When director Milos Forman died last week, he was eulogized by Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson as part of the counter-cultural wave labeled “The New Hollywood” that overtook the industry in the late 1960s. On the surface, this seemed understandable. Forman directed “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” starring the counter-cultural pin-up Nicholson, an adaption of “Hair,” and toward the end of his life a depiction of the court battles between Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and the “Moral Majority.”
The New Hollywood benefited from the Vietnam era and jettisoning the Hays Code, an industry watchdog in place since the 1930s to keep sex, violence, and “unpatriotic” sentiments off the screen. The film that kicked off the new “artistic freedom” was the Warren Beatty vehicle “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), which transformed this bloodthirsty couple into anti-establishment heroes who took the fight to the rich on behalf of the starving “common” people in 1930s America. This was followed by John Schlesinger’s “Midnight Cowboy,” with pimps and hustlers “heroes” against a hypocritical society, and “The Way We Were,” which depicted American Stalinists as civil libertarian heroes.
To emphasize such “victimhood,” people dusted off the term “fascism” and loosely applied it to anyone who peopled the “Silent Majority” (although it must be said that the most scorn was directed at Cold War liberals). Communism was embraced by mansion-owners like producer Bert Parks, who openly hoped Black Panther leader Huey Newton would be the American “Mao.”
Into this zeitgeist came Forman. But he was an odd fit. Like his contemporaries, he switched roles for figures that in another age would be considered “villains.” The character Nicholson played in “Cuckoo’s Nest” was a criminal who manipulated the mental health system to escape jail time. Along with the authentically insane who resided with him, Forman made the patients “heroes” and the villain a nurse. The latter had been deified in 1930s-1940s films.
But along with Roman Polanski, Forman resisted the trend of using the “fascist” label loosely. For him this topic was literally dead-serious, as he witnessed it up close. During World War II Forman’s parents Rudolf and Anna were murdered in concentration camps for the “crime” of handing out verboten books. His father died during a torture session with the Gestapo, while his mother was killed at Auschwitz.
Distancing him further from his American contemporaries was a hatred of Communism. A Czech in a country that was the plaything of the Soviet Union, Forman escaped when the Soviets in 1968 brutally crushed an attempt by the Czech government to “liberalize” Communism. What made Forman’s escape necessary was a play he wrote using the guise of a dinner party as a thinly veiled attack on Communism. Seen from his angle, his debut in America in the Vietnam era could have represented both an intoxicating embrace of cultural freedom, and an opportunity to use the industry to attack Communism.
Hence, in “Cuckoo’s Nest” making the mentally ill a “victimized” bunch could have come from seeing Soviet Premiere Leonid Brezhnev imprisoning “enemies of the state” into mental institutions. “Hair,” with its counter-cultural actors embracing new “freedoms,” could be seen as Forman celebrating characteristics that in Russia would have put them into the gulag or worse. Cold War liberal John Patrick Diggins once recalled how the Marxist historian Eugene Genovese countered the former’s laudatory view of hippies with the statement that “Stalin would have known what to do with them.”
But “The People vs. Larry Flynt” was not Forman’s finest hour. In supporting Flynt’s right to publish pornography (and worse—more on that later), Forman was clearly trying to subscribe to the view that one must defend the rights of those one disagrees with. But Forman had not done his homework. Regardless of how one thinks of pornographers’ freedom of expression rights, Flynt was a detestable figure. His magazine frequently had “cartoons” of rape, incest, and bestiality, the latter of which should have made the film’s star, animal rights activist Woody Harellson, leave the project.
Forman should have emphasized more of how Nazi Germany banned “pornography” under the guise of “decadence,” which for the regime constituted works that did not subscribe to racism and anti-Semitism. But even with his occasional loss of moral bearings, Forman did maintain a hatred of totalitarianism, a feature his American counterparts were never consistent about. For them, the only totalitarian government in the world was America, a land Forman fled to when actual totalitarianism threatened his life.