Miloš Forman is something of an authority on authority. Born in 1932 during Czechoslovakia's final pre-war years as a democracy, the filmmaker was orphaned by the Nazis during World War II and learned and initially practiced his craft under communist rule. "It's much better to conform to the taste of the audience than to one ideological botched-up idiot," he once said.
Mr. Forman's journey — from his emergence in the mid-1960s as part of the Czech cinema's revered new wave, to exile, and finally to extravagant successes (including two directing Oscars) plying the mainstream of Hollywood filmmaking — lend that statement considerable credibility. Beginning tonight, the Museum of Modern Art will host Milos Forman: A Retrospective, a survey of 17 films spanning 45 years of this top-shelf filmmaker's sensitive, funny, beautifully crafted, and unwaveringly anti-authoritarian work.
One of the elements that distinguished Czech cinema's international ascendancy in the '60s from that of the French new wave of a few years earlier was that the films of young Czech directors such as Mr. Forman, Jan Nemec, Jirí Menzel, and Mr. Forman's frequent screenwriting partner-turned-director Ivan Passer exhibited a mature directorial polish quite different from the sometimes messy warts-and-all approach of Jean Luc Godard and company. In 1965, Mr. Forman's "The Loves of a Blond" (which will be introduced tonight by the director and will run concurrently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Cinematek in a new print for one week) offered a clarity and a visual intelligence undiluted by the fawning homages and unrestrained audacity of French cinema's more indulgent young Turks.
"The Loves of a Blond," and especially the sharply satirical "The Firemen's Ball" (1967), also showcase another Forman trademark: the director's easy command of black humor. Coming within a year of the arrival of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague, "The Firemen's Ball," a fangs-bared send-up of Communist bureaucracy, cost Mr. Forman his position in the state-controlled Czech film industry. But it was sufficiently well received abroad to allow the director to make his next film in America. "Taking Off" (1971) was created under the auspices of Universal Pictures production head Ned Tannen as part of the same low-budget, youth-oriented filmmaking initiative that yielded Monte Hellman's gloriously subdued road movie "Two-Lane Blacktop," Douglas Trumbull's influentially designed eco-science-fiction mini epic "Silent Running," Peter Fonda's Western gem "The Hired Hand," and Dennis Hopper's critical and commercial disaster "The Last Movie."
Less well known than its co-productions and lost in a flood of superficially similar films that comically essayed the generation gap, "Taking Off" was nevertheless an auspicious American debut, one in which Mr. Forman and co-writers Jean-Claude Carričre, John Guare, and Jon Klein took the same satirical scalpel to the posturing of late-'60s youth culture that the director had previously wielded on his native government's hypocrisy.
Into the 1970s and '80s, with Mr. Forman's reputation as a world-class filmmaker secure, critics, audiences, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were all equally demonstrative in their praise of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) and "Amadeus" (1984). Alongside these films, MoMA's tribute to Mr. Forman offers an opportunity to see several of the director's less praised and less frequently revived works.
Adapted from E.L. Doctorow's bestseller, 1981's "Ragtime" is one of the most tasteful and least moribund historical epics ever made. A sad truth is that many of America's greatest screen actors rarely go out with a bang. James Cagney's big-screen swan song in "Ragtime" is a rare exception. Eighty years old, deaf, barely able to walk, and unable to recall his lines in rehearsal, "the only part of Cagney which was absolutely untouched by age," Mr. Forman said afterward in an interview, "was his talent." Cagney's scenes as New York City Police Commissioner Rheinlander Waldo ground distant history and contentious politics in the timeless though often unfortunate realities of human behavior, and are a fitting finale for a trouper who once described his acting "process" as, "look the other fella in the eye and tell the truth."
The passions and intrigues on display in "Valmont," Mr. Forman's 1989 adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos's novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," possess considerably more messy honesty than Stephen Frears's better known film based upon the same material from the year before.
But MoMA isn't focusing solely on the hits. Released in the era of punk rock and disco, 1979's "Hair" is a faithful and endearingly energetic adaptation of the canonical Broadway stage phenomenon that failed to click with first run audiences. Twenty years later, "Goya's Ghost," a robust and genially cynical re-creation of the Spanish Inquisition, was also curiously ill-received by mainstream critics and moviegoers alike. But, like the rest of Mr. Forman's unimpeachably high-caliber films, "Goya's Ghost" was masterminded by an artist who endured the loss and suffering that are an inevitable byproduct of history in the making and who has always made sure that tears, pain, and laughter never took a back seat to heroism and pageantry in his period films.
Through February 28 (11 W. 53rd St., between Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-708-9400).