One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film with an intimidating reputation. Often cited as one of the all-time masterpieces of the cinematic art form, it is still immensely popular with audiences, has garnered astonishing critical acclaim and is one of only three films to ever win the so-called ‘Big Five’ Academy Awards, for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay and, of course, Best Picture. It’s still as highly regarded today as it was when it first came out, 42 years ago.
Based on the book of the same name by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest follows R.P. McMurphy, an inmate faking (or is he?) a mental illness to spend the rest of his statutory rape sentence in the more comfortable surroundings of a psychiatric hospital. The controlling nature of the facility, dictating how and when the inmates they can enjoy themselves, does not gel with McMurphy’s playboy, hedonistic philosophy. He begins a rebellion against the institution and it’s leader, the domineering Nurse Ratched, introducing the inmates the joys of indulgence and insurrection.
The actor who received that aforementioned Best Actor Oscar is none other than Jack Nicholson, but unless you’ve been living in the wilderness, trying to be at one with nature for the past four and a half decades, I guess you already knew that. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is considered to be Nicholson’s most iconic performance in a period that saw him take on roles in films such as Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. It was a decade for Nicholson that was filled with tour de force roles and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the most fondly remembered. It is so connected to the mystique of the man called Jack that it is the film the BFI have chosen to re-release in time for the lauded actor’s 80th birthday.
It’s a fitting celebration too, Nicholson’s McMurphy is not only a performance that exquisitely displays his manic intensity and compelling charisma, both traits of his that would become trademarks, but the role of McMurphy itself idolises non-conformity, debauchery and roguish behaviour, all of which Nicholson himself would be deified for throughout his career. McMurphy, essentially, is Nicolson, but instead of receiving eye rolls from critics who might sarcastically remark that ‘he’s really stretching himself by playing an unruly, womanising, functioning alcoholic’ he received adulation for his ability to captivate with his incredible charm, and to create sympathy with his expert vulnerability.
Nurse Ratched too, is an unforgettable character, a professional carer whose genuine attempts to help her patients is soon trumped by her desperation as McMurphy erodes her authority over the inmates. The ensemble of McMurphy’s disturbed and deranged cohorts are comedic without being exploitive and tender without being sappy. The lifeblood of the film is seeing McMurphy interact with these troubled souls, as he tries to add some normality into their lives and finding out that it’s just not that easy to fit a mentally ill person into regular society, and doing a rushed job of it can have devastating consequences.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest strikes a balance between hopeful and heartbreaking that very few other films even have any business attempting to achieve. The five Oscar’s it received are indicative of the success the film accomplishes in all areas and how all the arts of cinema combine magnificently to create one of the most arresting and captivating films of the latter half of the 20th century. The actors are engaging, the screenplay is joyous and tear-jerking, and the direction is surgical, yet ethereal. This film has an intimidating reputation and every word said about it is earned through the toil and the craft of loving filmmaking.
Dir: Milos Forman
Scr: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman, Scatman Crothers, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif
Prd: Michael Douglas, Saul Zaentz
DOP: Haskell Wexler
Music: Jack Nitzsche
Run time: 133 minutes
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is out in UK cinemas now.