One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [45 Year Retrospective]: Mavericks and Madmen
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic counter-culture film, predominantly featuring on best film lists, and being the second film to win the Big Five Oscars (Best film, actor, actress, director and screenplay). It is a stark and beautifully constructed New Hollywood film that pushed away from the trappings of the Golden Era that preceded it. With Netflix original TV series Ratched topping streaming charts and the original film celebrating it’s 45th anniversary this month, there has never been a better time to look back at this influential, gripping and darkly hilarious film.
Adapted from the original 1962 novel by Ken Kesley, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was directed by Miloš Forman, a Czech-American director who has known for his subtly coded critiques and contradictory humour infused into his Czech films, such as The Fireman’s Ball. Forman was a key creative influence on, and helped create, the Czech New Wave, a film movement that criticised the communist government and was often dark in its humour. In 1968 Forman immigrated to America, after witnessing the atrocities of World War II and suffering personal loss. He brought these themes and techniques with him and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was his second American feature. Since then Forman continued to create films centered on mavericks, rule breakers and rebels.
“McMurphy’s character allows us as viewers to explore the stereotypes of mental health.”
After being convicted of assault and statutory rape, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) serves his time on an American work-farm until his erratic behaviour gets him transferred to a locked psychiatric hospital in Oregon. Despite having no mental illness McMurphy simply hopes this new ‘prison’ will be a more relaxed environment and give him the easy ride he wants to serve out his sentence. Unfortunately his rebellious attitude and charismatically care-free ways clash with the rules and order of cold and domineering head nurse Mildred Ratched (Lousie Fletcher). The two are the perfect parable for the changing times and the cultural battle of the 60’s as they rage against each other in increasing acts of dominance.
It’s hard to listen to McMurphy explore his crimes, in a modern context the way he discusses no man being able to resist the lure of a woman, even one under the legal age, is disturbing. He is not a heroic man and his intentions are not honorable. Yet, the way he progresses through the film and the new energy he brings to the life of these patients is fascinating to watch. By being the loud, obnoxious and stubborn man he has always been he changes the status quo and makes more changes than the professionals in this institute ever do with their therapy and ‘treatments’.
McMurphy’s character allows us as viewers to explore the stereotypes of mental health. He goes into the ward acting ‘crazy’, a portrayal of purposeful over the top actions that he perceives to encompass the term ‘insane’. His caricatured facade soon fades when he meets the real patients of this hospital, most admitted voluntarily not committed to the institute, and realises the nuance of mental health and the differing effects it has on the men there.
Of course, it’s in the performances that this film consistently shines. Jack Nicholson is the master of manic, dueling characters. It’s easy to see in his performances as the Joker in Burton’s Batman, and as Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining. He has made his career being the rebel, the counterculture guy who is free and can act anarchically, with varying consequences. He trangresses genre but is always the outsider, the one with a different perspective to life that pushes him to his goals. Nicholson is incredible in this film, thoroughly earning his Oscar, with an intense rebellious energy but also a sweet undercurrent of friendship and need to be part of others’ happiness. McMurphy may not always be the best character, he is afterall an anti-hero, a character type tested by Film Noir before it and embraced completely in films of the New Hollywood era. But Nicholson humanises McMurphy with an outstanding performance.
Standing her ground alongside Nicholson is Louise Fletcher as the intimidating presence of Nurse Ratched. On rewatch it was incredible to focus on her character a little more and think of what it takes to play such a deplorable character who is known for her cruelty, and yet Fletcher manages to give her justification and make her feel like a real person and not just a mustache twirling villain. Fletcher received awards for her performance, well deserved awards, and it’s clear that she is a powerhouse of a performer to both infuse Ratched with distinct cruelty but also stand her own as an honest character amongst the strong performances within this male dominated script. She is cold and calculated, a steadfast rule follower who knows how to make the regulations work for her. She is quietly terrifying, and is the outcome of someone complying with their job to the fullest, whether the rules are humane or not.
This film excels in its realism, including the actual psychiatric institution, Oregon State Hospital, used in the film which is consistently lit in clinical white light, highlighting the cold white walls and lack of any escape from the harsh gaze of Nurse Ratched. Then there’s the character of Dr Spivey, played by the real Superintendent of the hospital, who reasoned that he wished to play the role in order to address the issue of the “criminalisation of the mentally ill”, a worthy cause and something this film definitely succeeds in doing.
It’s gritty, it’s honest in many ways, and it’s performed spectacularly. There are no over the top portrayals of stereotypes, every character has nuances and something under the surface that makes them different. The comedy sinks into tragedy as we reach the bittersweet conclusion of this challenging anti-establishment film and we wonder about the nature of mental health and the treatment of humans. It’s hard hitting, yet it’s also thoroughly enjoyable throughout and still lands it messages 45 years after its creation.