Sunday, March 31, 2013

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975): The Sane Misfit

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie directed by Milos Forman, a director whose movies have often been overrated, mediocre and dull, and based upon a novel written by Ken Kesey, whose novel Sometimes a Great Notion and memoir Demon Box I felt were better books.  Yet the movie actually improves upon the novel (however much Kesey may have disagreed), and we are presented with perhaps the last true anti-establishment film to come out of Hollywood since it was released.
Both Forman and Kesey benefitted from the casting for this movie.  The actors and actresses in this movie won Forman Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director, and it brought Kesey the recognition that he had not received since his jail stint brought on for a number of drug-related charges and his attempt to flee the country.   Jack Nicholson as Randle P. McMurphy, Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, Will Sampson as Chief Bromden, Sydney Lassick and Cheswick, William Redfield and Harding Christopher Lloyd and Taber, and (especially) Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit create possibly the best assembly of characters ever brought together in a single film.  These actors turn what sometimes seemed like comic book characters in the book to alive, vital and sometimes spiteful and/or suffering people.  And Louise Fletcher is frightening as the wound-too-tight and controlling head nurse in the psychiatric ward. 
The plot for this 134 minute film is somewhat simple.  McMurphy, trying to get out of doing hard time in prison, has himself checked into the ward.  Still, while at the ward he’s so stupefied by the willingness to be controlled by Nurse Ratched that he tries to shake things up.  A number of episodes occur where McMurphy and Nurse Ratched come into conflict, and with each incident the stakes are raised.
The conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched finally comes to a head over Billy Bibbit.  McMurphy provides Billy with the opportunity to spend his first and only night with a woman, Nurse Ratched discovers what has occurred and threatens to reveal what Billy has done to Billy’s mother, and Billy then commits suicide.  McMurphy, knowing that what Nurse Ratched did was cold blooded murder, attempts to strangle her right there on the institution’s floor.
Since Nurse Ratched and the staff never succeed in breaking McMurphy through the use of behavioral therapy, drugs and electroshock treatments, they resort to having him lobotomized.  The physically powerful Chief, unable to stomach seeing McMurphy is this condition, smothers McMurphy with a pillow and makes his own break from the asylum.
The film does have its problems.  The film is also not altogether original.  The film heavily borrows from Cool Hand Luke, a movie that came out close to ten years earlier and remains to me more convincing.  Luke strives to be free while McMurphy spends much more time playing games.
Also, the party scene that ultimately resulted in Billy sleeping with a woman went on for too long, and the consequences were a bit too easy to see coming.  During this entire scene, McMurphy either comes across as na├»ve and reckless concerning the life of Billy, a troubled youth that McMurphy nevertheless seems to care about.
The film still manages to succeed because we are confronted with characters that are real and of all shapes and sizes.  Those with legitimate gripes do not usually have six figure incomes or Ivy League educations, and the abuse that they take often has consequences on the psyche.  Just as in all the good roles that Nicholson has played, which are becoming increasingly rare, his character in this film is not always easy to deal with.  This is not a pretty movie as stories about real rebellion are messy, raucously funny and raw. 
Look at the lists of Academy Award Best Picture Winners and see how many truly hit us in the stomach.  In eighty-five years of handing out these awards, only a small portion of the winners give us anything but multi-million dollar budgets with canned scripts and cardboard characters splashed all over the billboards.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not one of those films. 
March 31, 2013

© Robert S. Miller 2013