Men On the Moon: Milos Forman and His Transgressive Talent Trilogy

Earlier this month, the world lost Czech director Miloš Forman. Forman was one of many voices who came up during Hollywood’s New Age, when many artists were given free artistic reign to do whatever they wanted. This was a spirit that Forman obviously shared and brought to life in many of his art. After several films in the Czech Republic, Forman’s breakout mainstream hit American film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest treated this as a central motivation for Jack Nicholson’s character to plead insanity and get thrown in the mental institution in the first place. Hair‘s wild untamed structure is all about trying to keep such a free spirit alive in a vacuum before the Vietnam War sets to ruin it. However, neither of those films are ones that will be discussed here.

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The focus for this writing will be on the three films Forman directed that serve as portraits of artists who acted as transgressive people in their time; 1984’s Amadeus, 1996’s The People Vs. Larry Flynt and 1999’s Man on the Moon. Each could technically be called “biopics” of sorts that cover their respective artists with a fair amount of embellishment. And some would argue the validity of someone like Larry Flynt being called an artist of any kind. In the same way that Salieri could constantly argue that Mozart was a talentless claude. Or that Andy Kaufman’s form of comedy was a merely the early Ur text for online trolling with no merit to it. That question in of itself is woven into each of these films as people dismiss the actions of these wild brazen artists as merely trying to rock the boat for the mere idea of it rather than having any purpose. Admittedly, sometimes these people did shake the status quo for the hell of it. But there was always an effect that made each of them one of a kind subjects worthy of artistic reconfiguration in the hands of someone like Forman.

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There’s plenty of doubt in Amadeus, The People Vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon about the line between prowess and arrogance. Whether these men who chose to set the status quo ablaze were madcap geniuses or crazy men that happened to have a bit of talent. Each one has a provocative knowledge of perspective and how this affects the views of these transgressive folks in the public eye. Even then, the public eye is skewed by rumor and hearsay in a fashion that mirrors the biopic’s inherent reimagining of historical events. Milos Forman’s true interests were never really in getting exact details right as much as the overall spirit of his subjects from a distant outlook through a narrative that cherry picked facts. So what if Salieri was a respected composer in his time? The point of an Amadeus is that Mozart is the composer whose work lasted centuries in the eyes of culture and that seems to more be the view of F. Murray Abraham’s character rather than the actual thoughts of the composer in historical record.

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The aspect of perspective is what makes each of these films distinctive from each other. Amadeus is quite clearly from the view of a contemporary who shows contempt throue his lense. The People Vs Larry Flynt comes from more of a third person narrative that details most of Flynt’s life from his initial upbringing to fighting against Jerry Falwell. Arguably, Man on the Moon does something similar to this, but the very odd opening moments present very clearly that this is all coming from the same POV that Kaufman would want, which is to say one that takes the traditional biopic structure and mixes in sweet sincerity with bizarre left turns. All three have very diverging takes on the concept of detailing a person’s life, which help emphasize the transgressive nature of their subjects. Amadeus shows the titular composer coming in and turning composition into popular conscious over merely commissions for royalty. The People Vs Larry Flynt gives the Hustler story of smut a down-to-earth bluntness vs the snootier expectations of Playboy and holier-than-thou attitudes of the moral right in power during the 1970s and 1980s. Man on the Moon deconstructs the rigid nature of comedy merely because the subjects found it funnier and more stimulating than the status quo. Each took their canvas and threw paint on to see what colors stuck. And that kaleidoscope of color is a gorgeous thing to see in narrative form.

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Amadeus is the most critically lauded of these three. Perhaps because it’s the most operatic, in a fitting fashion given the subject. Amadeus is a historical epic with massive grandeur and scale. We get a sense of the decadence and unbridaled excess of this world that Mozart revels in and Salieri shys away from in pursuit of being pure. The disgust Salieri has is in the idea that such a decadent animal like Mozart could continue to be as brilliant at writing music as he is. He can’t accept the mere idea that Mozart is a prodigy and has to think it’s God mocking him specifically rather than any kind of true talent or skill. This sets up the recurring seed of doubt about those who are the transgressors while also displaying an arrogance they can’t even fathom throughout all three films. That there’s no way they can have some kind of individual talent, but instead a cruel joke that those who questions such artists can’t contemplate exists. It’s a credit to Tom Hulce’s boyishly charming performance that imbues Mozart with the type of spirit that challenges F. Murray Abraham’s more bitter and contemplative Salieri who is always looking for an out he can never really find. Mozart is just that immensely talented, though he also isn’t just treated as a wholly perfect character. He has lustful feelings for women who aren’t his betrothed and issues with not living up to his father’s expectations, both of which mirror the other two films’ protagonists.

