IF HE’S CRAZY, WHAT DOES THAT MAKE YOU?
Author Ken Kesey considered himself a link between beatniks and hippies, a critic of behaviorism and the conventional. His most famous novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, celebrated anti-authoritarianism and was made into a play the year after its publication, 1962. When the time came for a film adaptation a decade later, Kesey started a rebellion of his own, arguing with the studio over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the rights and resisting the decision to change the story’s narrative point-of-view from “Chief” Bromden to Randle McMurphy.
He left the production and reportedly vowed never to see the film. In the end though, Milos Forman’s version stayed true to the original themes.
Pulling a stunt to avoid hard labor
In 1963, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who’s doing time for statutory rape, is transferred to an Oregon psychiatric hospital for evaluation. He is sane though and has pulled a stunt only to escape hard labor. McMurphy soon finds the ward a challenging place. Many of the patients are intriguing, but they seem almost enslaved under the strict regimen of nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who makes sure that medication, loud muzak and boredom keeps everybody in check. She instantly recognizes McMurphy as a threat to order, especially as the other patients begin to look up to this charismatic newcomer and feel emboldened by him. McMurphy wants the others to stand up for themselves… but a line is crossed the day when he steals a bus and takes the others on a wild fishing trip.
A lot of heart in it
The original story was inspired by Oregon State Hospital and this is where the film was also shot. Considering how the hospital has been criticized in the past for the quality of its mental health care it’s a wonder that it is still operating. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler shot the location as an eerie place that looks clean and proper but where fear and anxiety is always present. It’s a raw look, and the longing for freedom seems firmly implanted in every patient’s twitching body.
Forman assembled a wonderful group of actors for those parts, including Danny DeVito as the delusional Martini, William Redfield as the paranoid Harding, Sydney Lassick as the childish Cheswick, Sampson as the seemingly deaf-and-mute Bromden and Brad Dourif (in his breakthrough) as the stuttering Billy. There is a lot of heart in this film, and they provide a huge chunk of it, as well as a sense of humor. The same can be said of McMurphy as played by Nicholson in one of his greatest performances; a touching and playful tour-de-force, his effort has become the very symbol of anti-authoritarianism. Fletcher is the opposite; her nurse Ratched is pure evil. It can be argued that she’s so bad at her job that it’s hard to take her seriously, but Ratched, in Fletcher’s guise, is a cleverly icy villain. McMurphy needs a formidable adversary and watching them go head-to-head is the core of the film’s tension.
Moving and funny throughout, with a heartbreaking conclusion. The story criticizes mental health care of the past, but also wants to jump-start a discussion of how it should be executed, regardless if you fully buy into the film’s agenda or not. Jack Nitzsche’s music score is quirky, but finds the right tone at every juncture.
The film has inspired many others over the years; I found myself thinking about how much of it might have gone into Dead Poets Society (1989), for instance. The first movie to win the “Big Five Oscars” since It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those rare films that both mainstream audiences and cinephiles can find much to admire in.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 1975-U.S. 133 min. Color. Produced by Michael Douglas, Saul Zaentz. Directed by Milos Forman. Screenplay: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman. Novel: Ken Kesey. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler. Music: Jack Nitzsche. Editing: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman. Cast: Jack Nicholson (Randle McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Mildred Ratched), Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit), William Redfield, Michael Berryman, Peter Brocco… Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers.
Trivia: Kirk Douglas allegedly planned to film the novel long before the rights ended up in his son’s hands. Lloyd’s first film. Anjelica Huston can be seen briefly in one scene. Followed by a TV series, Ratched (2020- ), which takes place before the events of this film.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Supporting Actor (Dourif), Film Editing.
Last word: “I think [that Kirk and Michael Douglas both] felt that the film shouldn’t be this crazy, schizophrenic vision of an Indian, that it should be a very real story where the Indian was very important, but just another patient on the floor. They liked the realism of my Czech films, and of my first American film, ‘Taking Off’. I was so happy to get the job that I didn’t ask them why they gave it to me.” (Forman, A.V. Club)