One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: Uplifting, Disheartening And Just About Everything In Between

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

SPOILERS!

Everyone knows that the ’70s were the greatest decade for cinema. It’s an undeniable fact: The Godfather, I and II; Apocalypse Now; Taxi Driver; Chinatown; The Conversation; The Deer Hunter; The French Connection – and that’s just to name a few of the very best. So where does One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fall among these eternal classics? Can it match the quality, or does it douse to a smouldering heap of unexploited potential?

The 1975 film focuses on convicted felon, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who attempts to fake his insanity so he can squirm into a mental rehabilitation institution, thinking life will be easier and he’ll soon be released. However, when he witnesses the cruel, oppressive, iron fist system of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), he sets about rising up against her and instilling his fellow patients with his subversive spirit.

Cuckoo’s Nest is, of course, adapted from the Ken Kesey book by the same name – which I am still yet to read, but is waiting patiently on the bookshelf. What’s fascinating is how he stumbled across the idea: while working on a night shift at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, he would commonly talk to the patients, usually heavily drugged up, hardly knowing who or where they were. He was dismayed by the authoritative, frequently sadistic and heavily concealed methods to make sure the mentally unstable would sit down and shut up. And, this was obviously the very same place where he volunteered for LSD experiments. The rest, as they say, is history.

But in all of his sixty-six years, Kesey never got round to watching the cinematic version of his first, and widely regarded as best, novel. Why?

Because Jack Nicholson is great, but he is not McMurphy. He is too short.

Ken Kesey

Sigh. Just can’t get a straight answer out of some people, can you? Let’s get to the bottom why Kesey is wrong.

There’s no doubt in my mind that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps the most complete mix of an elating comedy, and a hard-biting drama. It’s a film that leaves you turbulent, with conflicting sentiments, unsure just how quite to feel – of course, a very difficult art to master.

The drama is mainly rooted in the isolation and tedium of the patients, their inevitably prosaic lives solely dictated by pills and insipid card games. They are not there to be helped. They are there to stop clogging up the veins of society with their disturbed coagulation. The therapy sessions, led by Nurse Ratched, aren’t helping to confront the character’s problems, but just to monotonously and repetitively scrub them down to their biggest vulnerabilities and leave them sore in the process.

They are made to become subservient and dependent, like clinging offspring, so emotionally stunted that they take comfort in their abuse. The bleak, glazed over scenery; the disturbingly solacing, stray dog compound confinement of the institution; the homogenised white gowns like strait jackets, pressing the patients’s flaws out like sore, subhuman thumbs: it’s all thoroughly depressing, all highlighting the desperate conditions of the ’70s ‘nut house’ – some of which remains prevalent today. The ending in particular, far more acerbic than sweet, is a real, harsh kick in the teeth.

After all, the film focuses on a brutal conflict, and it’s a conflict that someone must win. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest‘s very essence is to try and capture the culture wars that came to its climax in the ’70s. It’s chaos versus order. McMurphy plays mayhem, a man longing for freedom and girls and expression and partying and individualism and just having a good time, no matter the expense. And, being so exposed and so proactive in his disorder, it’s no surprise that oppression, in the form of Nurse Ratched, steadily clunking towards him with her fist clenched, the robotic, mechanical arm of an unrelenting system, is ready to lobotomise chaos into subordination.

Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), meanwhile, a man presumed deaf and dumb, almost comatose, is clever chaos, unlike McMurphy. Discreet and wholesomely committed to his disguise, à la Alfred Borden in The Prestige, he’s far more savvy and streetwise. He’s not pulverised by order, because order has no idea he’s even there. He gives hope to liberation as he escapes from the barred windows to clutch freedom; hope that he’ll head to Canada, recuperate the forces and, perhaps one day, strike back again.

