TAKING OFF: Forman's First American Film (and Last Czech Film ?)

April 1, 2015 - 9:12am
Posted by Jim Healy

This essay on Miloš Forman's Taking Off (1971) was written by Jonah Horwitz, Ph.D Candidate in the Communication Arts Department at UW Madison. A 35mm print of Taking Off, part of our "Universal '71" series, will screen on Sunday, April 5, at 2 p.m., in the Chazen Museum of Art.

by Jonah Horwitz

Taking Off was the first film Miloš Forman made outside of his native Czechoslovakia. It was co-written—by Forman, Jean-Claude Carrière, John Guare, and John Klein—in Paris and New York, shot in New York with English dialogue, and financed and distributed by Universal Pictures. Nevertheless, Forman writes in his autobiography that he thinks of Taking Off "as my last Czech film"—and I'd have to agree. Why? Because in the way it was made, its style, its themes, and its tone of affectionate satire, Taking Off resembles Forman's Czech films like Loves of a Blonde (1965) and Fireman's Ball (1967) much more than it does his award-winning Hollywood pictures that would follow.

Like the earlier films, Taking Off began with Forman observing the world around him. In 1968 he obtained a visa to plan a film in the US. But Forman and his compatriot Ivan Passer, set up in an East Village apartment, spent more time comparing notes on the thriving counterculture they found. The plot of Taking Off was inspired by a newspaper story Forman had read about a girl who would leave her affluent family in Connecticut every Monday to spend the week living on the street in New York City, all the while telling her folks that she was in school. Her double life was discovered only when she was found murdered in an apartment not far from that of Forman. But rather than adapt this sordid tale, Forman and Carrière set about interviewing teenage runaways in their neighborhood and their folks back home in Long Island and Westchester. Forman found himself at least as intrigued by the parents than the with-it kids. The shaggy-dog screenplay that Forman and his collaborators worked up is structured not by the struggle between the two sides of the Generation Gap—as was the case with so many other "youth pics" of the time—but by their mutual incomprehension.

As in his Czech films, Forman populated Taking Off with a mix of professional and non-professional actors. Lynn Carlin, as Lynn Tyne, was cast based on her performance in John Cassavetes' Faces, which had been her first professional role. Although Faces and Taking Off are opposed in tone, they both focus on the collision of the middle class with the sexual revolution; the climactic game of strip poker in Taking Off might be interpreted as Faces' psychodrama played for laughs. Buck Henry, as Larry Tyne, was best known as a writer, having won an Oscar for the screenplay to The Graduate. Linnea Heacock, who plays their daughter Jeannie, was discovered hanging out with friends in Washington Square Park, and her performance is affecting for completely lacking artifice. While the teenagers of contemporaneous counterculture films seem like know-it-all hipsters, Heacock comes across as precisely what she was: a shy 15-year-old girl. These performers, along with professionals like Paul Benedict and Georgia Engel (best known, of course, as Georgette on The Mary Tyler Moore Show), were encouraged to improvise based on Forman’s descriptions of the overall shape of a scene.

Taking Off is a partial remake of one of Forman's earliest films, Audition (1964). For that film, Forman staged a singing competition in Prague and filmed the results. A succession of would-be starlets sang their songs before a group of judges, with varied amounts of talent and professionalism and exhibiting a mix of gonzo enthusiasm, shy hesitation, and utter terror. Snatches of these performances—blessed with the unmistakable awkwardness of documentary—are interwoven with narrative strands that follow several (fictional) characters through a few days before, during, and after the competition. In a stylistic strategy employed by Forman in most of his Czech films, he cross-cuts between fragments of these stories for quite some time before their larger interconnectedness is revealed. A cabaret performance is bizarrely juxtaposed to scenes of pedicures being performed.  Much later, the connection is drawn as the cabaret performer—now one of the contest's judges—rejects one of the young pedicurists after her halting performance (in Czech) of "Hello Mary Lou."

Forman was disappointed in Audition, particularly its rough synch between sound and image, and decided that Taking Off afforded him the chance to do it over. So he staged another singing competition, this time in the Village, and the women who turned out are if anything more varied and spellbinding. Their collective presence transcends the individual songs and performances, and provides a powerfully authentic snapshot of youth culture of the time (among other things, it proves that "the Sixties" extended into the early 1970s).

Taking Off begins with a succession of fragments from these auditions, enigmatically intercut with a therapy session in which Larry Tyne tries to rid himself of a smoking habit through auto-hypnosis.  It takes some time before we realize that the young girl singled out in the audition scenes is his daughter. Forman continues to cut back and forth from the audition for the first half of the film, and returns to it several times afterward, including at the very end. As in Audition, this montage is often richly expressive. At times songs from the audition play "over" scenes from the lives of the adults. Sometimes the songs ironize the narrative situations, other times they render them surprisingly lyrical. As the adults explore teenage Jeannie's bedroom, still filled with stuffed animals and other childish trinkets, they're accompanied by a line from "And Even the Horses Had Wings," future Oscar-winner Kathy "Bobo" Bates's haunting ballad of lost innocence:  "That was the world that I knew as a child." But Forman immediately undercuts the lyricism with a punchline about a diaphragm.

This oscillation between pathos and broad humor defines Taking Off's tone, just as the cutting between documentary and fiction defines its stylistic texture. The middle-aged parents at the film's center are figures of fun, but they are also portrayed with unusual sympathy and deepening complexity. The few hippie characters are ciphers by comparison; the drama of the audition sequences speaks for their emotional lives. The unexpected focus on the squares is actually typical of Forman (though it may explain why Taking Off failed to find much of an audience in 1971). From Black Peter’s hapless teenager struggling to lose his virginity to Loves of a Blonde’s small-town factory girl who mistakes her seduction by a traveling jazz pianist for a grand love affair, Forman specialized in “outsiders,” protagonists whose inability to fathom their society’s unwritten rules produces both humor and tragedy.

From Taking Off's commercial failure Forman seems to have learned a lesson that, in my view, proved as artistically regrettable as it was beneficial to his career. He felt that he could no longer make movies as he did in Czechoslovakia. As a foreigner in America, he no longer trusted in his powers of observation and his ability to direct non-actors in an off-the-cuff fashion. "If I really wanted to make films in Hollywood," he reflected later, "I'd have to change my whole style of working." Forman's regrouping eventually paid off in the massive critical and commercial success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984) among other films. Those are both sturdy achievements, but they largely lack the distinctive, exploratory mix of tones and styles that makes Forman's early body of work, including Taking Off, so precious.

Further reading:

- Miloš Forman, Turnaround: A Memoir. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

- Miloš Forman, John Guare, Jean-Claude Carrière, and John Klein. Taking Off. New York: Signet, 1971. Not so much the screenplay as a transcription (hence memento) of the film, with new "scene settings" written by Forman and Nancy Hardin. It also includes an essay by Forman about his first years in America and the production of Taking Off.

Recommended viewing:

- All of Miloš Forman's Czech films, including Audition (also known as Talent Competition, 1964), Black Peter (1964), and Loves of a Blonde (1965).

- Intimate Lighting (1965), the only film directed in Czechoslovakia by Forman's collaborator (and childhood friend) Ivan Passer.