An Appreciation – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One of the most famous scenes in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) also foreshadows its oncoming tragedy. The hellraiser R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), desperate to throw some variety into the repetitive, mundane life of a mental institution, asks head nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) to have the television turned on to the World Series. The patients take a vote, with McMurphy getting the winning vote just after Ratched has ended the meeting. Angered but not deterred, McMurphy circumvents the outcome by pretending that he is watching the game, filling in his own commentary along the way. Through his energy, he gathers and excites the other patients, as if they were all there at the game together. It’s an emotional high point for the characters. But it is tragic, because in the end, they’re only playing pretend—the television is still turned off.
No matter. The beauty of Forman’s film is what this moment represents. Here is a story about bucking the system, questioning and challenging authority, and breaking out of the restraints that hold us down. It’s no surprise that this would be released in the mid-seventies, as the country was going through major cultural and societal changes. Vietnam was still fresh in people’s minds, the era of Nixon and Watergate changed the perceptions of authoritative figures, and the Cultural Revolution fed the desire to be unique and different. The time of 1950s optimism was long gone, replaced by feelings cynicism and skepticism. American filmmaking was also going through changes. The American New Wave pushed for more experimentation—stepping away from the tried and true practices of studio-bred storytelling for something more personal. This is a movie that is entirely representative of its time, which would explain why it was (and still is) so embraced.
It would only make sense that a story about rebellion would have the ultimate rebel as its leading star. Jack Nicholson was the poster child of the time, his characters fully encompassing the persona of the counter-culture. He didn’t look like a regular movie star, and in this movie he certainly didn’t act like one. But that is what makes him so special. There is a quality in Nicholson that very few actors possess. His mischievous nature and enormous charisma allow him to get away with just about anything. He is the quintessential “anti-hero,” winning our sympathies even when he does ludicrous things. In his award-winning role in As Good As It Gets (1997), he plays a borderline racist, homophobe, and misogynist, but somehow we find ourselves rooting for him. What makes him a special actor is that he recognizes this quality. In About Schmidt (2002) he masks it to powerful effect.
McMurphy is arguably Nicholson’s most iconic character, winning him his first of three acting Oscars. It may be hard today to step back and examine just how unconventional this character really was. McMurphy is a jailed convict, pretending to be insane to get out of doing hard labor. During his initial interview at the mental institution, they briefly mention his encounter with a young girl that led him to being locked up in the first place. He is rude and crude, and often has moments of outbursts just to get under the skin of the doctors and nurses. But what draws audiences to him is how he treats the other patients as people instead of subjects. He engages with them as individuals, and encourages them to break their normal routines. This can be both a benefit and a hindrance. The idea of McMurphy helping the patients through his own enthusiasm is admirable, but can they be “healed” just through McMurphy pushing them along? According to him, the best way to treat the patients is by getting laid, going out and playing basketball, and breaking the rules. A respectable sentiment, but there is an underlining level of sadness. This story can only end one way, but that makes the film all the more powerful.
More needs to be said about how good Louise Fletcher’s performance is, as well. While Nicholson rallies the troops and gets all the attention, Fletcher takes the thankless job of the villain. The fact that audiences so detest Nurse Ratched is testament to how believable she was. Fletcher is so cold, so inflexible, and so machine-like that she is less an individual person and more of an overarching idea. Her voice remains calm to the point of almost being monotone, and the way she so strictly obeys the rules can be damn near maddening. Notice the way she conducts the daily group meetings with the patients. Ratched has a way of breaking down a character by simply asking questions and using her version of logic. This makes her quite fascinating. Yes, she is methodical in her approach, but she never goes too far. She always stays within the boundaries, and while the characters turn against her, she herself never crosses the line. It’s a slippery slope to play on, and Fletcher does it in remarkable fashion. Her Oscar win was well deserved.
While the metaphor we’re presented with is an important one (and can still be put into use today), there are elements that stick out noticeably. The casting of the patients has become more curious as time has gone by. Maybe Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd weren’t well known back then, but today they are certainly recognizable. This poses an interesting issue here. We can’t criticize actors for playing mental patients, but because time has made them more famous, the manipulation shows a bit more. Their mental handicaps are presented only when they are needed for the story, and disappear at just the right moments. They seem to get better the more they interact with McMurphy, and rescind to an almost catatonic state when Ratched and her team give them their medications. Does this mean that one can be cured of their ailments by simply hanging out with Jack Nicholson? An even clearer example is when McMurphy escapes with the patients on a fishing trip. As people come up to them and question what they’re doing, McMurphy introduces each as a doctor, accompanied with a perfectly timed expression. Is this scene funny? Absolutely. Is it realistic? Not really. But maybe reality isn’t what we need. The theme of freedom is what’s important, even if the portrayal of medical treatment may not be entirely accurate.