And that slim slice of optimism isn’t all, because while exposed chaos is not built to be sustainable, it does forge some blissful moments that leave an imprint on the many. Is it any surprise that, even after what all the cast go through, and the vicious cycle they appear to be entrapped in, cigarettes are still laid out on the table as bets, as the one form of anti-establishment rebellion that still lingers on? The basketball match, the gambling games, the Super Bowl vote, the fishing escape, the Christmas party: these are not grossly sentimental, as most modern blockbuster treacle would have it, but refreshingly feel-good.

I’m one more for murky realism over helium bloated escapism (see Forrest Gump), but One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest manages to temper their infectiously uplifting trajectory with just the right amount of tragedy – whenever we indulge in the joy of the patients’s newfound spontaneity, there remains a heavy weight dangling precariously in our subconscious, like ominous rainclouds encumbered by the perpetual threat of downpour: consequences. That’s what this film gets right. There’s fun to be had here – but at what cost? And, perhaps even more importantly, to who?

Most of the film’s positivity is rooted in a career-defining performance by Jack Nicholson. Now, long term readers of the blog will know I’m not the biggest fan of some of his caricatures. But, interestingly, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest comes quite early in his career, having achieved a superb run after breaking out in 1969’s Easy Rider, from Five Easy Pieces, to The Last Detail, to Chinatown in 1974. Still fresh and aspirational, ’75s Cuckoo’s Nest was the straw that broke the camels back: having being previously nominated for two Best Actors and a Best Supporting Actor, Nicholson deservedly garnered the top award that year. In fact, the film won all the five major awards (best picture, direction, screenplay, actor and actress), a feat only second by The Silence of the Lambs.

Anyway: part of what frustrates me about Nicholson is the fact there always seems to be an element of psychosis in any of his performances; that he seems more accustomed to a form of delirious, pantomime humour than any deep, touching drama. But surely a comedy that features a fascinating character playing crazy would be perfect, right? I’d say so. Height doesn’t come into this one – Nicholson seems to know McMurphy inside out, able to harness an intense charisma, utterly believable that a man of his stead would be able to round up the masses and inspire, a mix of an immature school boy and an almost Christ-like figure.

But every Christ needs an anti-Christ, and in this case, Nurse Ratched is the inimitable choice for the role. That rolled hair doesn’t suggest horns for no reason. As you watch, it’s hard not to find parallels between her character and Misery‘s Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) – but, unlike Misery, this feature isn’t wholly reliant on the performance of it’s infamous antagonist, despite Ratched engraving herself into the forefronts of our mind whenever ‘malevolence’ comes up in a ‘water cooler moment’. Where I think the nurse surpasses Wilkes is the fact she does truly believe herself to be doing good; it’s the quiet evil about her, an evil so subtle that even she remains oblivious to her frigid faults.

Perhaps, we the audience can be bemoaned too for omitting it. Just like our incongruous emotions as the two hours and thirteen minutes barrels to it’s finale, it’s never quite clear how we should feel about Louise Fletcher’s flawless depiction. Sympathy isn’t as shocking as some may have you believe – after all, in Cuckoo’s Nest reality, Christ is hyper-masculine low life in jail for the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old. Isn’t it just easier to reduce an insane patient to a gibbering mess rather than have to deal with them at there most unhinged lucidness? Isn’t that, after all, her job? The complexity of Ratched is part of why this film is so compelling. We aren’t able to discard her to hisses and boos, because there’s far too much to unpack under that perfectly white cap.

And it’s not just the main roles that drives this flick forwards – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest features one the greatest supporting casts in the history of film. From Danny De Vito’s dim and infantile Martini, with his lovably crooked grin, to Brad Dourif’s stammering, bashful Billy, fixated with avoiding his mother’s wrath, to Christopher Lloyd’s belligerent, wide-eyed Taber, to Sydney Lassick’s fretful Cheswick, thick glasses framing his constantly screwed-up eyes, to William Redfield’s prissy and sexually confused Harding: the whole cast is nothing short of perfection. Part of why the film is so fascinating is the thorough, exacting and rigorous characterisations of the patients who could have easily been easily discarded as cardboard stock. Their amiable sweetness is the backbone of the film, and makes the vicarious elements of the story all the more satisfying.

