Length: 133 minutes
Release Date: November 21, 1975
Directed by: Milos Forman
Stars: 4 out of 5
The care of the mad in America has traditionally been a vexed subject. With the exception of a very few bright spots in the early nineteenth century, and-hopefully-the more scientific approach of the modern medical model, care for the mentally ill has lagged behind other advances in patient treatment. From the torture chamber of Bedlam to the ultimate collapse of the moral treatment, through the age of insulin shock and lobotomies, the process of caring for the insane has been rich fodder for dramatic storytelling.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” explores that horrifying legacy through one man’s sojourn in the madhouse. R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) would have you believe he’s normal. Feigning insanity to sneak out of a prison term, he is transferred to a secure mental health ward, where he quickly runs afoul of the authoritarian Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The abuse and degrading treatment faced by the inmates horrifies McMurphy, who begins to rebel against the regime of Nurse Ratched. Things quickly take a turn for the worse as the full force of the institution is brought to bear against McMurphy, who must somehow struggle to remain sane in the face of injustice and institutional cruelty.
If “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” had been intended as an open denunciation of the shameful treatment of America’s most helpless adults, it would have been an effective vehicle for change. Even though plenty of people may have left the theater with the impression that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a documentary, the original intent of the book was always to use a highly fictionalized vision of the insane asylum to encourage a meditation on the forms and justifications of authority. The capriciously cruel Nurse Ratched is not intended as a send-up of nurses; instead, she is always presented as an authority figure for whom nursing care is incidental. One gets the impression that in a different society, she’d have been quite at home as a slave-driver, a straw boss, or a camp guard. McMurphy’s petty acts of rebellion are small, but so great is her lust for power that Nurse Ratched feels she must escalate her cruelty and manipulations to crush him. The asylum serves as a metaphor, a lens through which the audience is invited to consider their bosses, their landlords, and their authoritarian family members. The fact that the film became incidental to the closing of mental hospitals in the United States as a cost-cutting measure may be taken as a sublime irony.
The script for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was adapted from the stage production of the same name, and ultimately from the novel by Ken Kesey. Having been through multiple versions, the screenplay has been smoothed over repeatedly. The process of adapting a work to the theater nibbles away at sections of the script that might have looked good on paper but that simply don’t translate to a live audience. The result is a working script with good blocking and clean dialogue. If an intended laugh line didn’t cut it on the stage, it got axed long before shooting started. If a character was superfluous, out he went. Many other films would have profited from the same treatment.
The magnificent cast of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of the luckiest breaks of the century. Having Jack Nicholson play an anti-authoritarian, highly disruptive loose cannon is like having Abe Lincoln play a Great Emancipator. Louise Fletcher has an introverted screen presence to rival the extrovert Nicholson. A single deep breath from her while she purses her lips manages to convey enough menace to make audience members unconsciously hug their loved ones closer for fear of what she’ll do next. Also of note are some of the minor roles doled out to actors who were talents in their own rights: Danny DeVito as Martini, Scatman Crothers as the delightful Terkel, and even Anjelica Huston in a brief, uncredited role.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of the great novels of its century. It was also one of the best stage productions and movies of the same period. As far as legacies go, that isn’t bad. The fact that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is also rich with timely social commentary helps to elevate it above mere entertainment and secures it a place in any society that struggles with power and its worshipers. Since every society has this problem, a film like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” will resonate with people from all over the world and throughout time.