Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) is one of the greatest American films of all time - a $4.4 million dollar effort directed by Czech Milos Forman. Its allegorical theme is set in the world of an authentic mental hospital (Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon), a place of rebellion exhibited by a energetic, flamboyant, wise-guy anti-hero against the Establishment, institutional authority and status-quo attitudes (personified by the patients' supervisory nurse). [Note: Forman himself noted that the asylum was a metaphor for the Soviet Union (embodied as Nurse Ratched) and the desire to escape.] Expressing his basic human rights and impulses, the protagonist protests against heavy-handed rules about watching the World Series, and illegally stages both a fishing trip and a drinking party in the ward - leading to his own paralyzing lobotomy.

Jack Nicholson's acting persona as the heroic rebel McMurphy, who lives free or dies (through an act of mercy killing), had earlier been set with his performances in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). The mid-70s baby-boomers' counter-culture was ripe for a film dramatizing rebellion and insubordination against oppressive bureaucracy and an insistence upon rights, self-expression, and freedom.

The role of the sexually-repressed, domineering Nurse Ratched was turned down by five actresses - Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Ellen Burstyn, and Angela Lansbury - until Louise Fletcher accepted casting (in her debut film) only a week before filming began. And actor James Caan was also originally offered the lead role of McMurphy, and Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were considered as well. The entire film was shot in sequence, except for the fishing scene (shot last).

It surprised everyone by becoming enormously profitable - the seventh-highest-grossing film ever (at its time), bringing in almost $300 million worldwide. The independently-produced film also swept the Oscars: it was the first film to take all the major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress) since Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). It was nominated for nine Academy Awards in total: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson with his first win after losing the previous year for Chinatown (1974)), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler), Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture, Best Score (Jack Nitzsche) and Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif). "Cuckoo's Nest" beat out tough competition for Best Picture by Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Altman's Nashville (1975).

The film's unauthorized screenplay (by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman) was restructured and adapted from author Ken Kesey's 1962 popular, best-selling novel of the same name so that it would appeal to contemporary audiences. [Kesey wrote the first version of the film's screenplay.] The film's title was derived from a familiar, tongue-twisting Mother's Goose children's folk song (or nursery rhyme) called Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn. The ones that fly east and west are diametrically opposed to each other and represent the two combatants in the film. The one that flies over the cuckoo's nest [the mental hospital filled with "cuckoo" patients] is the giant, 'deaf-mute' Chief:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn;
Wire, briar, limber lock,
Three geese in a flock.
One flew east,
And one flew west,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.

The novel was originally dramatized on Broadway (an adapted play by Dale Wasserman) beginning in 1963 with actor Kirk Douglas starring in the lead role as McMurphy and Gene Wilder as stuttering Billy Bibbit. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the novel, but couldn't convince film studios to produce the film. Many years after its short theatrical run, Douglas transferred the rights to his son, actor/producer Michael Douglas, who co-produced the United Artists film with Saul Zaentz. Michael Douglas had considered playing the starring role, but by the time of the film's production, he judged himself too old.

Kesey had derived most of the novel's secondary characters from real-life psychiatric ward patients at a VA hospital (in Menlo Park, CA) where he had once worked in a night job in the late 50s. (In the novel, McMurphy was a stocky redhead with a poorly-stitched gash across his cheekbone and nose. And 6' 8" tall, 'mute' native American Chief Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic, narrated the story and was the central character in the novel, providing hallucinatory images of an all-powerful, all-seeing bureaucratic 'harvesting machine' designed to foster complete social integration - a Combine, that would squelch all individuality and create a compliant society (both within the hospital and in the wider society). Those who were non-conforming would be relegated to a correctional facility for repair or removal. Kesey was so incensed by the change in the perspective of the story-telling (away from Chief Bromden's first-person perspective) and other changes in the script that he sued the producers.)

Plot Synopsis

The film's credits play under an Oregonian wilderness scene at dawn, as a car's headlights move across the screen. A black-coated supervisory nurse, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) (known as Big Nurse in the novel) arrives at the locked, security ward of a state mental hospital [on location in Salem, Oregon at the Oregon State Hospital/Asylum], where patient inmates, nurses, and orderlies attend to early morning medications. Pills are dispensed from the Nurses' Station, a large booth with sliding glass panels.

An energetic, swaggering, wisecracking, non-conformist, rebellious patient/prisoner Randle Patrick (R. P.) "Mac" McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), 38 years old, is escorted into the ward where he meets some of the bizarre, memorable patients/inmates (most of whom are voluntarily committed):

  • "Chief" Bromden, aka "Broom" (Creek Indian Will Sampson in his film debut), a silent, dignified, huge and towering Indian giant - a "deaf and dumb Indian" "as big as a god-damn tree trunk" - with a father blinded after many years of alcoholism
  • Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif in his film debut), a pathetic, incessantly stuttering, paranoid boychild, thirty-year old - shy, virginal, impressionable, and deathly afraid of his mother
  • Dale Harding (William Redfield), an ineffectual, rationalizing intellectual - relatively sane but unable to get over his wife's betrayal and adultery when she "seeks attention elsewhere"
  • Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), an insecure neurotic lacking self-confidence
  • Martini (Danny De Vito in one of his earliest roles), a short, smiling with an immature personality
  • Taber (Christopher Lloyd in his film debut), a cynical, trouble-making sadist