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The People Vs Larry Flynt is the most traditionally structured of this trilogy and the most often forgotten.. It’s has all the hallmarks of Oscar bait and suffers the most from trying to cram in as many moments from the titular person’s life as possible. Yet, the real surprise of The People Vs Larry Flynt is that it shows off the most intriguing transformation of its subject. Both Amadeus and Man on the Moon have progression for their subjects, but Woody Harrelson’s turn from snide smut peddler to born again Christian to embittered cynical victim to free speech crusader is transfixing to watch. Harrelson gives off so much in body language, even when the story requires such physical acting to be limited. Larry Flynt at his most defeated state has a tragic truth to it. His loss of motor function is honestly secondary compared to his loss of will to even bother trying to get up in the morning, which is mirrored in a beautifully tragic way by Courtney Love as Flynt’s wife Althea. With this and Man on the Moon, Forman managed to get genuinely powerful performances from Love that she never really has gotten close to in her acting attempts since or prior. Edward Norton as the on again/off again lawyer to Flynt also deserves so much credit. 1996 was a breakout year for Norton and his straight man back and forth with Harrelson displays genuine growth for both.

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Man on the Moon has the most interesting perspective on the artist, in as much as Miloš Forman truly dealt with an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers… who was played by an artist with an eccentric personality that ruffled many feathers on set, including Milos himself. The recently released Netflix documentary Jim and Andy revealed that Jim Carrey was so sucked into playing the role of Andy Kaufman that he believed Kaufman himself took over his body and embodied him during production. Reactions vary from Kaufman’s family having catharsis over feeling Andy is truly in front of them when visiting Carrey to Jerry Lawler insisting that Carrey’s meaner antics toward him especially felt out of character for Andy’s real life relationship with him. Even without this perspective, there’s a constant reality warping nature to Man on the Moon that makes Kaufman an impish Puck-like fairy creature and a bastion for sincerity. Despite following a very traditional biopic structure, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script (who also wrote Larry Flynt) constantly twists the audience’s perception of reality right from the start. Both had a similar approach with their Tim Burton collaboration Ed Wood, about one of the more critically reviled filmmakers who ever lived. Sometimes the break in perspective reality is subtle like simply showing Jerry Lawler is actually in on the joke. Other times it’s overt, like seeing Kaufman’s creation Tony Clifton on stage with Kaufman himself. The central celebration of blurring the reality of Kaufman’s humor vs societal norms makes him a key example of a true transgressive talent, in the same way Mozart and Larry Flynt were.

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Despite how clearly opposing these three figures can be, Milos Forman clearly had a fascination with all three as outsiders. Given Forman himself became an American citizen in 1977, it shows a particular interest in the American Dream aspects of Kaufman and Flynt. Two outsiders who came up from little with injunity and a crazed vision. This doesn’t count out the story of Mozart of course, who shows off a wild rebellious spirit of his own that still makes him so popular. From his other films, Forman has an appreciation for the bizarre underdog. The type of person who others find confusing and off the beat and path are people Forman considers underrated heroes. The ones who surprise you the most in times where they are most needed to subvert normality. It’s this type of celebration of weirdos in history that has clearly influenced some of the more interesting true story based films in recent memory. Films like American SplendorI Tonya and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind owe much to Forman’s talent for embracing the weird and strange with equal parts distance and personal perspective that made his curious little unofficial trilogy some of the more unique examples within the genre. Especially one that can quite often grow stale like the biographical drama. It’s important to celebrate those that turn such drivel on their head. Even when it’s too late for them to directly hear it… in The Great Beyond.

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One comment

  1. Jeff L · April 24

    Thomas,
    Fantastic post! Thank you for recognizing the loss of this amazing talent and the varying talents his films showcased. It’s interesting to me how our ideas about art get informed when we have additional knowledge beyond the work itself -which makes your mention of the Jim and Andy documentary so important. i loved Andy Kaufman when he was alive, I kind of liked the film Milos made, and then loved it when I watched the documentary – which at least purported to flesh out the story within the story. Provocateur upon provocateur upon provocateur. Fascinating. Again, thanks for the insights and analysis.
    JL

    Liked by 1 person

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