One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Release Date: November 21st, 1975 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Milos Forman Actors: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Louisa Moritz, Brad Dourif
year-old R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), belligerent, lazy, and disrespectful, is sent from the Pendleton prison work farm to an Oregon mental institution for evaluation. Dr. John Spivey (Dean R. Brooks) must determine whether or not McMurphy is mentally ill; the doctor initially suspects his analysand is faking it to get out of labor. Though McMurphy’s rap sheet details five arrests for assault, with the latest a bust for statutory rape, he claims he wishes to cooperate with the head-shrinker 100%. But it’s clear that his intense dislike of authority and love of rule breaking interferes with any notion of compliance.
In no time at all, McMurphy’s presence stirs up the ward. Head nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) supervises all of the patient activities, noting that the newcomer has an obviously intrusive affect: he hopes to disturb the medical overseers, strike up bets amongst the doubtful residents, and antagonize those who won’t be persuaded by his rebelliousness. Ratched seems to get perverse glee out of her total control, especially when McMurphy tries to wrest it away. Therapy sessions allow her to subtly torment her subjects, permitting a command of every situation with even greater (borderline) corrupted dominance. Those sittings, along with medication time, are narrated by serene classical music, falsely imposing a sense of composure to the lunacy that is always ready to boil over.
After four weeks of observation, Spivey determines that McMurphy has no disorders. This is about the same time that “Mac” has had enough of Ratched, whose principal crime, other than seemingly harassing the other members, is to orchestrate the illusion of a voting democracy. The scenario is rigged to prevent the changing of regularly scheduled shifts to accommodate watching the baseball World Series (an event for which McMurphy is passionately interested). The nurse, who is commonly seen as the primary villain of the film (authority is easily morphed into evil), is disquietingly calm and emotionless, save for the occasional glimpse of a tightly pursed smirk when things go according to plan and when she personally adopts McMurphy as a new reform project. The somber, simple, superbly befitting score, with featured musical saw, glass instruments, percussion, and violins, further emphasizes the concealed serenity hidden amidst the riveting escalation of mania ignited by Mac.
Nicholson’s performance is a tour de force, showing not only range and emotion but also a leisurely informality in which he slips into the role with such genuine ease that he truly becomes his character. Fletcher is a typical example of an actress who absolutely shines in a specific part crafted for a single film – lending to very limited additional Hollywood utilization. The supporting roles are also faultless, with the wide assortment of crazies responding and reacting with thematic brilliance – highlighted by appearances from popular character actors Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Vincent Schiavelli, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, and Will Sampson as the unforgettable Chief.
Famously winning the top five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay), “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is an awe-inspiring occasion, fueled by wicked adventure and drama in a most unusual setting. Many scenes are alternatingly hopeful, hilarious, horrendous, or momentous, which varyingly amplifies the heartbreaking, powerhouse finale. It’s a rare success, and one that remains rousing even as it draws toward moments of grievous tragedy. It is, for lack of a better phrase, one of the greatest movies ever made.
– Mike Massie