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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been out on Blu-ray for two years, but a new Collector's Edition is a gift-box presentation packed with attractive extras, including a feature-length documentary that includes the participation of original author Ken Kesey. What at first seemed a vanity production for mainstream star Jack Nicholson swept the Academy Awards, and has since become one of the most respected films of its decade.
The death knell for the brief renaissance of director-dominated Hollywood filmmaking was heard when Steven Spielberg's Jaws inaugurated the audience-pleasing blockbuster genre thriller. 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 event movies. Had the film adaptation of Ken Kesey's anti-establishment novel been delayed, it might never have been made at all. As it was, the project spent years being rejected by studios that felt it was unfit for general audiences.
After holding onto the property for almost a decade, Kirk Douglas decided he was too old to play the lead and allowed his son Michael to make it 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 story sticks fairly closely to the contours of the novel, and the play version written by Dale Wasserman. Prison troublemaker R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to a state mental hospital to determine if he's truly insane. Bored by the stifling routines and dull-minded company, McMurphy makes waves and harasses the presiding ward nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Taking an interest in his fellow patients, McMurphy motivates them to unite against the house rules, and even steals a bus so they can enjoy a forbidden day off fishing on a hijacked boat. Finally realizing that his time spent in the hospital will not be taken off of his prison sentence, McMurphy tries to straighten out his act. But he's too invested in the problems of his comrades, especially Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a neurotic who only seems to lack a little encouragement to make it in the real world. McMurphy takes his defiance of authority too far, with disastrous results.
Ken Kesey's tale has 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 trying to act naturally; the conformists at the hospital consider a man cured only when he voluntarily behaves in the approved, servile way demanded by his keepers. McMurphy foolishly engages in a battle of wills with the authoritarian Nurse Ratched. 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 behave like zombies, and inspires some of his fellow inmates to break out 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 understand the situation: McMurphy is constitutionally incapable of obedience.
To direct, Douglas handed responsibility for his film to Czech award winner Milos Forman (Loves of a Blonde, Ragtime). The respected 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, Christopher Lloyd is hostile and combative and Vincent Schiavelli's slack-jawed fellow has trouble concentrating. Sydney Lassick is a fussy sycophant and Brad Dourif is a confused introvert 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 clichés. McMurphy is shocked to discover 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 realization puts the concept of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in doubt. The Nurse Ratched character is said to have been 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. He interprets being a free spirit as 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 this hospital ward.
McMurphy becomes upset at one point because he wasn't informed that his hospital stay was indefinite, and that his provocative behavior would ruin his chances for release back to prison. Although the "evil" system has little choice but to place criminals and deranged individuals in controlled environments, McMurphy refuses to take any of it seriously. A thoughtless rebel, he goes up against Nurse Ratched to flatter his own ego. The movie's unscheduled day trip on the fishing boat is presented as a joyful lark, 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 has 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 scheme turns into a wild drinking party for the other patients. He neglects the part of the plan that deals with "getting away."
Nurse Ratched (a marvelous performance by Louise Fletcher) is definitely a tough cookie that probably shouldn't be in authority. 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.
Ratched always speaks calmly. She wins every argument by pretending 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 he loses. McMurphy represents a challenge to her control. Ratched soon has all the ammunition she needs to take drastic action.
The McMurphy-Ratched personality clash brings out the worst in both of these people. McMurphy becomes more reckless and cocky, while a powerful resentment festers behind Ratched's veneer of professionalism. She takes out her rage on the weaker patients, especially Billy Bibbit, who depends upon her for emotional support. We all lose our cool sometimes, but it's clear that Ratched is capable of black deeds. The ward bcomes a snake pit where the uncooperative risk being surgically "pacified."
Even as late as 1975 some 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 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." In the late 1950s a casual 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.
Cuckoo's Nest has some undeniably classic acting moments as well as some visual highlights. 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 an actor's field day recreating a World Series game for his bunkmates after their TV rights have been denied, personally acting out all the roles. And to avoid ending on a note of doom, the filmmakers emphasize the uplift of one wiser patient who symbolically walks away from the hospital and all it represents.
This fine film has dated somewhat in its assumption that we'll side with McMurphy. He now seems much less sympathetic, more of a reckless fool than a viable role model for the counterculture.
At the center of Warner's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Collector's Edition is a beautiful Blu-ray rendering of Milos Forman's crowd-pleasing drama. Original 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 extras on the older Blu-ray release were probably repurposed from earlier DVD editions. Director Forman and producers Douglas and Saul Zaentz collaborate on a commentary. Some additional cut scenes and a trailer were part of the original package. The older making-of documentary, a fairly long piece, has been replaced with an even longer 87-minute show called Completely Cuckoo. The fact that it is noted as presented in "its full original length" brings up the thought that the earlier docu may have been a cut-down version. Most of the movie's creative team and many of its actors appear in detailed interviews, including a new interview with producer Michael Douglas. The movie was made in a real mental hospital and from all accounts was a formative experience for its large, interesting cast. Louise Fletcher describes her mental distress during filming, having to play the part of the mean-spirited Miss Ratched while the other actors were free to explore the wilder characters.
The Collector's Edition box contains plenty of goodies to spread across a tabletop. In addition to the disc holding folder is a hardbound display book, 52 pages long with plenty of color photos. A shrunken reprint of the film's original press book is included, along with a set of four international mini-poster reproductions and a "Patient File" containing individual photo cards for the film's characters. Finally comes a deck of playing cards, also themed around character photos -- Nurse Ratched is the Queen of Spades.
Audio tracks on the release are a Dolby Digital 5.1 in English only, plus French and Spanish mono tracks.
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T'was Ever Thus.