Decades Blogathon – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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Greetings one and all! We move ahead in the Decades Blogathon to day #3. Today I’d like to share with you Fast Film Reviews‘ Mark Hobin and his thoughts on the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Please, if you haven’t already, go ahead and check out his site for more of his fine work. 

Depending on my mood, I have about 5 films from which I often choose to give as my favorite of all time. One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest is invariably the answer I cite most often. It is simply as perfect as a movie can get.  Unlike cinematic works that achieved their classic status over many years, audiences immediately knew what they had with this one. It was a huge box office success, second only only to Jaws that year. [1] The film earned 9 Oscar nominations and made a “clean sweep” of the top 5 categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay (Adapted). It is only the second of three pictures to accomplish this distinction. It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the other two.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, its adaptation to screen took over a decade. Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground.  Ultimately his son Michael purchased the rights from his father and then produced with Saul Zaentz.  Czech émigré Milos Foreman directed this take of one Randle Peter McMurphy. Convicted of statutory rape, he has been sentenced to a fairly short prison term.  However, at the start of our story he is being transferred from the Pendleton Work Farm to the Oregon State Hospital because he has feigned insanity. McMurphy assumes his time spent there will be much easier than the hard labor he’d experience in jail.  Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan.

unnamedJack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher star. They epitomize a perfect pair of combatants.  The head administrative caretaker of the psychiatric hospital is Nurse Ratched.  She is a formidable woman. This is her ward and she exercises complete authority over it.  “Medication time. Medication time, gentlemen,” she intones over the loudspeaker from the nurse’s station. She dispenses drugs to her patients waiting in line like a priest administering communion to his congregation.   She rules with an iron hand, but she rarely raises her voice. Fletcher is the antagonist, but she is no traditional villan.  She is a nurse after all, someone who takes care of people.  She seems well meaning at first but her calm demeanor hides a stern ugliness beneath.  Her tyrannical nature is aroused when things go awry.  Cold and calculating, her words are like grenades that she carefully lobs with intent to destroy.  Her quiet presence is largely felt even when she isn’t talking. The woman is inhuman, but Fletcher never reduces the character to parody. Hers is among the greatest performances in cinema.

Jack Nicholson is McMurphy, a hero but not in the classic sense. He’s a cocky, self assured rebel that rails against the establishment. Full of swagger, he makes it his mission to flout the rules. That most of the patients are there voluntarily is a revelation that doesn’t sit well with McMurphy. He’s a gambling man and his makes a bet that he can cause Nurse Ratched to lose her temper within a week. In this way he seeks to liberate the others from her grip. His confrontations with her are entertaining for the patients and for us the audience as well. He challenges the norms, slowly fortifying the group with his lack of regard for her authority. A simple plea to watch the 1963 World Series becomes a moment of desperation. The discussion is a mesmerizing battles of wills. The role solidified Nicholson as a cinematic icon and rebel superstar. This is arguably his very finest moment, of many, on film.

A telling highlight of the narrative are the group meetings over which Nurse Ratched presides. They are a nightmare, ostensibly designed to be helpful therapy sessions, but they are anything but. The mental patients, all male, are encouraged to reveal each others’ secrets to the public. The embarrassing gatherings belittle their humanity. Her psychologically manipulative program designed to weaken their self-esteem and bolster her own authority. The dialogues of the group meetings are fascinating. You often don’t realize their insidious nature until the session is over. Jack Nicholson represents a savior of sorts to the patients that have been victimized under Nurse Ratched’s rule.

And let’s talk about those patients. The supporting cast of predominantly unknown actors form a masterpiece ensemble. Every single one of them a fully realized individual in their own right. Even a silent performance shines through. That’s Chief (Will Sampson), a towering 6’7″ tall Native American. He delivers a heartbreaking achievement with just body language and gestures. The scene where Randle teaches Chief how to play basketball is priceless. There’s Harding (William Redfield), an intelligent married man who feels emasculated by his wife and Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to temper tantrums. Brad Dourif received an Oscar nomination for Billy Bibbit, a timid, almost childlike 31 year old. Yet virtually any one of these actors could’ve been recognized. Among the smaller patient roles are docile Martini (Danny DeVito) and belligerent Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). Three years later those two actors would be reunited on the TV show Taxi.  William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith round out the group. Their assemblage meshes in a brilliant way that make their therapy sessions hypnotic.

At first, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would seem a depressing film. The setting is a mental institution. The colors are drab. The milieu is bleak. Many of the patients look unkempt wearing robes. This is most assuredly a condemnation of psychiatric institutions as an emblem of compassionless bureaucracy. The chronicle contributed to the departure of electroshock therapy from mainstream mental health care for example. However Randle is a strong willed individual bucking the system. He represents hope in a place where there seemingly is none. He can snare an audience with a cocked eyebrow and a winking glance. He charms the patients in the asylum like he does the viewer. His foil is the equally strong-willed Nurse Ratched, an emasculating presence portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The two play a game of one-upmanship while we sit and watch, basking in the glory of their finely tuned characters. That the atmosphere can go from tense to hilarious to unrelentingly grim, all in the same scene is a tribute to the script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Their screenplay highlights the complexity of the dual nature of the narrative. It builds to an emotionally shattering conclusion that could either be considered the saddest or the most inspiring ending in the history of film.

[1]  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, largely ignored in 1975, became a success over the years due to midnight showings. It now ranks as the 2nd biggest hit of the year due to the phenomenon that it ultimately became.

17 thoughts on “Decades Blogathon – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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  3. I’ve only seen Cuckoo’s Nest once, a long, long time ago, and found it powerful and moving, but have always found ‘incarceration’ movies too claustrophobic, and so never went back. But, your review’s convinced me that it’s time for a second look. I love 70s American cinema, so it’s really long overdue.

    Great review.



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  4. Really enjoyed that Mark…a good write-up of this fantastic film. Nicholson is so good in this I struggle to think of another actor that would be able to carry it off as well. To get us to care and sympathise with a convicted rapist is quite something in itself. I haven’t watched this in years and really ought to see it again soon.

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    • Nicholson is perfect. Did you know that Randle was described as an imposing, red-headed Irish-American brawler – heavily scarred and tattooed in the book? They really deviated from the source. Can you imagine if they tried to cast him today? I can only imagine the Internet outrage. 😛


      • I read the book when I was a teenager, years ago, but had forgotten that the character was so different!


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