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