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Milena Jelinek, screenwriter and educator, dies at 84
In an undated image provided by Roberta Hershenson, Milena Jelinek in the 1980s. Jelinek, who was thrown out of her film school in Prague for a movie called “An Easy Life” before becoming a tough-love screenwriting professor at Columbia University, died of complications of the novel coronavirus on April 15, 2020, in Manhattan. She was 84. Roberta Hershenson via The New York Times.

by Damien Cave

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Milena Jelinek spent her youth in Czechoslovakia learning to write under the tutelage of novelists like Milan Kundera and protesting Communism with friends like Vaclav Havel.

She was thrown out of film school in Prague for a movie she wrote called “An Easy Life,” which was deemed subversive. After fleeing to New York, she became a tough-love screenwriting professor at Columbia University, where she was known to warn that becoming a writer makes you fat and a drunk.

That mix of piercing critique, zestful living and an unflinching dedication to story defined Jelinek’s life. She died of complications of the coronavirus April 15 in Manhattan, her son, William Jelinek, said. She was 84.

As a screenwriter, Milena Jelinek was best known for “Forgotten Light,” directed by Vladimir Michalek and released in 1996. The story of a young Roman Catholic priest’s effort to save his church from being closed during the Communist era and his love for a dying parishioner, “Forgotten Light” is regarded as one of the greatest Czech movies of the last three decades.

Jelinek influenced generations of students from all over the world with what a colleague at Columbia’s School of the Arts described as “a European combination of old-world elegance and postwar wariness.”

Hope Dickson Leach, a screenwriter, director and former student, said Jelinek had never talked down to anyone and had always sought to help students find their own voice. On the first day of class, the professor sought to allay the students’ insecurities by telling them to think of themselves as writers, not students.

“She made it clear that the only qualification for being a writer was that you decided you were one, and you wrote,” Dickson Leach said.

Jelinek’s own path was one of Cold War twists and turns. The daughter of a sawmill owner, Milena Tobolova was born Aug. 19, 1935, in Prestice, a small town about 70 miles southwest of Prague. She initially studied languages but transferred in 1955 to the Film and Television Academy, where Kundera taught world literature.

She first rose to prominence with the script for “An Easy Life,” whose depiction of a rock ’n’ roll-fueled student life, deemed decadent by authorities, led to her expulsion from the film school. At its premiere in 1957, director Milos Forman introduced her to a childhood friend, Frederick Jelinek, a pioneering computer engineer who would spend the next three years trying to get her out of Prague.

When he succeeded in 1961, they married, started a family and settled in Ithaca, New York, where Milena Jelinek made three short, absurdist films about trapped housewives while her husband taught at Cornell University.

They later landed in New York City at a moment when Forman and another Czech émigré, Frank Daniel, were building the graduate film program at Columbia. She joined its faculty in the 1980s, teaching writing and script analysis and guiding students to find the triumphs and flaws in everything from “Toy Story” to “North by Northwest” and “Tootsie.”

Her son said she had usually started out every semester despairing about her students’ lack of talent, then came around to think they were all terrific — well, with the exception of one or two.

He said his mother could always see the bleak and the beautiful. “Buck up,” she used to tell her grandchildren. “Tomorrow is never promised.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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