Dr. Spivey (real hospital superintendent Dr. Dean Brooks), the head doctor at the institution, explains to McMurphy why he has been admitted from a prison work farm - reciting various labels applied to him:

Dr. Spivey: It said you've been belligerent, talked when unauthorized, been resentful in attitude toward work in general, that you're lazy...
McMurphy: Chewin' gum in class, ha, ha...?
Dr. Spivey: Well, the real reason that you've been sent over here is because they wanted you to be determine whether or not you are mentally ill. This is the real reason.

With his logical mind and a bent against bureaucratic illogic, McMurphy offers his own assessment: "Well, as near as I can figure out, it's 'cause I, uh, fight and f--k too much." The doctor reminds McMurphy of his five arrests for assault, to which McMurphy replies: "Five fights, huh? Rocky Marciano's got forty and he's a millionaire." The crime of statutory rape put him into jail:

But Doc, she was fifteen years old, going on thirty-five, Doc, and, uh, she told me she was eighteen and she was, uh, very willing, you know what I mean...I practically had to take to sewin' my pants shut. But, uh between you and me, uh, she might have been fifteen, but when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of ya, I don't think it's crazy at all now and I don't think you do either...No man alive could resist that, and that's why I got into jail to begin with. And now they're telling me I'm crazy over here because I don't sit there like a goddamn vegetable. Don't make a bit of sense to me. If that's what's bein' crazy is, then I'm senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko. But no more, no less, that's it.

The prison officials think he's been "fakin' it," pretending to be insane to get himself transferred out of the hard work details of the prison work farm. McMurphy actually admits that he is sane: "I'm a god-damn marvel of modern science." But he agrees to cooperate during a period of evaluation, study, and treatment of his condition:

I'm here to cooperate with ya a hundred percent. A hundred percent. I'll be just right down the line with ya, you watch. 'Cause I think we ought to get to the bottom of R. P. McMurphy.

McMurphy is assigned to a ward supervised by a consistent, bureaucratic authoritarian named Nurse Mildred Ratched and soon senses he must battle her, antagonized by her emasculating, slightly sadistic, and domineering attitude in a chaotic group therapy session. The scene ends with her powerful, yet placid and internalized, self-satisfied smile. With controlled but manic lunacy, the new misfit patient brings life to the dead atmosphere of the mental institution in a number of scenes, winning a number of rounds over his arch-enemy.

While the non-restricted patients board a field trip bus during a restorative outdoor exercise period, he teaches those left behind, including the Chief, an "old Indian game" - basketball, in a fenced-in court. "It's called, uh, put the ball in the hole." On the shoulders of Bancini (Josip Elic), a Frankenstein-like inmate, he demonstrates how to dunk the ball in the hoop. With a cool, emotionally controlled look, Nurse Ratched views his antics from the ward's window.

With card-shark skill, he introduces card games (with pornographically illustrated cards) and black jack gambling (betting cigarettes) to the dull monotonous routine of the inmates.

First with subtle mind games, he rebels against correct behavior and the rules of the hospital laid down by the self-righteous and cooly-controlled Nurse, unwilling to yield to her power over his life-affirming spirit and cunning manhood. McMurphy violates one of the cardinal rules by entering the Nurse's Station to turn down the loud volume on the piped-in music. When told he is forbidden, he again makes his request outside the station, but she refuses: "That music is for everyone, Mr. McMurphy." He calmly asks the assistant Nurse Pilbow (Mimi Sarkisian) about the ingredients of his "horse-pill" medications during one of the compulsory lineups for pill delivery:

But I don't like the idea of taking something if I don't know what it is...(joking) I don't want anyone to try and slip me salt-peter. You know what I mean?

For his resistance and questioning of the rules, he is accused by those in power of being upset: "Don't get upset, Mr. McMurphy." When the Nurse offers an alternative method to taking pills orally, McMurphy decides to take his pill (but then in a symbolic, antagonistic gesture doesn't swallow it.)

The patients are organized and controlled through a rigid set of authoritarian rules and regulations that McMurphy questions: "God Almighty, she's got you guys comin' or goin'. What do you think she is, some kind of a champ or somethin'?" The contest of wills with the Nurse is played out as a struggle to win the other inmates over to his way of thinking and behaving by establishing a political majority, to lead various group insurrections, and to emphasize how they have been denied their freedom of will:

I bet in one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don't know whether to s--t or wind her wristwatch.

In the next group therapy meeting, McMurphy begs Nurse Ratched to rearrange the "carefully worked out schedule" of the work detail so that the inmates can watch the opener of the 1963 World Series baseball game (at Yankee Stadium) on television, adding: "a little change never hurt huh? A little variety?" To intimidate his liberating challenge to the leadership of the ward and to cause no disruption to the ward's precise schedule, she refuses: "Some men on the ward take a long, long time to get used to the schedule. Change it now and they might find it very disturbing."

