- Director: Milos Forman
- Writers: Lawrence Haubman and Bo Goldman, based on a novel by Ken Kesey
- Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny DeVito
- Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#33), 5 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Adapted Screenplay), 4 additional Academy Award nominations (Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score)
- Where to Watch: Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV
This film is one of only three in history to win the all of the “Big Five” Oscars, for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay (the other two are It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs). It stars Jack Nicholson, in what many critics believe to be his best performance, as McMurphy, a convict who gets himself transferred from a work farm to the Oregon State Mental Hospital in an apparent effort to get out of work detail, and gets more than he bargained for in Nurse Ratched, portrayed in an iconic performance by Louise Fletcher.
On a surface level, this has never been my thing. Two hours with realistically-protrayed crazy people sounds like torture, and there certainly are moments of that in this movie. For me, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is still very interesting for two reasons. One is in those scenes of joy, particularly for me, the boat trip in the middle of the movie, where McMurphy brings light into everyone’s lives by trusting them (wrongly) to be normal humans. The other reason, and I think the biggest reason for both the film’s initial success and its endurance, is the way the film works very transparently as an allegory. It pits McMurphy, representing the chaotic counterculture, against the oppressive, banal forces of bureaucracy that cannot abide it, represented by Nurse Ratched.
This was why director Milos Forman was a perfect match for this movie. He had become an internationally-acclaimed director for his early films made in his native Czechoslovakia, and then happened to be in Paris at the time of the Prague Spring in 1968 and decided to defect. He stated that “the Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched.” The producers of this film, seeking to bring Ken Kesey’s 1962 hit novel to the screen, hired Forman based on his work in The Firemen’s Ball, which both critics and the Czech authorities saw as a veiled satire of life under communism, and gave him his big break in America. Despite garnering a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for Czechoslovakia, The Firemen’s Ball remained banned in its home country until the fall of the Iron Curtain. Forman then went on to make another Best Picture winner, Amadeus, and received a second Best Director Oscar twenty-one years after his first for The People vs. Larry Flynt.
Another reason this movie works so well is the great casting and performances. In addition to Nicholson and Fletcher, this movie launched the Hollywood careers of a handful of long-time character actors, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Brad Dourif. This also marked the debut performance of Will Sampson, who plays the enormous, apparently deaf and dumb Native American “Chief.” He had never acted before and was found by a friend of one of the screenwriters who owned a car dealership on a reservation and had been asked to tell his friend if he saw anyone who might be big enough to play the part.
The story’s enduring popularity likely has something to do with its transparent allegory of the counterculture versus the oppressive authorities. This story rang true in 1962, in 1975, and still rings true today. But seeing the story as a parable of good versus evil makes the movie out to be simpler than it actually is. While we’re clearly supposed to root for McMurphy, he’s in prison in the first place for statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. He’s not a good guy. He mostly helps the other prisoners almost by accident, primarily, it seems, because he misunderstands them. McMurphy maintains throughout that the other prisoners aren’t actually “any crazier than your average guy on the street,” even after he finds out that most of the other patients are there voluntarily. He interjects a source of chaos into the asylum’s world, but he doesn’t actually understand anyone there, especially Nurse Ratched.
This comes to a head at the film’s climax, when McMurphy seems to think that Billy (Dourif, a full quarter century before the other role I primarily know him for, Grima Wormtongue in The Two Towers) just needs to get laid, and is flabbergasted when he ends up killing himself. For her part, Nurse Ratched is actually right about a lot of things, but her inherent banality means she cannot deal with McMurphy and what he represents, even in the slightest. She can only relate to McMurphy by destroying him.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has a little bit too much shock therapy to be a movie I come back to frequently. However, it’s definitely a film that comes up in my mind often, and is still just as relevant today as it was at the time it hit theaters. That is certainly one of the marks of a great movie, far moreso than any number of Oscars.