Friday, August 09, 2019

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

USA, 133 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, Ken Kesey, Dale Wasserman
Photography: Haskell Wexler
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Editors: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Scatman Carothers, Sydney Lassick, Michael Berryman

Full disclosure, as a Ken Kesey fanboy I have mostly followed his lead on this movie adaptation of his first novel, though I did see it all the way through when it was new. Kesey was involved in the early stages of making it but reportedly never even looked at it after he left over creative differences. As a result I pushed it to the side and missed how supremely popular it has remained. Its present ranking at #114 on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?—the highest it's ever been there, in fact, and the reason I'm writing about it—only begins to suggest the levels of affection that exist for it. A better gauge might be IMDb's always intriguing popularity contest of a best movies list, where The Shawshank Redemption has long ruled all. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest sits at #16 there—pretty high! But the single reason, I'm convinced, for its enduring popularity, was the Oscars sweep, taking the so-called grand slam that year (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best [adapted in this case] Screenplay), the first movie to do so since 1934's It Happened One Night, and one of only three with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.

Winning a bunch of Oscars is not the reason to like a movie but you know how people are. I will note in passing that I do like It Happened One Night. And getting over myself enough to look again at Cuckoo's Nest reveals a number of outstanding features. It has numerous good and/or interesting performances, not just Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (though Nicholson and Fletcher are the best), including Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd in their first roles, William Redfield, and Danny DeVito apparently with hair. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler's credits include In the Heat of the Night, The Conversation, and Coming Home, and he shot this in rich '70s color and luminous style. But the many grave errors of the picture's narrative are still there, romanticizing mental illness as poetical (note the dancing nut) or, even worse, as a metaphor for politics. It sees individualism as such a virtue that it makes a hero of a preening, self-serving ass who is most believable when he's out for himself alone, and least believable when his lip trembles and he appears to care.

To be fair, Kesey may be as much at fault for some of these problems as director Milos Forman or anyone connected with the picture. Kesey's narrative is as manipulative and arguably as reductive in its way. But the novel does know who the hero of this story is—Chief Bromden, not R.P. McMurphy—and it does have a more natural understanding of American mental illness and institutionalization, what it looked like and felt like in the '60s and '70s. You can't blame Forman for applying the Central European veneer, as he came out of a society, '60s Czechoslovakia, where mental institutions were specifically a political weapon (as opposed to merely a class weapon reserved for the wealthy). It was easy for him to reach for ideas about insanity as a higher form of sanity and he did. Plus, in 1975, the US was still wrangling through the aftermath of its own '60s upheavals and he worked with that too. The dynamics of the generation gap roil the relationship between McMurphy (Nicholson) and Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), even though Fletcher is only three years older than Nicholson. (In fact, Forman made a much better movie about America and the generation gap a few years later, with Hair.)

The simplistic reductions are where much of my problem with this movie lies now. McMurphy's unruly bullying style is more repellent to me, and Nurse Ratched's ideals of routine and predictability more appealing. They say maturity is a terrible price to pay for growing old. Nicholson does make a great McMurphy, jumping around, hooting and carrying on, a certain model of the joys of disinhibited living. Nicholson is in his prime, after Chinatown and in the same year as The Passenger and Tommy. He's suave but like a geek, rough at the edges, caustic but funny, with many of the unlikely charms of his best '70s roles, the small gems like The Last Detail. Yet even by 1975 he was more of a lost boy. Both Nicholson and McMurphy are 38 in Cuckoo's Nest, which is a little late for youthful rebellion. It feels like McMurphy, out there on his own Pleasure Island, is about to turn into a donkey at any moment (and so he does).

In that way, the very centerpieces of this movie can rankle, notably the illicit boating excursion. I can almost believe McMurphy's daring escape and theft of the school bus loaded with the patients for a field trip. But when it proceeds to actually taking a boat out for high seas fishing I found myself flinching at the foolish risks more than celebrating liberation. I understand, in the manner of having it both ways, that we're meant to take it as zingy movie entertainment. That's how I can view the escape and theft. But the giveaway for how hollow it is was when I noticed the elegiac music accompanying this outing's sicky-sweet moments didn't actually sound much different from the Living Strings style of music on the record player back at the hospital ward.

Kesey's use of Chief Bromden as first-person narrator in the novel is probably impossible to translate into the movies. It's much the same problem as with F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, which similarly relies on an unusual first-person narrative strategy. They've tried to make a movie of Gatsby some four times now, so count ourselves ahead that this is the only attempt on Kesey (well, there was a Broadway play in 1963, which also informs this screenplay). I can't deny Forman's movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has its obvious attractions as a simple story of individualism versus state power. Individualism is rarely so cackling and alive as Jack Nicholson in 1975. State power is monolithic, as gray and unyielding as Nurse Ratched's hair. Fletcher makes a fine iron lady too, which was borne out 20 years later playing another powerful political figure in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine. Somewhere between that show and Disney's 1940 Pinocchio lies the magic of Forman's movie, such as it is. A Clockwork Orange is better in every way on the main themes.


  1. Like you, I am a Kesey fanboy. I think he was wrong about this movie, and I wish he had watched it. Oh, it has all of the problems you mention, although as you note many of those problems can be placed at the feet of Kesey. But Will Sampson as the Chief is so wonderful, it resuscitates some of Kesey's vision. Kesey wanted a more psychedelic movie, a less traditional movie, so I appreciate that he was pissed. But I wish he'd seen Sampson.

  2. Can't agree at all about the treatment of Chief Bromden in this movie, but it's not Will Sampson's fault and I know I'm in the minority.

  3. I've never read the novel, but I always loved the film. (Haven't seen it in a while, but I'd seen it so many times before that, I doubt I'd feel any differently today.) Clockwork Orange is literally the only Kubrick film I dislike (well, except for the first one he made, Fear and Desire).

  4. In the Executioner's Song Gary Gilmore likes this movie and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, proving even homicidal maniacs can have good taste in movies.

  5. I have to confess I never made it all the way through Sometimes a Great Notion, even though I've tried two or three times. Liked the Paul Newman movie version okay, though.