Movies We Like
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
When it’s all said and done Jack Nicholson has probably had the most iconic film career of all time. He may have more important films and performances under his belt than any other American actor, including such film giants as Bogart or James Stewart. He helped to define the late '60s and '70s with roles in Easy Rider, Chinatown, and Five Easy Pieces. He’s worked with a diverse group of directors including Kubrick, Antonioni, Kazan, Ken Russell, Mike Nichols, and Arthur Penn (though the outcome was some of his least successful films of the era). Nicholson has continued through the decades since with relevant work in films like Reds, Terms Of Endearment, The Departed, Prizzi’s Honor, and About Schmidt, as well as the blockbuster, Batman. Even with such a giant filmography, one film still defines him and remains his most signature performance, Randle P. McMurphy in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Producer Michael Douglas originally bought the rights to beatnik-turned-LSD-guru Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel as a vehicle for his father Kirk, who starred in a New York stage adaptation. As the years passed with the film not getting made, eventually Kirk was deemed too old and unbankable. In stepped Nicholson and Czechoslovakia-born director Milos Forman known for his two Czech new-wave flicks, Loves Of A Blonde and The Firemen’s Ball, as well as for his ultra-hip American debut, Taking Off. Like so many films before it (from Charlie Chaplin to Midnight Cowboy) it often takes a foreigner to appreciate and understand the American spirit.
In the Cool Hand Luke mold, Cuckoo’s Nest is the tale of a rebellious misfit inspiring the men around him to look at their world differently. The hero’s outcome may be doomed, but his spirit will take hold of the others, therefore living on. As R.P. McMurphy, Nicholson’s an Oregonian petty criminal (statutory rape, an understandable, drunken Saturday night crime by mid 1970s standards). In order to get out of work detail he plays crazy and is sent to a mental institute for observation. Being a rule questioner and general hellraiser, he clashes with the icy head nurse, Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a character that was actually even more unlikable in novel form.
Though McMurphy eventually has a positive impact on most of his asylum mates (including a young Danny DeVito and Vincent Schiavelli), the biggest is on a giant, seemingly mute Native American they call Chief (Will Sampson). Also on the ward is an insecure young man with a stutter named Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) over whom McMurphy and Ratched have a tug of war for his soul. After McMurphy sneaks in some booze and a couple of floozies, one seduces Billy and Ratched threatens to tell his mother, which leads to a shockingly tragic ending.
Knowing that author Ken Kesey emerged on the cusp of the Beat generation and was highly influenced by the literary ideas of Jack Kerouac and his peers (later he was the subject of Tom Wolfe’s classic book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), there is a strong thought line in the story of standing up to society. The lone man fighting the system, slowly chipping away at the pointless rules imposed on us to make us all cogs in someone else’s unneeded machine.
Along with Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 landmark documentary Titicut Follies, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest helped to shine a light on the world of mental institutes. Not that it’s as horrific as, say, the one Olivia de Havilland experienced in the much earlier 1948 film, The Snake Pit, or has the dire conditions captured by Wiseman. Ratched and her team in Cuckoo’s Nest are humane, and by some standards even kind, but it’s cold kindness, calculated to humiliate with a smile. Eventually McMurphy’s rebellion becomes too big to control; they can’t get rid of him or kill him, so they just take away his spirit, eliminating what makes him who he is so everyone can go back to playing it safe and playing by their phony rules. Just another day in America.
Milos Forman would have continued success directing English language films, most notably with Ragtime, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Louise Fletcher would win the Oscar and more or less vanish; though she still continues to work, she would never make another impactful film (as terrible as Exorcist II: The Heretic was, it’s one of the few you’ve even heard of). Brad Dourif would spend decades playing creeps and weirdoes (excellently, in a number of films including Mississippi Burning). And Nicholson would become Jack, an iconic figure. For the past 40-something years American history and the values of the day can be seen through his performances. In his best roles, like McMurphy, he would represent the everyman, doing his best to overcome the repression around him. And like McMurphy so many of his characters actually lose, but the spirit lives on.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won five Oscars: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Original Score.