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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest might be the last call for the early-70s Hollywood art film. Within a year or two some of the decade's best-reviewed directors would be scrambling to find work, as the industry realigned itself toward escapist fantasies and summer blockbusters. After years of rejection by studios who felt that Ken Kesey's anti-establishment novel was unfit for general audiences, Nest cleaned up on Oscar night.
Kirk Douglas held onto the property for almost a decade before deciding he was too old to play the lead, and handed it over to his son Michael for his first producing effort. Filmed at a real mental facility by some of the best new talent in the business, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is thought by many to be the epitome of liberal filmmaking in Hollywood.
The novel and film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest have always been considered a core work of the post-Beat years, a protest picture decrying the way that "the system" breaks the human spirit. R.P. McMurphy is a free man just trying to act naturally; the conformists at the hospital consider a man cured only when he voluntarily behaves in the approved, servile way his keepers demand. McMurphy engages in a battle of wills with the authoritarian Nurse Ratched, foolishly thinking that he can win. As Ratched has legal rights over every aspect of McMurphy's life, the competition is already lost.
Jack Nicholson added to his nearly unbroken string of early '70s hits with a character guaranteed to make almost any actor look good. McMurphy shows gumption when those around him are zombies, and inspires his pals to break through some of their psychological misery. He strikes up a firm friendship with Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), a towering Indian, and organizes the ward into a voting bloc against Nurse Ratched's oppressive rules. Anyone who's suffered through public grade school will empathize with the situation of being patronized by bureaucrats whose instructions boil down to a few demeaning rules: don't question authority, make waves or attempt to attract too much attention to yourself. McMurphy is constitutionally incapable of obedience.
Douglas handed directorial responsibilities to Czech award winner Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, Ragtime). The noted but not yet commercially viable Forman assembled a terrific group of unusual actors to play Kesey's hospital patients. None fit any normal Hollywood mold yet several became big stars. Danny DeVito is a repressed little gnome of a man, Vincent Schiavelli is a slack-jawed fellow who has trouble concentrating, Christopher Lloyd is hostile and combative, Sydney Lassick is a fussy sycophant and Brad Dourif is a confused fellow who thinks he's not good enough to be around women. Much of the fun of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is watching these odd personalities interact, and the film's biggest surprise is that it doesn't succumb to nuthouse cliché's about crazy people. McMurphy is shocked to find out that a goodly number of his bunkmates weren't committed to the hospital but checked themselves in of their own free will. They have real problems and the system is indeed trying to help them.
That's where the concept of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes into question. The Nurse Ratched character is said to be much softened from the "wicked witch" concept of the book, but she's still set up as the villain for opposing the fun-loving and charismatic McMurphy. Yet from the evidence we see McMurphy is the author of all his own problems and a genuine menace to society. McMurphy would bring down disaster almost anywhere he went. He freely admits to statutory rape with a minor and has no self-discipline whatsoever. Being a free spirit to him means not giving a damn, as he apparently fought in prison, acted crazy just to entertain himself and is now trying to pull the same tricks in the hospital ward.
At one point McMurphy gets upset because nobody told him his hospital stay was indefinite, and that his provocative behavior would ruin his chances for release back to prison. The "evil" system has little choice but to put criminals and deranged individuals in controlled environments, and McMurphy refuses to take any of it seriously. A thoughtless rebel, he goes up against Nurse Ratched to flatter his own ego. The unscheduled day trip on the fishing boat is a joyful lark in the movie, when in actuality it's a supremely irresponsible action. Several of those patients are clearly unstable and might hurt themselves, become lost or even fall overboard. But it sounds like a fun idea to McMurphy, so he does it. McMurphy's schemes have a definite problem with follow-through. His wager that he can lift an anchored bath fixture comes to nothing and has him mumbling that "at least he tried." His grand escape plan turns into a wild drinking party for the other patients, and he idiotically forgets the part of the plan dealing with "getting away."
Nurse Ratched (a marvelous performance by Louise Fletcher) is definitely a tough cookie that probably shouldn't be in authority in the ward. Real Florence Nightingales probably find more attractive work. An example of a functionary who thinks she's in charge of an important domain, Ratched is convinced she's found her perfect slot in the system. She believes she's helping, when most of her energy goes into the exercise of petty rules and controls. Her nurse underling obeys her instructions without question, and her male orderlies know darn well not to contradict her.
Always speaking calmly, Ratched wins every argument and pretends that logic is on the side of her arbitrary decisions. When McMurphy challenges her authority to not to let the ward watch the World Series, Ratched makes sure that she wins. Part of Ratched's desire is to keep her charges tightly under her control. She immediately resents McMurphy's popularity and natural ability to motivate even some of the least communicative patients. McMurphy is too pig-headed to realize that he's being very foolish to oppose Ratched, considering the authority she has over him. By the time he's turned the ward into a disaster area, Ratched has all the ammunition she needs to take drastic action.
