My first introduction to this movie came through required summer reading. As a student, I had no scruples in reading the cliff notes (now even more with them being available online), but wouldn’t watch the movies in leu of reading. After I read the novel, I waited a few months before watching the movie. Mostly due to the fact I knew the movie varied from the book and didn’t want to mix the two. It wasn’t until a few months later that the movie was on AMC or TCM that I viewed it. Emotional, bleak, and rough at points, it’s not a movie that leaves you soon.
Based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was written in 1959 and published in 1962. Based on his experiences as a third-shift orderly in a California mental hospital, the novel shed light on some of the archaic treatments still being practiced as well as issues that haunted Kesey’s own life. Soon after it’s publication, Kirk Douglas bought the rights to turn it into the film. In 1963, it was turned into a stage play staring Kirk Douglas as R. P. McMurphy and ran for 82 performances. Still owning the movie rights, Douglas tried to find a studio that would be interested in it. Unable to find a studio, Douglas left the idea on the shelf and eventually passed it on to his son, Michael Douglas. With studios a lot more open to the project, Michael Douglas was able to line United Artist to fund the production.
Originally, Kesey was slated to be the screenwriter, but once cuts and changes started getting made to his script, he refused to continue on. Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben were brought on board to help shape the script into a more streamlined story. The biggest change they made to the original script (and book) was to tell the story from McMurphy’s point of view, instead of The Chiefs. This change, as well as a few others, caused Ken Kesey to basically trash the film and refuse to watch it. While I’m not here to make a call on wither the movie does justice to the book, I will say that it is one of the few adaptations that can’t really be compared to the book. Simply put, both the book and movie stand on their own.
The plot of the film revolves around Randle Patrick McMurphy as he tries to avoid jail time by spending it in a mental ward. After being brought up on charges of statutory rape, he is sent to the hospital to undergo physiological evaluation. While he doesn’t possess a mental illness, he plays it up to hopefully avoid hard labor. He finds himself surrounded by a variety of different men; all with varying degrees of mental illness. It doesn’t take long for him to see how the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, has everyone under her manipulation, even the doctors. McMurphy begins to push and Nurse Ratched pushes back; each time escalating more and more. It finally leads to a final, grand act of rebellion that pushes her over the edge and ultimately leads to a death of a patient and an event that changes McMurphy forever.
Jack Nicholson, though not the first choice for R. P. McMurphy, seems like the only person that could have played him. We see him change over the film from an independent, selfish person to someone with more consciousness and heart for the people around him. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “cuddly” and it is important to remind yourself he was being charged with raping a 15 year old girl (wither it was truly rape isn’t ever explained), his charisma makes him easy to want to follow. While he starts out taking advantage of the men in the ward (winning all their cigarettes in card games), he soon starts to care about them and fight against Ratched since they can’t or won’t.
Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched is one of the most iconic film performances of the past 50 years. She seems kind and working with the patients needs in mind, but as the film goes on you see the way she is really manipulating them. She doesn’t focus on them getting better, but plays on their weaknesses to keep them in her control. While not overtly cruel, it’s not until McMurphy has pushed all her buttons that her true ‘evil’ is revealed. Often times people speak about the last 5 minutes as being the most powerful, but to me it’s when she tears Billy down (without raising her voice) that is the most powerful moment of the film. It’s when her true cruelty comes out and leads to events that pushes McMurphy to the end.
The film went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher) and Best Screenplay/Adapted (Goldman/Hauben). It was also a film that went on to launch many careers including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Vincent Schiavelli. While most of these men had been working in film/television/stage before One Flew… it was this film that truly brought them to the attention of studios and directors. Despite it taking 10+ years from the publishing of the novel to the making of the film (a rather long span of time), it was still well received and a hit.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film that still holds up and is brilliant for it’s simplicity. The characters are so real and so three dimensional that watching them do things as basic as ‘outdoor time’ or getting medication is enthralling. While I cannot directly relate to the film, who can’t relate to being under the thumb of authority? I always found it ironic that this book is a standard summer reading considering a majority of authority that kids encounter are through teachers and administrators. So often we have to toe the line and to watch a film where someone acts on his impulses is very cathartic. Even thought it doesn’t have a happy ending, it always touches me because it reminds me that you never know to what extent you might effect the people around you.