Friday, September 12, 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Best Picture 1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest may be called a great film, but it is definitely not a pleasant film. It is a sad and depressing story of a man named McMurphy and his experiences at a mental institution in 1963. Jack Nicholson won Best Actor for this role, and I'm pointing this out now before getting into the story because Nicholson has always struck me as being one of thoes actors that you can't disengage from his role. Have you ever seen The Shining or Batman with Michael Keaton? In every Jack Nicholson film I've seen he always seems to be playing Jack Nicholson. Granted, I haven't seen a lot of them. Still, as I was watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, I never *forgot* that I was watching Jack Nicholson. On the other hand, Louise Fletcher won Best Actress for her role as Nurse Ratched, McMurphy's arch-nemesis. Because she was a relative unknown at the time, and because the role of Nurse Ratched requires less theatrics than the role of McMurphy, it's easier to see the character and not the actress.
McMurphy is escorted to the mental institution by police officers. We are then told that he is a prisoner of the State, but that the State thinks he might be "faking" being crazy in order to get out of work details. He was arrested and charged with assault and statutory rape. The State has McMurphy  committed for a psychiatric review. He appears relatively normal, and promises the other patients that he is going to have as much fun as he can under the circumstances. He tried to get a vote on watching the World Series on television. He watches how the other patients get a free trip into town once a week, so he manages to hijack the bus and takes them all fishing. He becomes friends with all the other inmates, but especially a large quiet Native American everyone calls Big Chief. We aren't sure if he is just trying to use the guy, or entertain himself, but eventually they hit it off and become good friends. He is also a leader slash father figure to Billy, a shy, stuttering young man played by Brad Dourif. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work, but he lost to George Burns in The Sunshine Boys. Also in his "gang" are future TV stars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd.
With all of his antics, however, McMurphy is eventually judged "mentally unfit" and he is permanently assigned to the institution until the staff judges that he is "well." Of course, this doesn't sit well with him, and he ratchets up his anti-social behavior. The symbol of his unhappiness is Nurse Ratched, a calm, quiet, and endlessly annoying Head Nurse who seems to exist to make McMurphy's stay as unpleasant as possible. OR....she is the calm in the storm of the institution, and her unwavering demeanor is a beacon of reason in a sea of unevenness. Which vision of her do *you* subscribe to?
McMurphy decides he has had enough and is going to escape. On his last night he invites two girls over and begs them to bring alcohol. It's Christmas time, and the whole wing has a party. Unfortunately, everyone drinks a bit too much, and they all end up passing out. When the staff arrives the next morning, the entire wing is put on lock-down. Billy is found sleeping with one of the women, and everyone knows that they had had sex. Nurse Ratched shames him for having sex, and he is so traumatized that he tries to kill himself. McMurphy is busy plotting his next escape attempt, but he is so incensed at her treatment of Billy that he attacks her.
The next scene is McMurphy being escorted back to the wing. He has been given a frontal lobotomy. Big Chief can't stand to see his friend this way, so suffocates him with a pillow and then escapes on his own.

And so, going back to the beginning of this review, the reason I can't agree that this is a great film is because it is too much of a Jack Nicholson film. Victim of his own success? We never learn if McMurphy is crazy or not; we want to believe that Nicholson is being "anti-social" so we go along with him, never stopping to consider that McMurphy really could be sick. Is McMurphy really just a belligerent anti-social misfit, or does he really "see" a baseball game on a television that isn't on? Because it's Nicholson we are inclined to believe the former, but Nurse Ratched is inclined to believe the latter. We never get a clue as to who is right, and that is why Nurse Ratched is remembered most fondly as a villain. Next time watch it and pay special attention to her actions, though. You'll see that  she never does anything remotely "villainous." Sure, she makes some moral choices that we would consider dubious, most obviously her judgment of Billy, but it is 1963 and she is not totally out of line. I don't think she was doing it vindictively, she was only trying to get him to realize the severity of his actions (in her eyes). I have read that in the larger social situation, Ratched represents The Establishment and McMurphy represents The Free Thinkers or Baby Boomers. In this scenario, obviously, everyone is going to identify with Jack Nicholson.

Anyway, it's definitely a film worth seeing. It won Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, only the second film to win all of the so-called Top Five awards (the first was It Happened One Night in 1934).
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1975*
Produced by Saul Zaetz and Michael Douglas
Directed  by Milos Forman
Screenplay by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Based on the book by Ken Kesey

the trailer selling Jack Nicholson...

...and as an extra bonus, one of the best acceptance speeches EVER.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Barry Lyndon
Dog Day Afternoon
Well I have seen Dog Day Afternoon and it is a great film, no doubt about it. Al Pacino and Chris Sarandon were both nominated for their roles, but neither won. Jaws is of course one of the greatest thrillers ever made. Nashville I tried to watch but gave up after about an hour. Sorry, Robert Altman fans! And Barry Lyndon is sort of a Tom Jones-wannabe by Stanley Kubrick. I've never been a big fan of Stanley Kubrick except for Dr. Strangelove, and I'm not a big fan of Ryan O'Neal, either.

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