So where does One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest fall among the ’70s classics? Well, simply put, it doesn’t. It stands among them, with flawless acting, unquestionable direction (Miloš Forman) and one hell of a screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben). Of course, Cuckoo’s Nest might not be as good as any of the films listed in the very first paragraph; but if you’re looking for a slick, smart, masterfully plotted comedy that doesn’t lose that profound, claustrophobic darkness? You may have just stumbled across it.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – 8.5 out of 10

36 thoughts on “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: Uplifting, Disheartening And Just About Everything In Between

  1. Though provoking post…I’ve never thought of OFOCBN as a comedy, black or otherwise, although I recognize comic elements within the film. To me, the book and the film are the story–drama, if you will–of the clash of a psychopath and a sociopath, one who welds the power of the establishment, the other who represents freedom teetering on anarchy. Both characters have the ability to illicit understanding and a certain sympathy for the yin and yang and an acknowledgement for the necessity of the in-between.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you very much! That’s a fascinating viewpoint – and I would tend to agree, too. Opposites attract, eh? Yeah, I think beneath it all, there’s an understanding between the two, and there’s a thrill and purpose that the rivalry gives them. Take when Ratched has the opportunity to kick McMurphy out, and she ops not too. Is that plain arrogance, or is it a desire to win? To keep the competition alive? And that’s maybe something I missed out on why the film is so good. Great comment!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks. I don’t know that I’m right. I read some commentaries about it and my interpretation isn’t, by any means, the prevailing view. Its’s funny how art means different things to different people.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Well, I guess there’s really no right or wrong when it comes to film. Yours is certainly an interesting opinion, and that’s enough for me. The prevailing view is always boring!

          Liked by 2 people

    1. He thought the girl was eighteen! Give him a break, Booky! 😉

      Y’know, as I was writing this review, I was wondering whether you would like this film or not. And, for most part, I would give a strong yes. But then came the stumbling block: McMurphy. I think he’s a great character and brilliant acted by Nicholson, but I just can’t see you liking the main protagonist, and that’s a pretty big problem. I still think you’d probably enjoy it, but whether you could invest in Mac is another issue.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’ll give him a break, right through his spinal cord!

        I don’t think I could watch this. I really need at least one person to root for in a movie or book (for the most part) and nothing you write here sounds like there’s ANYTHING to root for.

        As you know, I’m not big on movies “as art”. So that aspect will never appeal to me either. I’m not a movie hater (yet) but with each new reboot from hollywood and with each movie you and Alex and Dix review, I feel like I’m merrily traipsing down that path…..

        Liked by 2 people

        1. The mental patients are quite affable and affectionate, and I imagine most people would be able to get behind them – yes, even you! Although it can get pretty dark.

          Nothing wrong with being a movie hater! Just as long as you’re a film lover…

          Liked by 2 people

  2. The novel was actually made into a play pretty soon after the novel came out, and I haven’t seen it produced but the feel of the movie has always made me think it was indebted to a stage production. Good movie though that holds up well. Did you see the TV show they made out of Ratched’s character? I only heard about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. With Kirk Douglas, right? Yeah, I imagine the play version could be quite good. The film, I imagine, is still probably better though.