The Nurse proposes a vote to decide the matter - "let majority rule" - already knowing that authority and power are on her side against the slavish, malleable, drugged-out patients. Only three votes support McMurphy's request and he can't believe it, envoking a political comparison: "What is this crap?...What is the matter with you guys? Come on! Be good Americans."

When a Monopoly game between the inmates in the tub room leads to a heated argument, McMurphy sprays the inmates with water to cool them down, and then tells Harding, one of those which didn't vote for his request for a rearrangement of the schedule:

...stay all wet Harding, huh, cause I'm goin' downtown and watch the World Series anyway. Anybody want to come with me?

Again, con-man McMurphy bets the patients that he can escape incarceration by lifting and smashing his way out of the ward with a heavy, marble-sided watering station. He plans to go downtown with Cheswick and "sit down at a bar, wet our whistles and watch the ballgame. And that's the bet! Now does anybody want any of it? Huh?" Harding, contemptuously nicknamed "Hard-on" by McMurphy, gambles $25 that McMurphy isn't strong enough. McMurphy moves Billy out of the way before attempting to do the lift:

Get out of my way son, you're usin' my oxygen.

In a dramatic, riveting, and memorable scene, McMurphy strains and struggles valiantly to pick up the tremendous weight, gritting his teeth - but he cannot lift it. As he strides from the room, he turns toward the patients, refusing to acknowledge defeat, maintaining by his example that it is better to try and fail than to meekly accept an unsatisfactory status quo:

But I tried, didn't I? God-damn it. At least I did that.

During the next therapy session, Nurse Ratched determinedly presses Billy with questions about emotional disturbances resulting from a domineering mother. Hiding beneath her own cool demeanor are many neurotic, sexually-repressed feelings. By controlling the patients, she zealously serves her own ego needs rather than the therapeutic needs of the patients. Cheswick proposes another vote about watching the second game of the World Series, thinking it would be a better therapeutic alternative. McMurphy encourages his usually compliant and spiritless fellow patients:

I wanna see the hands. Come on. Which one of you nuts has got the guts?

Nine votes are counted in the therapy group and McMurphy senses victory in this round over her. But Nurse Ratched refuses to have the other inmates won over to him and becomes the spoiler. She changes the rules to defeat the proposal:

Nurse: There are eighteen patients on this ward, Mr. McMurphy. And you have to have a majority to change ward policy. So you gentlemen can put your hands down now.
McMurphy: (turning and gesturing toward other men out of hearing range on the ward floor) You're tryin' to tell me that you're gonna count these, these poor son-of-a-bitches, they don't know what we're talkin' about.
Nurse: Well, I have to disagree with you, Mr. McMurphy. These men are members of the ward just as you are.

Nurse Ratched adjourns the meeting and closes the voting session as McMurphy struggles and fails to get the severely-disturbed patients to join in the vote. When the Chief slowly raises his hand, McMurphy is elated, but the steely-willed Nurse rejects the vote of 10 to 8 from behind the glass panel of the Nurse's Station, and forbids them to watch television. She claims that the vote when the meeting adjourned was 9 to 9:

McMurphy: The Chief voted. Now, will you please turn on the television set?
Nurse: (she opens the glass panel) Mr. McMurphy, the meeting was adjourned and the vote was closed.
McMurphy: But the vote was 10 to 8. The Chief, he's got his hand up! Look!
Nurse: No, Mr. McMurphy. When the meeting was adjourned, the vote was 9 to 9.
McMurphy: (exasperated) Aw come on, you're not gonna say that now. You're not gonna say that now. You're gonna pull that hen-house s--t now when the vote...the Chief just voted - it was 10 to 9. Now I want that television set turned on, right now. (The Nurse slides the glass panel across the front of the Nurse's Station, shutting out his protest.)

In the most well-remembered sequence in the film, McMurphy subversively pretends to be enjoying the second World Series baseball game on television in a contest of wills with the Nurse. He inventively re-creates the play-by-play excitement of the game. His excitement proves infectious - the other patients join him and look up at the dark television screen that reflects their faces - they almost believe that the game is real.

In another evaluation session with Dr. Spivey after a four-week stay, McMurphy responds to a question about whether he likes it at the hospital. McMurphy explains how he has been antagonized by an emasculating, domineering female Nurse:

McMurphy: Well, that f--kin' Nurse, man...She, uh, she ain't honest.
Dr. Spivey: Aw now, look. Miss Ratched's one of the finest nurses we've got in this institution.
McMurphy: Ha! Well I don't wanna break up the meeting or nothin', but she's somethin' of a c--t, ain't she, Doc?
Dr. Spivey: How do you mean that?
McMurphy: She likes a rigged game, you know what I mean?

The doctor offers his diagnosis of McMurphy's mental health state: "I don't see any evidence of mental illness at all. And I think that you've been trying to put us on all this time." To prove a point about the fine line between normality and abnormality, McMurphy demonstrates some stereotypical "crazy" behaviors and then asks: "Is that crazy enough for you? You want me to take a s--t on the floor?"

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