Ten days after the world saw One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time, Bill Gates first used the word Microsoft.
44 years later, the world is dominated by technology. Blockbuster films are provided budgets that could rescue war-torn countries and special effects can make us all but believe dinosaurs are mingling with humans once more. Why is it that a relatively low-budget comedy-drama from the mid-70s remains one of the greatest feats of cinema ever?
Of course, things get off to a good start with the fact that front and centre we have the inimitable Jack Nicholson. The Shining hadn’t even been written yet, but already we can see his trademark blend of crazy and endearing being birthed in the altogether less-murdery Randle McMurphy.
He’s supported by an ensemble cast full of underdogs and future stars. For example, Doc Brown himself Christopher Lloyd made his acting debut as Max Taber, while Danny DeVito’s bouncy personality perfectly forms Martini. Jazz musician Scatman Crothers appears as Orderly Turkle, getting on surprisingly well with Nicolson’s character just five years before Nicholson would axe him directly in the back in the guise of Jack Torrance…
On the more subtle side, Will Sampson, William Redfield and Brad Dourif capture the tragedy of the setting in their work as Chief Bromden, Dale Harding and Billy Bibbit respectively. However, the standout performance for me is always that of Sydney Lassick. His role as a squeaky, supportive sidekick Charlie Cheswick is emotionally charged, capturing his character’s anxiety and good nature with equal impact. He’s also gifted with some of the best lines in the entire film: “I want my cigarettes!”. Luckily, he doesn’t meet the same tragic end as in the Ken Kesey novel.
We also can’t forget Nurse Ratched, played by Louis Fletcher. While the Alabamian actress may well have peaked with One Flew (her roles afterwards include Exorcist II: The Heretic and Cruel Intentions), it’s undeniable that this is an astonishing acting performance. In a world that includes the Joker, Emperor Palpatine and Hannibal Lecter, Nurse Ratched might well still take home most evil villain trophy. From her dead glare to her direct role in Billy’s suicide, she manages to inspire pure loathing every time she appears on screen. While she’s a little battered up by the end of the film, just the idea that she survived still seems like a monumental injustice.
In a film built around such a serious topic, the range of its humour is impressive. Plenty of classic films were funny once upon a time don’t stand up anymore, this is evergreen humour. You just don’t get tired of seeing the exhaustion in McMurphy’s eyes as Martini continually fails to understand poker, and you can’t help but grin when Harding (slightly politically incorrectly these days) portrays himself as a ‘little Mary Anne’.
Inevitably, the film ends with a much less light-hearted feeling. Now, I don’t tend to cry at films. Yet despite having seen One Flew at least twenty times, it’s easily the closest I come every single time. The whole debacle kicks off with Billy’s suicide, and though we’re all shouting at him not to, McMurphy just can’t help himself and jumps onto Ratched. That first brief second we see him being returned to his bed provides a jolt of relief, but this subsides pretty quickly when it becomes clear something far worse has taken place. In a confusing, bittersweet moment, Chief puts his friend out of his misery and escapes. Every single time, I have absolutely no idea how to feel.
One of the most continually relevant features of the film is its depiction of mental health issues. At the time, this was largely overlooked in the public consciousness, but as it becomes a more talked about part of everyday life, the depictions within the film become even more poignant. While the general idea of pretending to be mentally ill doesn’t exactly hold up, the portrayals of delusion, paranoia and bipolar shine an important, largely accurate, light on these conditions.
It’s no surprise that One Flew is one of just three (the other films being Silence Of The Lambs and It Happened One Night) to win the ‘big five’ at the Academy Awards. It’s also no surprise that Jack Nicholson is regarded as one of the best actors of all time, that Nurse Rachet appears on every list of most evil film villains, that the ending is still tear-jerking every time.
In 6 years, this film will be 50 years old. In 56, it’ll be 100 and not a single person involved in its creation will be around to see it. But I’ll put my money on it being just as relevant, funny and interesting as it is today and was 44 years ago.