One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif. Written by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman (based on the novel by Ken Kesey). Directed by Miloš Forman.
I first saw Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in eleventh grade, when my Modern American Fiction teacher taught a unit on antiheroes. I liked it rather a lot, but I’ve seen a lot of movies in the years since, and in 1986 I was unaware of this film’s status as one of the greatest of all time. Since I didn’t remember it being quite that terrific, I thought I’d see it again, interested in how my views might have changed. Also, my father recently spent a week in a hospital and I remember warning him to be cooperative lest they assign Nurse Ratched to him. He responded, “I believe I’ve already been introduced to her.” And because I couldn’t remember much about her, I thought I should give it a look.
Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred from an Oregon prison, where he is serving time for statutory rape, to a mental institution, where he hopes to serve the rest of his sentence in relative ease. He has faked symptoms of mental illness, so from the moment he arrives he carries an air of being above the fray.
McMurphy quickly stirs up some trouble, pushing back against some of the administrative policy and treatment procedure. Although he says he’s there to cooperate, he butts heads with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who is strict about routine and who tolerates very little nonsense from the patients, who seem to be afraid of her. McMurphy sees that the patients—many of whom are there of their own volition and can leave any time they want—are being suppressed by routine and policy, that Ratched’s rules keep them from being fully men, which many are willing to accept. He seems bent on circumventing her emasculating treatment and awakening their dormant manhood. Looking past their aberrant behaviors, McMurphy connects with his fellow patients as human beings, and this connection has a more therapeutic effect than any of Ratched’s sharing groups, curfews, or medications.
I’m interpreting this my way, of course, and perhaps someone else might see things differently, depending on his or her views of establishment and rebellion, or order and chaos, or established ways and new ways, or the government and the people. There’s a lot of room for all of that and I don’t think my takeaway is necessarily right.
And that’s what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a great film. Yes, there are stellar performances by everyone involved (it was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, including awards for Forman, Nicholson, and Fletcher). Forman definitely has something to say, but he presents his case in such a way that even if you agree with all the evidence, you might come away with a different verdict, because for all her steely-spined primness, Ratched does seem to have the patients’ interests at heart.
Why don’t these patients exercise their right to leave if they believe they’re being repressed? Maybe they’ve been misled or maybe the safety of the hospital is exactly what they need, however that safety might be provided. And in the film’s climactic moment, McMurphy orders something that would easily be defined today as rape, something we can’t just wave away, especially given his criminal history.
The film has its flaws for sure. It shoots for some big-picture stuff that it can’t quite hit, but it’s an admirable effort. Restrict it to big ideas in a smaller-picture view, and it works a lot better. Less universalism and more here’s-an-examplism is probably the better way to apply it.
I was deeply moved by this film, in a way I was not at age sixteen. The performances are amazing and the themes are provocative. And while I see Nicholson as much more than a rebel, now that I am older than the character he plays, I also see Ratched not as an old bag, but as a pretty, middle-aged, hard-working social worker, now that I’m around her age. It makes me wonder what other films, viewed by my teenaged self, need to be watched with my middle-aged eyes.