#536) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

#536) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

OR “Cool Hand Jack”

Directed by Miloš Forman

Written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, and the stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman.

Class of 1993

The Plot: A mental institution in 1963 Oregon welcomes new patient Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a statutory rapist faking insanity to avoid penal labor. Used to defying authority, McMurphy meets his match with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the ward with an iron fist. Despite his anarchic energy, McMurphy actually makes a positive impact on his fellow patients, including Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), the deaf-mute Native American that the staff has given up on.

Why It Matters: The NFR lauds director Forman, the cast’s “outstanding performances” and the “masterfully adapted” screenplay. The write-up also describes the film as “a hard-hitting and wry condemnation of the Establishment and its ethos of conformity.”

But Does It Really?: Hmm…good question. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is revered by many film groups as one of the best movies of all time, and it’s very good, but maybe there’s a little overhyping going on? Don’t get me wrong, everything about this movie is solid, from the pitch-perfect ensemble to Forman’s naturalistic directing, but it didn’t wow me at the level I hoped it would. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is a great movie with a legacy more than deserving of NFR recognition, but maybe I just need to be in a better mood before calling it an untouchable classic.

Everybody Gets One: Despite not actually appearing in this movie (and being the namesake of my oft-mentioned age gap scale), this is the only NFR representation for movie star/“Cuckoo’s” producer Michael Douglas. Michael’s father Kirk Douglas bought the film rights to “Cuckoo’s” in the early ’60s, and starred in the stage version on Broadway. After spending a decade unable to secure a studio backer, and realizing he was too old to play McMurphy himself, Kirk sold the film rights to Michael, who co-produced this movie with Saul Zaentz’s Fantasy Films. “Cuckoo’s” is also the only NFR appearance for the majority of the cast, including Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif.

Wow, That’s Dated: Unfortunately we don’t have time to throughly delve into the complex issue of mental health in America. Suffice it to say that while the kind of mental institutions seen in this film have given way to more humane mental health centers, we still have a long way to go to efficiently and effectively handle our country’s ongoing health crises.

Title Track: The film’s title is derived from the children’s folk rhyme “Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn”, a counting rhyme a la “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe”. Coincidentally, in some versions the last line is “Make your way home, Jack”.

Seriously, Oscars?: Second only to “Jaws” at the box office (albeit a distant second), “Cuckoo’s Nest” led the Oscar pack with nine nominations. Despite heavy competition from “Jaws”, “Nashville” and “Dog Day Afternoon“, “Cuckoo’s” became the first movie since “It Happened One Night” to sweep the Oscar’s Big Five categories: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. Nicholson’s Best Actor win was his first after five nominations in six years.

Other notes 

  • Turns out this was a particularly tense production. In addition to the inherent hassles of on-location shooting (in this case Oregon State Hospital), cinematographer Haskell Wexler was fired halfway through production over creative differences with Miloš Forman. Wexler’s replacement, Bill Butler, ended up serving as the middleman between Forman and Jack Nicholson when they stopped speaking to each other. These and other delays caused the film to go over-schedule and to double its budget.
  • This is the film debut for much of the cast, many of whom were either stage actors or actual citizens and hospital employees in Salem, Oregon. Among the professional actors, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd. Was anyone in this movie not on “Taxi“?
  • As always with older movies, my apologies to Native Americans everywhere. At least Will Sampson was actually Native American (Muscogee). And a shoutout to the Kalapuya people of Salem, Oregon, because why not?
  • While not his crowning achievement as an actor, Nicholson is very good in this; a fine balance of his trademark lunacy (for lack of a better term) and a more sincere leader for this group. Like many of Jack’s bad boys, you root for McMurphy, even though you really shouldn’t. Plus this has got to be Jack’s last somewhat restrained performance before veering off into caricature territory. Next stop, “The Shining”!
  • Wow Louise Fletcher is on fire here. Her Ratched is manipulative without being a cartoon villain, with some nice subtleties to question the character’s motives. Plus Fletcher says more with one icy stare than most actors do with their entire body. I’m still not sure Ratched is a “lead” performance, but Fletcher definitely deserves all the accolades she got.
  • The fishing scene is a highlight; it’s fun watching all of these characters out in the “real” world. Side note: Blink and you’ll miss Nicholson’s then-partner Anjelica Huston as one of the extras watching the boat return to the dock.
  • Another highlight for me is the basketball game with Chief as your MVP. Looks like all those Lakers games are finally paying off for Jack.
  • The scene where McMurphy and Chief get electroconvulsive therapy is a bit intense. Not “Exorcist” angiography intense, but up there.
  • Here’s a question: It’s established that part of the film occurs in October 1963 when McMurphy listens to the World Series. Later on, Christmas decorations are set up in the hospital. This begs the question: did they gloss over the Kennedy assassination? Did anyone tell them?
  • Speaking of, here’s another movie for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list.
  • Scatman Crothers makes a fun contrast as the night shift aide, taking a bribe from McMurphy in exchange for booze and female companionship. But hey, at least this went better than that other time Nicholson and Crothers tried to work together.
  • Billy Bibbit doesn’t get a lot of screentime, but his final showdown with Ratched and subsequent breakdown is worth the trip out. Brad Dourif knocks it out of the park in his film debut, and he received an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor.
  • Despite everything that goes wrong for these characters, Chief’s ending is surprisingly uplifting, and the film is bookended by two lovely nature vistas and Jack Nitzsche’s excellent use of the band saw.

Legacy 

  • “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a hit with critics, audiences, and everyone who wasn’t original author Ken Kesey. Dissatisfied with the “butchering” of his book (the novel is from Chief’s perspective, not McMurphy’s), Kesey sued Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for breaching their verbal agreement about the adaptation’s faithfulness. Kesey settled, and claimed he changed the channel whenever “Cuckoo’s” was on TV (a similar claim has been attributed to both Stephen King and Roald Dahl).
  • References and spoofs of “Cuckoo’s Nest” in pop culture typically center around either the title, the main characters, or the ending. As always, bonus points to a parody with an original cast member, such as Danny DeVito’s send-up in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.
  • Because every IP needs an origin story these days, the Netflix series “Ratched” stars Sarah Paulson as a younger Nurse Ratched, delving into the character’s evil beginnings. Paulson’s always great, but I have to ask WHO IS THE AUDIENCE FOR THIS?
  • The stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest” makes the regional theater rounds pretty regularly. A 2001 production by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre made its way to Broadway, but I’m always partial to the production my high school put on my freshman year. I played Billy Bibbit, and the experience has caused me to see this dark, unsettling movie as an old, warm friend.

Further Viewing: “Cuckoo’s Nest” was filmed in Oregon during the winter/spring of 1975, meaning Jack Nicholson missed the occasional stop on his “Chinatown” awards season tour (he attended the Oscars that year sporting his semi-shaved haircut for “Cuckoo’s”). Unable to attend the BAFTA ceremony, Nicholson pre-taped an acceptance speech on the set of “Cuckoo’s”, with the rest of the cast in support.

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