You gotta wonder why there aren't more T-shirts with Randal P. McMurphy on them. Why all the Tony Montana T-shirts? What did Scarface ever do for anybody? And do you kids really identify with Che Guevara?
R.P. McMurphy is a cultural icon that deserves a more revered status. The protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the unbridled Id that died for our cowardice. He began life in Ken Kesey's novel, which was first turned into a stage play, and then a film. The movie version, released in 1975, was directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus) and starred Jack Nicholson as Mac. Though known now for his loose cannon roles in large part due to his Oscar-winning performance in this film, I'd posit that he's never been as in control of the madness as he was here. For as gonzo as McMurphy can be, Jack plays him with a wily awareness. Watch his eyes, see how he scopes out the room, he's always looking for the gears and the angles.
In a nutshell, the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest takes place on a ward in a state mental hospital in Oregon. This ward is run by the uptight and prim Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, who also won an Oscar). Ratched runs a tight ship--indeed, her name suggests a tool used specifically for tightening up loose nuts and bolts. In her care are seventeen men with various problems. There is the stutterer Billy Bibbit (Deadwood's Brad Dourif), who can't get out from behind his mother's apron, and also the self-important dandy Harding (William Redfield), to name a couple. They fit in a social order, including bullies, victims, and a great dictator: this miniature society is one that is carefully manicured by the presiding Nurse. If her patients are aware of this, they either (a) like it or (b) pretend it's otherwise.
Enter Mr. McMurphy. Having been sent to jail on a statutory rape charge, his behavior at the work farm has so distressed the jailers, they kicked him over to the hospital for evaluation. The head of the institution, Dr. Spivey (played by Dean R. Brooks, a doctor from the actual facility where Forman was shooting), thinks McMurphy is faking because he's lazy. Maybe so. Regardless, as soon as McMurphy hits the ward, he starts shaking things up. He runs a blackjack game, fights to get the World Series on the hospital television, and hijacks a bus to take the other patients out on a boat ride for the afternoon.
McMurphy also befriends Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), a Native American inmate who is described as being like a tree trunk (it's an apt comparison) and who everyone believes is a deaf mute. McMurphy talks to him anyway. It's part of his dangerous personality: he talks to everyone, he doesn't care who you are. He also refuses to be ordered, regimented, or otherwise controlled. It's not that he is a square peg that won't go into the round hole, it's that he doesn't even see things in those terms. There are no pegs, there are no holes. He is the chaos where Nurse Ratched is order, and thus, he needs to be neutralized.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a pitch-perfect film. There is not a hair out of place, not a note wrongly played. As the lore surrounding the picture attests--and much of it is shared on the extensive extras on this Blu-ray edition--it's a movie where all the stars aligned. It took a long time to get to the screen--Kirk Douglas owned the rights for years, having starred in the original Broadway production, but it took his son Michael to finally make it a reality--but once it did, a kind of magic happened. From the casting through to the decision to shoot the movie in an actual hospital with real mental patients serving as extras, every choice made was absolutely right. Screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman took Kesey's expansive, surreal novel and distilled it into a contained narrative, drawing out the symbolism and the poetry and giving it movement. Backed by a cast of remarkable character actors, including Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, Nicholson and Fletcher created enduring performances that stood as polar opposites to one another. He is the eternal trickster, she is the pillar of oppression--though she believes she is serving kindness and charity. McMurphy is supposed to be the one who is crazy, but he sees Ratched far more clearly than she sees herself.
Milos Forman keeps most of the movie confined to the tight spaces of the hospital. The great cinematographer Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) shoots in low light, letting the internal gloom of the institution match the external gloom of Oregon. Of course, this also represents the sadness of the characters, and the overall condition of our societal maladies. Compare these dismal surroundings to the one time the patients run free, when McMurphy takes them to sea, and see how bright and wonderful it all looks. It's the golden promise of freedom.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a great story, mixing just the right amounts of humor and emotion to move audiences to care deeply about the people they are watching. More important, though, and why I think the movie endures more than 30 years later, is that the world inside that hospital is no different than the world we live in. McMurphy says it himself at one point. Shocked to discover that most of the men have been committed of their own free will, they could walk out anytime they like, Mac declares, "You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets." It's a mad, mixed-up world we live in, and the problems that these men have are just like our own. We might be too nervous to talk to a girl we like, or overly anxious about our jobs, or just want to be left alone--all that needs to happen is for circumstances to increase the dosage and we could go over the brink, too. We could walk away, but instead we create reasons not to. Somewhere in this pool of insanity, we see ourselves. If we're lucky, we are the Chief, silent for a reason, but capable of speaking out. In a way, he is the actual main character (the book is from his point of view), the one we are most often drawn to, and the only person here who can actually change. My favorite scenes involve the Chief. I love the look on his face when he gets into the basketball game, the big grin as he darts across the court, and I love the look on McMurphy's face when he discovers his friend is a big faker.
