Sunday, March 18, 2012


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When Milos Forman's extremely popular ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST won as best picture of 1975, it was the first film since 1934's IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT to win all the major categories: best picture, director, adapted screenplay, actor and actress.  And while I do find the film's subtext at times troubling (more about that later), it is a great, moving, funny and well acted film that played into the tenor of the times by celebrating  rebellion and non conformity.
It began life as a novel published in 1962 by Ken Kesey, based on his real life experiences working at a veteran's hospital.  Movie star Kirk Douglas bought the rights, thinking that he could play the lead role of RP McMurphy.  When Hollywood turned him down, he managed to get a Broadway production of the play made that was unsuccessful.  For years his continued attempts to adapt the book into a film were fruitless, and he eventually gave the film rights to his son, Micheal.  Micheal eventually interested producer Saul Zaentz, who got the film funded independently, using money from his Fantasy Records music company.  Years earlier Kurt Douglas met  Czech born director Forman in Prague, and thought he would be a good choice to direct the film.  It would be his first English language movie.  Since the film had taken so long to be produced, Kurt Douglas was too old to play McMurphy, and while James Caan was considered, the role inevitably went to Jack Nicholson.  It was perfect casting, with the anti authority image of Nicholson meshing just right with the character in what probably would become his defining role.  Forman and Zantz wanted the film to be shot in an actual mental home, which proved difficult since the film was seen as an attack on such institutions.  A suitable location was found at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, under the proviso that actual inmates had to be hired as crew members.  This wound up helping the film, as Forman had his actors shadow the inmates to research their performances.  The total cost of the movie was around four million dollars, and it was not until its completion that it found a distributor (United Artists), but it wound up making over a hundred million.  Not everyone was pleased with the film: when author Kesey's suggestions were ignored, he publicly disowned the movie and vowed never to see it.
Set in 1962, it's about RP McMurphy, who, to avoid serving a full criminal term for statutory rape at a prison, pretends to be insane and winds up in a mental home instead.  There he confronts the sadistic Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who calmly runs the ward with an iron hand.  His rebellious ways inspire many of the other inmates to act out, and things come to a head when he plans to escape with the help of an old girlfriend.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson first began his film career appearing in b movies made by the likes of Roger Corman in the late fifties and the sixties.  His breakthrough role came as a drunken small time lawyer in Dennis Hopper's 1969 cult hit EASY RIDER, and by the time of CUCKOO'S NEST he was a big star on the strength of excellent performances in films like CHINATOWN and THE LAST DETAIL.  With his lascivious grin, gravelly voice, and mercurial, often manic energy, Nicholson was a star like no other; really, how many other actors are famous for scenes where they violently lose their  tempers? For years his name has become synonymous with his slightly crazed persona, from his outright psycho in 1980's THE SHINING to his even nuttier Joker in 1989's BATMAN, up to his over the top crime boss in 2006's THE DEPARTED. (To be fair, he is capable of more subtle work, as in 1985's PRIZZI'S HONOR).  In many ways, the character of McMurphy in  CUCKOO'S NEST feels like it was written for him, and he's so entertaining to watch in it that it's hard to imagine anyone else in the role.  In his first scene, Nicholson wastes no time living up to his image, as he whoops wildly and kisses a guard for no reason only moments after being lead into the mental home.  And while the story gives him more than one chance to show his famous temper, I also enjoy the smaller moments, like when he tries to teach the other patients how to play cards or basketball.  And most importantly,  he does grow to show a genuine warmth and affection for the other patients; indeed, it is the fact that he cares about them that leads to his sad downfall at the end.
As much as Nicholson's vibrancy dominates the film, the other performances are also good: in strong contrast to Nicholson, Louis Fletcher plays the cruel Ratched with a soft voice and flat expressions that make her all the more unlikeable.  I love the way that she gazes hatefully at McMurphy for the first time while he slaps playing cards during a group session, or how she has a small but definite look of triumph when McMurphy realizes that most of the other patients are there voluntarily.  I also enjoy all of the different actors playing the inmates, who all manage to not overplay their roles, with Brad Dourif's tragic stutterer Billy really standing out.
Forman's direction is consciously straight forward and realistic using the documentary techniques he perfected in Czechoslovakia.  Really, this is one classic film with more memorable performances and dialogue than images, except for Forman's lone indulgence: the beautifully poetic last shot of Big Chief (Will Sampson) running off into the distance, which works to give the tragic story an uplifting ending, so I certainly don't object to it. 
I don't find the film perfect: one of its most famous scenes comes when McMurphy steals a bus and takes  the inmates out boat fishing.  Although many people seem to love this scene, it doesn't work for me: first of all, it seems far too easy for McMurphy to break out and steal the bus, and the comedic nature of the whole sequence seems too broad, with the characters various mental problems being played for laughs more than they are in the rest of the film.  Worst of all, I think taking the inmates out of the ward hurts the momentum of the story, which is really about that one setting and the conflict with Ratched.  But this certainly doesn't ruin the film.

Louise Fletcher

More troubling to me is the unavoidable message that seems to lurk beneath the main story of the film. Although the themes of the film may be about rebellion about the repression of the individual, with the hospital representing a microcosm of society, there is a crucial difference in the make up of that society; in the hospital, all of the patients are white men (except for  Big Chief ), who are held in check by a powerful woman, who uses black orderlies to help her maintain order.  In other words, the white male power structure is turned upside down, so of course the system has to be repressive. This is really emphasized by the way the Ratchid character is presented; while I have mentioned my admiration for Fletcher's performance, I do object to the scripting of her character.  Ratchid is portrayed as, quite simply, a completely evil woman, who coldly but clearly enjoys controlling the patients, keeping them docile with pills and soft music and denying them luxuries like watching ball games on TV or cigarettes out of sheer cruelty.   She has no real desire to cure them, and instead may even be taking a sexual pleasure in infantilizing them ("she really has you coming and going" McMurphy says at one point); when the hospital director expresses a desire to remove the clearly sane McMurphy from the hospital, it's obvious that she objects because of her desire to break McMurphy, to tame him to her will.  No attempt is made to humanize her by showing her life outside of the hospital or to even to show her expressing any warmth to her coworkers.  No, she is a straight up villain, so much so that when an enraged McMurphy reaches his breaking point and attempts to strangle her, the film seems to endorse his actions.  To me, it's hard not to see this as a criticism of putting a woman in charge of men, a troubling undercurrent indeed, one that may have been a (subconscious?) reaction to the women's rights movement of the time.   
While this all certainly raises food for thought,  the power of the story and the strength of performances still make me an admirer of the film.


It's obvious that I think this a worthy movie, but that doesn't make its victory a slam dunk; 1975 also gave John Huston's highly entertaining adventure film THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and Steven Speilberg's superlative thriller JAWS, both of which would have been just as worthy as ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, but, as with so many of the Academy's choices, it's certainly not a bad one.