40 for 40 – #11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One of the most critically-acclaimed films of all time sits at #11.
Funny, dramatic, upsetting and hilarious – all at the same time.
Draped in Oscars, its performances are now legendary, as is its lasting legacy.
So… come fly with me…
#11. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif. Directed by Milos Forman.
It’s not often that a film sweeps the ‘Big Five’ at the Academy Awards; winning Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture.
But One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest did exactly that.
And deservedly so.
Milos Forman’s screen adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel (after a successful run as a play starring Kirk Douglas), was released in 1975, a time where anti-heroes had become the norm, replacing the notion of black-and-white good guys and bad guys to paint movie protagonists and antagonists with several shades of grey.
There is perhaps no greater example of this than the character of Randle Patrick McMurphy, played to perfection by the iconic Jack Nicholson.
In my opinion, this is Nicholson’s greatest role. His performance as Mac, the edgy, loose-cannon, carries the entire film. His interactions with the supporting characters, both heroes and villains, weave a complex tale of a rebel trapped way over his head, and the madmen he inspires to redefine themselves in the face of tyranny.
Mental health in the seventies (let alone the fifties, in which this movie is set) was not attended to in the same way it is today, and institutions were often viewed more as jails rather than hospitals.
That is certainly the case in this film. Even so, the lure of serving (what he thinks will be) the remainder of his criminal sentence anywhere other than prison is too sweet for Mac to pass up, and after indulging some of his more ‘colourful’ personality disorders, he soon finds himself within his own ‘cuckoo’s nest’.
He is quickly introduced to ‘the Acutes’, a group of patients designated as ‘curable’ by the powers that be, including the emotional Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), the quarrelsome Taber (Christopher Lloyd), child-like Martini (Danny DeVito) and the mistrustful Harding (William Redfield). However, the two men most influential on Mac’s new life are the stuttering Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) and supposed deaf mute, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson).
The role of Billy is easily Brad Dourif’s greatest. His performance is outstanding and could very easily have been rewarded with a Best Supporting Actor Oscar to add a sixth Academy Award to this movie’s list of achievements.
At its core, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a life-affirming story about the human spirit and the need to be free. Not just physically, but emotionally, whether that is standing up to your inner demons, confronting those that wish to contain you, or simply hurling a hydrotherapy fountain through a window.
More on that later…
While this movie contains one of cinema’s greatest anti-heroes in Mac, it also holds the distinction of wielding one of the best villains of all time. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) has become synonymous with overbearing authority figures, in no small part to Fletcher’s incredible performance.
By today’s standards, ignoring the setting of the 1950s, Nurse Ratched could be seen as a classic case of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. She is all about the power. She must at all times be seen as the authoritarian. Her rule is law and her decisions, unquestionable.
On her ward, she is God.
The head-to-head between Mac and Ratched begins almost immediately, when Mac watches intently during his first group therapy session. He looks on as Ratched passive-aggressively instigates a hostile verbal disagreement between several patients.
Ratched seems particularly focused on Billy, again systematically luring him into emotional distress. The mere mention of his mother strikes fear into Billy like nothing else, and this fear is what Ratched uses to dominate him.
At first, Mac is amused by the pandemonium, but as things quickly become upsetting, Mac sees Ratched for what she really is. Despite his concerns, Mac dismisses Ratched’s power at first. He sees her clout as something to be challenged. An opponent to overcome. A game to be won.
Thanks to Mac’s antics, little by little, Ratched loses her hold over the Acutes, as they begin to question not only her methods, but also her authority.
But things quickly change.
The request to watch the World Series on television is one of the first battles between Mac and Ratched. Her hold over the ward is so strong that most of the men are afraid to vote with Mac to decide whether or not they can change their own policy and watch the baseball game.
Freedom is a major theme of the film. One representation of this is the hydrotherapy fountain. When Mac insists he can lift it and hurt it through the window to escape, he is dealt a crushing blow. The reality of the situation hits him like a tonne of bricks. Not only does he discover he cannot even budge the heavy hydrotherapy unit, but he begins to understand the true nature of his situation.
His line, “But, I tried, didn’t I?” speaks volumes.
When Mac again sits in on the group therapy sessions, he can already see how things have changed among the Acutes, and then continues to encourage their behaviour.
Even Cheswick can see what Ratched is doing to Billy and the group. It’s clear that Mac’s influence on him has stirred his more rebellious tendencies, seen when he proposes a second vote on whether or not to watch the World Series. But even after Mac painstakingly generates the 10th and deciding vote (from Chief of all people), Ratched still spitefully denies Mac his victory.
This leads to one of the best scenes of the film, when a defiant Mac re-enacts a pantomime version of the ball game anyway, leading the Acutes in a not-so-subtle Spartacus-like rebellion. And all to the sounds of Ratched’s symphonic music, no less.
This scene is crucial to the film because it’s not only a turning point in the battle of wills between Mac and Ratched, but it forces both characters to up their game.
And it seems Mac is only warming up.
When he manages to steal the institution’s chartered bus and take the Acutes on an impromptu fishing trip, his influence on them grows tenfold. Especially with Billy as he takes a liking to Mac’s lady friend, Candy (Mews Small). On repeat viewings, this interaction with Candy sets up a grim foreshadowing of Billy’s grisly fate.
Ratched then intervenes when it seems Mac is going to be sent back to prison. Under the guise of wanting to help Mac with his anti-social behaviour, she ensures total control over all aspects of his life by keeping him on her ward. It’s a subtle little scene that can be interpreted many ways, but I like to think Ratched knows exactly what she’s doing. She must defeat Mac if she’s any chance of regaining her power, and keeping him on the ward is the first step.
