeler is a journeyman filmmaker who loves to dabble in film critique and analysis. A Pennsylvania native, Tom and his colleagues produce short films and other media through their independent production company Sycamore Street Studios (http://www.sycamoreststudios.com). You can follow Tom on Twitter @SycamorStStudio.