I often struggle with revisiting things from my childhood, particularly movies or music that I no longer go out of my way to watch or listen to. Yeah, I still love most Pixar and The Cure or whoever, but I can’t say I’m in love with Cutthroat Island or N*Sync like I was when I was six. Some things have been a little on the fence. Fall Out Boy’s From Under the Cork Tree holds up surprisingly well, but American Beauty has aged like McDonald’s fries sitting out in the open. Because getting older means growing out of certain things, and when those certain things include works that spoke to a person at a formative time in their lives, one is tempted to let the past live in rose-colored hues.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been a real point of worry for me. I’ve seen Cuckoo’s Nest about a hundred times, 97 of which were as a 12 and 13-year-old. Miloš Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s landmark counterculture novel of the same name–which I have also loved, but have yet to re-read as an adult–is one of my first loves as a burgeoning movie person. I had always liked Jack Nicholson, and Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently cited as a classic. But going off of my memory, I was worried that Forman’s battle of wills would come off as grossly misogynistic, and maybe a little racist, that the cultural landscape had shifted out of favor from the psych ward drama.
Alas, I remain conflicted. The sins I believed that the film might suffer from are present–not nearly to the degree that I worried they would be, but they’re present, nonetheless. And yet, despite the film’s fear of women and treatment of people color, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest remains an honest-to-goodness achievement. A morally complex and layered examination of mental health, rigid conformity against unabashed anarchy, and, in the end, a story whose joy and sense of camaraderie endures, nearly a half-century later.
Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is putting on a show when he arrives at the state psychiatric hospital. McMurphy was at a work farm, convicted for statutory rape, but has been transferred for evaluation. Dr. Spivey (Dean Brooks) thinks McMurphy is faking, and tells him as much. But they keep him anyway. His ward, populated largely by voluntary patients–as well as “chronics–” McMurphy’s charismatic, roguish personality is immediately attractive to his fellow patients. And for the most part, McMurphy is content with the breezy life of Blackjack and group therapy he has taken up, growing fonder for the men around him all the while.
This all comes to a head after a minor disagreement with the ward’s head nurse, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). What follows is a series of escalations between the two. McMurphy approaches with his devil-may-care attitude, instilling a sense of rebellion into the others–including a phenomenal, pre-Peter-Finch-in-Network rant from Cheswick (Sydney Lassick). Nurse Ratched, on the other hand, wields a clinically deft touch that everyone else bends to, because they ultimately want to. McMurphy is all id: A reckless populist. Ratched is a pragmatic authoritarian. They’re both a little right, and by the end, they both make really horrible reaches.
The tensions that mount between McMurphy and Ratched are compelling on their own–the group therapy scenes being the most thrilling. But often, hanging out and getting to know these men and seeing them bounce off of one another is quite fun. And to be sure, there are things wrong with them–particularly Billy Bibbitt (Brad Douriff) and Martini (Danny DeVito)–but they are identifiable. Though even in 2019 we are more aware of mental illness and the stigmatization thereof, we very often tend to dehumanize those dealing with those types of conditions. And though the film may be arguing, to a small degree, that mental illness is relative, however one falls on that issue, the film never lets us forget that these men are people. We never even learn what they suffer from specifically, outside of vague diagnostic inferences that can be made from various characters’ behavior.
So much of this is due to the murderer’s row of great performances on display, and the enviable chemistry the cast has with each other. We like hanging out with these characters. They feel real and understood. Of course, Nicholson and Fletcher, the two Oscar winners of the bunch, are the ones who stand out. Nicholson radiates with his characteristic charm and anger. He goes big, but never ever broad. Ratched’s understated demeanor is reminiscent of Al Pacino in The Godfather: The more in control she is, the less she says or does. We can see this in Fletcher’s piercing, at-ease gaze–and we see the opposite bulging out of her skull at the film’s violent climax. And really, the film belongs to both of them. One is trying to unravel a disruptive system, while the other attempts to maintain that hierarchy.
Oddly, for as different as Nicholson and Fletcher’s performances are, and as disparate as their values are, they have identical habits, and often inscrutable motives. They’re both manipulative, selling a bill of goods to the ward. They both make immoral or unethical decisions, going too far–again, particularly by the finale. Though chemistry is often described in terms of how well two characters get along in a conventional sense, Nicholson and Fletcher have such a palpable disdain for one another, and they bounce off each other with such contempt for one another. The way one loves watching a believable romance, the same can be said in the seamless rivalry between McMurphy and Ratched. And though the film is somewhat tilted in McMurphy’s favor–insofar as he is a disruption to a system that is failing or suppressing those that are supposed to be getting help, and we are rooted in the perspective of those captive to that system–Forman keeps a solid balance, always testing both sides, always keeping the audience a little uneasy.
And that humanity extends into the craft of Cuckoo’s Nest. The entire film is shot on location, in an actual hospital, the white, clinical blankness and tidiness unmistakable. Haskell Wexler’s legendary eye is less painterly or decadent, but is, rather, a sort of vérité approach, one that feels present. I’ve seen Cuckoo’s Nest dozens of times over the years, but the energy of the film has never waned even a little. What really stands out is Jack Nietzsche’s remarkable, resonant score, particularly in the manner his drums, gentle strings, and weeping, almost longing musical saw, coalesce, despite being otherwise disparate instruments–reflective, naturally, of the ragtag group of patients that make up the heart of the picture. There’s a calculated rawness on display, one that gets under the skin.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, in the end, a lot of things. Forman’s picture is a funny, often uplifting, sometimes shocking story. And though the politics are questionable–women are either nurses who are complicit in the subjugation of their patients, or they’re prostitutes, and practically all of the people of color are subservient grunts to Nurse Ratched–Cuckoo’s Nest just works. Perhaps I’m biased by my own nostalgia, or maybe I want to like the film so badly that I’m willing to look past the film’s unflattering depiction of women and people of color, but I cannot shake just how profoundly winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is. A nonconformist fable that lures a person in is a hell of an irony, but, in all fairness, a welcome surprise.
Rating – 9.8/10