THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 74: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

by Daniel Suddes


One Flew over the cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Director: Milos Forman  Screenplay: Laurence Hauban and Bo Goldman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Douriff  OSCAR COUNT (5) – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor – Nicholson,  Best Leading Actress – Fletcher, Best Adapted Screenplay – One of only three films in history to win all big five prizes at the Academy Awards.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, today, seems like the last gasp of the  Baby Boomers trying to change society. Maybe that is why it still so beloved. Many of those “changes” that were advocated in the sixties never got anywhere, but those who promoted them use the same sort of language McMurphy does: “Well, I tried, dammit. I tried.”

That statement, more than any other in the film, resonates the most with me. McMurphy is a character who is constantly winning – at cards, at schemes, at anything he sets his mind to. The one thing he was unable to do, by himself, was escape from the situation he had created. But he was not going down without a fight. He was going to try, even if he could not succeed.

Maybe that is why the film continues to be a sort of source of inspiration. At a glance, a film about patients in a mental hospital, some of whom will stay that forever, is not one that will give confidence to people. But those mental patients, each of whom have been abused by the system, finds some brief comfort in rebellion. There were many negative portrayals of the counterculture movement of the sixties. Most of them raise many good points. However, there was still the sense of believing in something. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest managed to capture it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does many things right. Yet the best thing the film did was casting Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. Some actors are just born to play certain roles. Nicholson was born to play this character, as he demonstrated in films like Five Easy Pieces. Some of the dialogue was improvised, but it is hard to say what, exactly. Nicholson gives each line and each movement the same deliberate energy. He ceases to become Jack Nicholson and becomes McMurphy while the film is playing. It is one of the great characters and great performances in American film.

Every great character needs a foil, and Nurse Ratched provides that in spades. While McMurphy is a free spirited, Ratched seems to be Nixon in a nurse’s garb. She is not evil or even particularly malicious. She is merely as obsessed with order as McMurphy is with spontaneity. As such, the two cannot co-exist together. Their battle of wits never really lets up – they are both equally committed. That makes the film almost an exploration of human nature. In any debate, I have rarely known anyone to give up deep seated beliefs. That same stubbornness is the cornerstone of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The rest is basically filler for this parable of rigid order versus freedom. But it is incredibly well done. The supporting characters are well defined (even the Chief, who narrated the novel and has a lot of exposition cut out, still comes off as strong). They transcend their supporting roles – in fact, at some points they even manage to draw attention away from McMurphy. It is easy to see why McMurphy comes to care about them. They come across as actual people with histories and desires, rather than characters as a part of a whole. That is what helps the film enormously. It is so well acted that you can find something new in each performance every time you see it.

My favorite scene in the film is the one above, the one in which the patients rebel against the nurse. They all try to become McMurphy, and, in some cases, they succeed. In some ways, nothing is accomplished. Ratched does not budge. The people who participate in it are punished. Even McMurphy tires of it, smashing his hand through the glass. But I always get the sense that the patients did not really care. They are just wishing to participate in some sort of rebellion. And, at least one part of it was accomplished; a window broke. But like the rest of the film, so much of it depends on what the actors and the way that the camera focuses on their reactions. That is what turns a good film into a great film. The way the camera is positioned in a way that the audience feels a part of the crowd. They share the isolation of the patients. That makes the scene that much better.

DID YOU KNOW? Even though the movie is highly lauded, one notable person who disliked it was Ken Kesey, author of the original novel. He claimed that he had never seen the completed film and even sued the film’s producers.


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2 responses to “THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 74: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

  1. Great book, great film. I think this picture proved that Jack Nicholson is perhaps the most charismatic film-star of all time. He’s not particularly tall, handsome or in great shape but he just oozes energy in a larger than life manner.

  2. My favourite scene in this film is when McMurphy provides commentary for an imaginary game in order to please the rest of the inmates – I think that’s one of the most awe-inspiring pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

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