ALPHABET MOVIE CLUB: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
WEEK 14: "O"
Nominees: On the Waterfront, Once, Once Upon a Time in the West, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Out of Sight
Winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Background: Adapted from Ken Kesey's 1962 novel turned successful Broadway and off-Broadway play in 1975, director Milos Forman, who was new to Hollywood after foreign success in the former Czechoslovakia, and this film went on to win the top five 1976 Oscars in just the second (after It Happened One Night, which this reviewer voted for during "I" week and you didn't) at the time and third overall (The Silence of the Lambs in 1991) "sweep" of Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay trophies at the Academy Awards. Young producer and actor (at the time) Michael Douglas was given the film rights to this by his father, Kirk, the first to play the lead role on-stage but was now too old for the film version. He got this movie made and now earned his first Oscar for his mantle to show for it.
Reprising a Broadway role of his from 1964, Jack Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a prison farm reject in 1963 Oregon who plays up his wild ways to drum up the appearance of mental illness to avoid hard labor. Hoping to cakewalk through the rest of his sentence for statutory rape, McMurphy has been brought to a mental hospital for evaluation. There, he is overseen by Dr. Spivey (Dean R. Brooks), who doesn't think he's crazy at all, and the dreaded Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the head nurse of the ward. Ratched blends underlying humiliation, unhelpful medical therapy, and inflexibility to any routine change to control an eclectic group of both clinically-admitted and self-admitted patients, including the stuttering and suicidal Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), inadequate husband Dale Harding (William Redfield, in his final feature), the insecure Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), the delusional Martini (Danny DeVito, in his film debut), the stoic and silent "Chief" (William Sampon), and a trio of bullies and bums (Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and William Duell).
McMurphy's rambunctuous, horndog, and authority rebel ways shake up the whole group in good ways and in bad. He fights protocol, befriends outsiders, gets the guys out of their comfort zones, breaks the rules, and reminds the patients that they are still men with passion and balls. Sure enough, the authority, namely Ratched and her orderlies, are not going to like that, turning this story down a more dramatic than comedic road when the lines are crossed.
Reaction: 5 STARS-- With the Alphabet Film Club's goal of spotlighting under-seen and under-rated films, Milos Forman's 1975 film is arguably the most decorated one you will see in these six months. Over time, when people go to the proverbial 1975 film yearbook, they still see Jaws first and the game-changer that it was. That's fine, but make no mistake. This film would and should still win a re-vote of those awards. Only Al Pacino's lead performance in Dog Day Afternoon constitutes a worthy challenger in the Best Actor category even 37 years later. The rest is still a sweep.
I just love how this film washes over you and sucks you in as a viewer. It's progression from quirky character comedy to thought-provoking drama is smooth and efficient. Some critics have called that arch more devolving and biting-off-more-than-it-can-chew to turn so serious. I call it stepping up to a challenge, especially when dealing with a touchy, delicate, and controversial topic like mental illness and the treatment of its patients. The biggest energy behind this is, of course, Jack Nicholson. His go-for-it R.P. McMurphy is one of the best of his many great performances. He's the centerpiece, a good one, but he's not alone.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has Nicholson in the spotlight, but it's the little people that make this movie tick. This may sound like an over-reaching superlative, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has easily one the best male ensemble performances of any movie I've ever seen. They were mostly young and middle-age unknown actors then that became go-to character actors after this film. The absolutely entrenched, unrestrained, and nuanced characterizations given by Dourif (in his "big break" Oscar-nominated performance), Redfield, Lassick, DeVito, Lloyd, Schiavelli, Duell, and Sampson blow me away. Each character is unique, unpredictable, and combine to bring a great range of performance to put alongside Jack. Without them, Nicholson has nothing to play off of but Fletcher, which is good, but not the greatness created with them included.
LESSON #1: THE VARYING DEGREES OF MENTAL ILLNESS-- The fun mini-mystery throughout the film is hedging bets on whether or not McMurphy is really certifiably crazy? Is he the real deal or just putting on a show? While you wait and wonder, you get more than a few cases to observe through the other characters. The range of disability and illness is striking.
LESSON #2: THE CONTROVERSIAL CARE TOWARDS MENTAL ILLNESS-- No matter who's crazy and who's not in the film, you will definitely wonder and question the methods of care that they receive. I know it's just a movie and a dramatization, but from medication and counseling to more extreme forms of therapy, you have to wonder what is necessary, effective, ineffective, and down right wrong.
LESSON #3: NEVER LOSING YOUR DIGNITY-- As I mentioned earlier, McMurphy is a spark to a hospital ward of dry leaves who have forgotten how their lives can burn and burn bright. He gets the other men to loosen up and see the normalcy that they've been missing. They rediscover their dignity in a place that didn't respect it or value it. That surge is empowering and easily more therapeutic than anything from Lesson #2.