      I actually watched the trailer for it while doing a spot of research, and the main impression I came away with was: not quiet evil. She just seemed plain psychotic. Haven’t seen it, but I don’t think it’s going to be the first series I’m going to be watching next.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked everything about this film, except Nicholson. He got rave reviews for his acting, but I thought he allowed himself to get over excited (as he so often does) and threw away any chance of nuance. Give me his far superior performance in ‘Chinatown’, any day of the week.
    Cheers, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ooh, that’s interesting. I think this is one of his best performances. Chinatown is good, but there’s still something unnerving about him, like he’s not comfortable in that skin. With this performance, he really does come across as a charismatic leader who would be able to galvanise the un-galvanisable.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I loved this movie. Everyone nailed their parts, and you really believed that they were actually in an asylum! Great characters, compelling conflict, and a great plot made a sensational story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Bang on the money. In fact, I think the cast did go and live in an asylum during the filming to truly experience what it was like, and some of them began to think they were losing their minds – Danny De Vito had an imaginary friend to help him while he was away from home!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great film. My old supervisor when I worked as a case manager in adult behavioral health WAS nurse Ratched, for all intensive purposes. And my observations of her are also true to yours of this character. She truly does “believe herself to be doing good; it’s the quiet evil about her, an evil so subtle that even she remains oblivious to her frigid faults.” And, even before the quiet evil… it’s her need to CONTROL, to maintain ORDER that lies at the root.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Sorry for such a delayed reply, mate! You’re bang on. It’s all about power – God-like power. And who’s better to own than people who view themselves as problems, that you’ve managed to convince are subhuman and broken?

      How was working in an adult behavioural health? Must have been interesting…

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yup. That job was VERY interesting. This was outpatient, not inpatient like Cuckoo’s Nest. The job was so mind-scrambling, between the endless phones ringing, clients walking in without appointments with crisis of every sort – the staff used to joke that our clients were all retired case managers😆 Funny, until the day it’s true. And then still funny. I Didn’t last a full year. The building where I worked is now a 20-car police station. I got some stories though, that’s for sure.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Most State Institutions like in Cuckoo’s Nest were made illegal under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. Now a lot of the care is outpatient. But the vibe is very similar. And the the need for mental healthcare is still as great as ever.

          Liked by 2 people

        2. Fascinating stuff. I’ve always been interested by psychology – perhaps it’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to films. Would love to hear some of those stories one day!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. I love that movie. It’s the best role Nicholson’s ever played, and one of Forman’s absolute best movies (with Amadeus). I think he was the perfect director, coming from an oppressive system himself he was able to show exactly how insidious oppression can work, starting with small things and ending with total dehumanization. 10/10 in my book, and its ambiguity is just spot on. It’s actually better than the book, IMO.
    McMurphy is no saint, and I wouldn’t call him Christ, as he’s clearly shown to be more focused on himself than others – but Ratched is just horrifying in her cold, inhumane, well-meant evil reminiscent of WWII and eugenics.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thought you’d like this one, Ola! Your analysis is great – I’m telling you, you should be the one writing film reviews, not me!

      The idea that Forman coming from a controlling state would benefit the film is fascinating. I think you’re probably right. The fact McMurphy is no Christ just makes the film more compelling, just as Ratched (IMHO) is no Satan – or at least obviously.

      Recommend the book?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you! 😀

        The book’s all right, but not as good as the movie. McMurphy is less endearing, that’s one thing, and Forman’s sensitivity to and experience with oppressive institutions enriches the movie beyond what Kesey intended. In Forman’s hands it becomes a metaphor, an allegory, of the conflict between an individual and a total institution whose aim is utter conformity of its subjects. In comparison, Kesey only skims the surface 😉

        Liked by 2 people

        1. Hi, we watched the first episode. Hmmmm, its very stylish and stylized. And slick. It does show her in an institutionalized setting with a sense of some foreboding undertones. Its so far from the perfection of OFOTCN. I don’t think we will watch the rest. Too bad. Thank you

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Thanks for getting back to me on that! Fascinating stuff. I didn’t think it would be anywhere near the quality of Cuckoo’s Nest, so I think you probably made the correct decision – it wasn’t that well received by critics or audiences alike!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I concur. One of my extended family members used to be a film maker. And he always said, no one sets out to make a bad film.

          Liked by 1 person

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