A moving, at times funny. and immensely tragic film, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest demonstrates how the human spirit can be broken under, and rise over, an oppressive and rigid system.
The film focuses on Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a repeat violent offender who is transferred to a mental institution where his mental health is to be evaluated. A rebel who has a disdain for authority, McMurphy raises hell within the once stable environment drawing the wrath of the cold Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher.)
It is not some generic nuthouse film. These characters are all too human and all too real. The many disturbing moments in the film – particularly the depictions of electro shock therapy – are counterbalanced by the normal routines of playing cards and group therapy sessions. This is where the best scripted parts can be found, especially in regards to the duels between McMurphy and Ratched.
Milos Forman provides strong direction in his Hollywood film debut. His emphasis on reality can be seen in every shot and every performance. Filmed inside an actual mental institution (the Oregon State Mental Hospital to be exact), Forman had his cast (with the exception of Nicholson) spend time within the institution to get a sense of what their characters would go through on a daily basis.
And they are a quirky bunch indeed, played by a broad ensemble cast which includes Danny De Vito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif who is great as the suicidal love lorn, Billy. Will Sampson – who played the mute Native American Big Chief – also gives a great performance. Along with Lloyd and Dourif, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was Sampson’s film debut.
Nurse Ratched – the overbearing crusher of hopes and dreams – is played extremely well by Louise Fletcher who gives a chilling impression of evil incarnate with her cold, menacing glare and demeaning tone.
Along with Chinatown’s J.J. Gittes and The Shining’s Jack Torrance, Nicholson perhaps delivers his best and most memorable performance with Randal McMurphy. A charming and charismatic actor who always contains a madness bubbling underneath, Nicholson evenly portrays the psychotic, rebellious and sensitive emotions found in McMurphy. It is a combination of machismo and surprising fragility which creates a unique whole.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film with an interesting history. Based on the novel by Ken Kassey (who to this day has refused to watch the movie), the film rights were bought by actor Kirk Douglas who – although starring in a short lived stage version – was never able to bring it to the bring screen. Eventually his son Michael Douglas took over and, along with producer Saul Daentz, assembled a talent cast and crew who brought to life what was deemed to be an un-filmable novel, eventually winning all the major film categories at the 1976 Academy Awards.