The later reveal that almost all of the Acutes are in the institution on a voluntary basis shatters Mac’s perception of the ward. When he says how none of the men are truly ‘crazy’ and could leave at any time, it triggers Cheswick into enquiring about his cigarettes, which escalates into an explosive outburst that rapidly turns physical. It also leads to the film’s most disturbing moment: the electroconvulsive therapy.
As Mac, Chief and Cheswick wait in the halls, we (like Mac) aren’t initially aware of what’s going to happen.
But Cheswick knows what’s coming.
As he is dragged away screaming, we are left with Mac and Chief, and the movie’s massive revelation – the Chief is not the deaf mute he appears to be.
Chief is probably the most complex character in the movie. Unlike most of the Acutes, he is a man forcefully committed to the institution, yet largely ignored by its staff. Chief is presented as a foreboding figure at first, due to his size, but Mac sidles up to him straight away and begins to speak to Chief like an actual person, even if it is initially for self-serving reasons.
The basketball game between the Acutes and the orderlies is crucial in Chief’s character arc and provides a marvellous scene for Sampson to play. As he scores the basket on one end of the court, then makes his way to the other end to block the orderlies’ shots, Chief’s demeanour quickly shifts from one of basic participation to outright joy and best of all, pride.
With Chief now trusting him with his secret, Mac enters his new treatment with confidence, unaware of the horror that awaits him.
Thanks to Nicholson’s performance, the shock-treatment is upsetting to watch, knowing that many misunderstood or mentally unwell people really were once exposed to such a barbaric practice. It would also be enough to break most people and force them to comply with Ratched’s will. It certainly has that affect on Cheswick. Even Chief seems to have reverted to his solemn, silent state when we see him back on the ward.
But not Mac. As he strolls back into the ward like a zombie, we as viewers wonder what’s really been done to him. We share the Acutes’ concern when it seems Mac may have been reduced to nothing more than a shell. Like the Billy / Candy situation, it’s another grim moment of foreshadowing when you go back and rewatch the film.
In the end, Mac shines through and wins yet another round against Ratched, as even the pains of his latest ‘treatment’ aren’t enough to break him. The delighted reactions of the Acutes contrast the contempt etched all over Ratched’s face and it’s obvious that she isn’t done with him yet.
The final act of the film truly is the ultimate showdown between Mac and Ratched. It all begins when Mac enacts his plans for a late-night party, bribing night-watchman, Turkle (Scatman Crothers). When Candy returns with a friend in tow, the hi-jinks sky-rocket into an all-out hedonistic affair.
Billy is the most affected by the party, especially after sleeping with Candy. When we finally see Billy the following morning, his stutter is all-but gone. So is his meek persona, replaced with one far more confident as he actually begins to stand up to Ratched.
Until she mentions his mother…
His stutter immediately returns, now worse than ever, and the fear of his mother learning what he’s done (as if there was something wrong with it) breaks Billy’s already-fragile mental state. So much so, when he’s locked away to await the doctor’s arrival, (for a session of implied electroconvulsive therapy) we get the film’s most tragic moment when Billy is pushed to suicide by Ratched’s veiled threats.
These scenes really drive home the whole basis of the Mac / Ratched dynamic. Despite seeing first hand how Billy’s interlude with Candy has actually helped him, Ratched puts him down and begins to play mind games with him, whipping him back to his ‘unwell’ state in order to better control him. Mac being Mac, upon seeing Billy dead, completely snaps. The time for games is over, as he tries to dish out his own brand of ‘justice’. For the first time in the film, we see just how dangerous Mac can actually be when he violently strangles Ratched to the point of near-death and is only stopped by the intervention of one of the orderlies.
If I was making a list of the greatest endings in the history of motion pictures, I don’t think I could name too many that would top the final moments of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Seeing Mac lobotomised (for real, this time) is heart-wrenching. Ratched’s final blow against him is to rob him of everything that makes him whole, leaving him as nothing more than a vegetative husk. At this point, it seems Ratched has finally won, and we as viewers are almost at rock bottom.
We share Chief’s anguish, but the lows of watching a catatonic Mac being put out of his misery are immediately replaced by the highs of what comes next. When Chief fulfils Mac’s earlier desire to lift and hurl the hydrotherapy fountain through the window to escape, it is one of the most uplifting scenes ever put to film.
As Chief runs off into the woods, we join Taber in cheering on his actions. Chief is finally free, physically and emotionally. Thanks to Mac, the Chief has found himself once more.
Nurse Ratched (complete with scratchy voice and neck brace) has changed, too. She has had her superhuman aura taken away and is now speaking to her patients in a much less abrasive fashion. They no longer fear her, and instead, she has to treat them like human beings.
In the end, despite his death – Mac is the winner.
Many films are lauded as being great or must-see, but in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I feel that its incredible, almost-universal critical acclaim is warranted. Milos Forman gave us a movie that hits all the right notes at exactly the right times. We get two (if not three or even four) Oscar-worthy acting performances, one from an all-time legend of the craft.
Cuckoo’s Nest also redefined the nature of protagonists and villains. It provides a Greek Chorus-like crew of supporting characters, and effortlessly switches between drama and comedy like the best written Shakespeare plays.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m crazy.
In which case… wanna go fishing?
Rating: 5 out of 5 stolen boats.
Favourite Moment: Chief escapes.
Honourable Mention: The ‘baseball game’.
Next week: #10 – “Just because you ARE a character, doesn’t mean you HAVE character…”
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