Louise Fletcher's layered performance lets us know that the McMurphy-Ratched personality clash brings out the worst in both of them. McMurphy becomes more reckless and cocky, while Ratched harbors a powerful resentment behind her veneer of professionalism. She takes out her rage on the weaker of the patients, especially Billy Bibbit, who depends upon her for emotional support. We all lose our cool sometimes, but it's clear that Ratched has become a menace to her patients. In the final analysis, the ward turns into a snake pit where the uncooperative risk being surgically "pacified."
Some 1975 audiences hadn't heard of shock treatments and lobotomies; in the ten years it took to bring One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to the screen the majority of mental health facilities in America had rejected those violent and invasive procedures. Horror stories circulated of patients involuntarily lobotomized by relatives who wanted them out of the way; in the case of famous actress Frances Farmer, it is said that her conservative family had her brain cut up to stem her "radical politics." If one pictures the story happening back in the late 1950s it makes more sense. At that time a simple doctors' meeting could condemn an "unworkable" patient to a lobotomy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest uses the procedure for a horror-film ending, the sticking point for Ken Kesey's thesis that The System is evil.
The film has some classic acting moments and a couple of visual ones as well. We all remember McMurphy's basketball game with "The Chief", and his glee at finding out The Chief's surprising secret: here's one patient who knows how to deal with an oppressive system. Jack Nicholson has a field day "creating" a World Series game after TV rights have been denied, acting out all the roles for his bunkmates. And to sidestep ending on a note of doom, the filmmakers emphasize the uplift of at least one wiser patient finding a way to walk away from the hospital and all it represents.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a fine film but it has dated a bit in its assumption that we'll side with McMurphy. In that respect it's somewhat like the now completely obsolete M*A*S*H (the feature), a film that once seemed screamingly funny. Now the self-styled elitist surgeons come off as boors and snobs, persecuting everyone that doesn't measure up to their idea of what's cool. McMurphy isn't in their league, but he seems a much less sympathetic character, more of a reckless fool than a counterculture symbol.
Warner's Blu-ray of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the best-looking copy I've seen of Milos Forman's crowd-pleasing drama. 1975 theatrical prints seemed much more grainy, but this refined transfer and encoding retains the original feel of cameraman Haskell Wexler's rough-textured images.
The excellent extras are probably not new to this release. Director Forman, producers Douglas and Saul Zaentz collaborate on a commentary. A very entertaining long-form docu The Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has fascinating interviews with almost every actor and creative contributor. Even Danny DeVito, usually dismissive in talks about his acting work, speaks in earnest about the role that put him on the map. Oscar winner Louise Fletcher describes about her mental distress, having to play the "mean" part while the other actors were free to explore the wilder characters. The disc also contains a trailer and an assortment of unused scenes.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A typically insightful note from "B", who clearly knows more about Nest than does Savant:
"Written by Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman from a play by Dale Wasserman from a novel by Ken Kesey."
I don't believe that the film formally credits the Wasserman play as a basis; having seen the play twice (once back in the early '70s, and again a few years ago), I don't think that the Hauben/Goldman script actually owes anything to the Wasserman dramatization, no matter what the IMDb may claim.
[I always felt the Wasserman play was severely weakened by its omission of the fishing trip, which would of course have been impossible to properly stage in a theatrical setting. I don't feel that Hauben/Goldman and Forman completely pulled off the fishing trip scene; it only sort of works in the movie, and it really annoys me. You are quite right to state that the trip in the film is "a supremely irresponsible action." If the McMurphy of the novel had hijacked the patients and taken them on such an unauthorized excursion, he would have wound up in solitary and probably returned to prison. Remember, the excursion in Kesey's book is planned, and includes one of the doctors from the hospital, who comes off as fairly sympathetic and almost a good sort. I understand why they changed it, though. I don't think that the filmmakers felt that they could afford to acknowledge that any of the doctors were so human.]
"Cinematography Haskell Wexler"
While Wexler receives sole poster and key art credit, I've read that Bill Butler, who came in after Wexler and Forman encountered creative difficulties, shot at least half (or even more) of the picture. Significantly, Wexler and Butler shared a 1975 Academy nomination for their work on the movie.
"The novel and film of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' have always been considered a core work of the post-Beat years, a protest picture decrying the way that 'the system' breaks the human spirit."
I would agree that the novel is such a core work. I don't believe that the Forman movie has a shred of Beat in it, though it is a "protest picture."
"If one pictures the story happening back in the late 1950s..."
Well, the picture IS set in the early '60s (even though through the windows of the group therapy session we see mid-'70s cars driving by). The World Series game tells us that. [My favorite thing about the movie: Ernie Harwell doing play-by-play in an Best Picture Oscar-winner!] Anyway, both ECT and, to a lesser extent, lobotomy, were still being performed well into the '70s. ECT never really went away, in fact, and is today a fairly common treatment. Incredible, eh?
"Now the self-styled elitist [M*A*S*H] surgeons come off as boors and snobs..."
They always did, Glenn. That was the beauty of it. And I disagree that the movie is obsolete. [And I will probably always write an annoying note like this one whenever you make such an assertion.] Best, Always and Forever. -- B
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