There are many ways to look at the ending of the movie. There are multiple theories about what happens to Billy, as well as the significance of McMurphy's fate. I think both are part of a chain of events, actions that push further action, all pointing toward one outcome: leaving all our woes behind before the system breaks us. It's a big world out there, so there's no reason to stay in here.
The image quality is pretty phenomenal and though the movie shows its age, this transfer far outstrips the previous DVD versions (though, to be fair, the 2002 special edition was also great). There is a quality to 1970s film stock that I think it is important to remember in this day and age. There is a natural grain that jibes with the earth tones we tend to associate with the aesthetic of the decade. Colors are cooler, less amplified, and I think that quality really comes through on this Blu-Ray. Skin tones are soft, and the cold sterility of the hospital and its quiet colors (lots of whites and blues and clean blacks) really comes through. Frankly, it looks just like the dreary day-to-day of living in Oregon. It's like looking out my window.
Technical specs: 1080p High Definition, 16X9/1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The original soundtrack is mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is very good. It doesn't have a pervasive atmosphere or a lot of effects, but the different aspects of the audio are balanced well and given the right emphasis.
Alternate mono audio tracks are provided for French and Spanish speakers. Subtitles are available in a ton of different languages, including English SDH, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and many, many others. Subtitles are also available for the audio commentary, though only in English and Japanese.
When One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next was last on standard-def DVD, it came as a two disc package, and a similar package also came out on Blu-Ray, and all the extras shared by those two packages are ported over here, including:
* Audio commentary piecing together comments by Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz
* Eight deleted scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
The making-of featurette from the previous versions also appears on this Collector's Edition, but finally in its original, longer format. The documentary on the 2002 disc was a shortened version of the 87-minute Completely Cuckoo, directed by Charles Kiselyak, who has quite a few of these kinds of documentaries to his name. The full piece begins with Ken Kesey and how he was inspired to write the novel. It quickly transitions into Kirk Douglas acquiring the tome, the Broadway play, and the road to the movies. Includes an assemblage of interviews with Kesey, both Douglases, Forman, Zaentz, writer Bo Goldman, crewmembers, the consulting doctors, many of the actors (no Nicholson, Dourif, or Sampson, though), etc. Completely Cuckoo takes us all the way through the production in incredible detail. The most notable elements restored for this Blu-Ray are segments about the novel, as the cut version was all about the movie. The image quality is far less crisp than the movie itself. It has the look of an older video production.
Completely Cuckoo is joined by a new 31-minute documentary, Asylum: An Empty Nest. This program is about negative changes in how mental hospitals have been run since the movie, and the effect that these changes have on society, how they affect prison populations, etc. It includes interviews with mental health professionals, vintage photos, and a new chat with Michael Douglas, who talks more about how they portrayed the hospital in the movie and worked with real doctors and patients at a real institution.
If that wasn't enough, the packaging for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Collector's Edition is stellar. The movie comes in a cardboard book with a plastic tray and a pocket for a reproduction of the original release press book and four postcard re-creations of vintage Cuckoo'sposters from around the world [see image above]. Outside of this case, but contained in a sturdy box alongside it, there are several physical items that come with the disc:
* Patient File: a miniature manila envelope with six glossy photos of the movie's central characters.
* Playing Cards: a full deck with photos of the cast on the card faces. Probably not dirty enough for Randle P. McMurphy, but still pretty cool.
* Hardback Book: 52 pages of liner notes, photos, and bios of the participants.
The box for the set is approximately the size of a regular DVD case, not the standard smaller Blu-Ray size.
DVD Talk Collector Series. The One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Collector's Edition Blu-ray is an impressive set for an amazing film. Jack Nicholson plays Randle P. McMurphy, the antihero of Ken Kesey's classic novel. McMurphy is a man who can't be contained, and when the powers that be try to do so by putting him in a mental hospital, he shakes up the system and goes toe to toe with the nurse who runs her ward with an iron fist. Featuring many enduring characters, and capturing not just the zeitgeist of the time but also timeless truisms of the human condition, Milos Forman's adaption is one of the best movies of the 1970s. This new Blu-ray comes with a ton of extras, and the collector's box is a lot of value for the money. Go ahead and conform just this once, and buy it!
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.