An Appreciation – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Cuckoo’s Nest is just one of Milos Forman’s many works depicting oddballs, outcasts, and eccentrics. His entire career has been built upon stories of characters breaking from the system. Part of the Czech New Wave, Forman brought his own sense of rebellion to filmmaking. The Fireman’s Ball (1967) told of a fire department trying to pull together a celebration, with plans falling apart at the seams. The People vs. Larry Flynt presented a character who fought against censorship in the face of “proper” taste. Man on the Moon (1999) examined the life of avant-garde comedian Andy Kaufman. And in possibly Forman’s best film, Amadeus (1984), we learn of a composer who went mad with jealousy when he couldn’t create music in the same fashion as the great Wolfgang Mozart. In each film—whether satirical in nature or not—we get a sense of people trying to do something different or ambitious against heavy opposition or difficulty.
An interesting plot development in Cuckoo’s Nest happens deep into the second act, when McMurphy learns that the patients are in the facility voluntarily. While he has to be there because he’s a prisoner, everyone else can walk out whenever they feel like it. This puts the onus directly on the patients themselves. They don’t feel like they are well enough to leave, so they stay because they think it’s the best way to get better. This contradicts McMurphy’s philosophy: being contained and numbed by medication only treats the symptoms instead of the causes. We see this most represented by the character nicknamed “Chief” (Will Sampson). A towering Native American, Chief for the most part remains silent. But secretly, Chief is just like McMurphy, in that he is only acting like he has a medical issue. In reality, he is just as aware and coherent, but chooses to remain in the mental ward to escape the harshness of his past. He then becomes the emotional center point, because he is able to fully comprehend and understand McMurphy’s crusade, and actually do something about it. Chief attaches to him, and even grows to care about his well-being. Compare Chief to the patient Billy (Brad Dourif), who does have a condition that prevents him from standing up against Nurse Ratched. Where Billy is a signifier of tragedy and despair, Chief is an emblem of hope, realized in the final shot of the movie.
Something happens near the end of the movie that I have always wondered about. It is the last night McMurphy will spend in the mental institution, and he decides to go out in style. He invites friends over from the outside, plays loud music, bribes the night guard, and has the patients dance and drink the night away. As the night of debauchery comes to a close, McMurphy opens one of the gated windows and prepares to leave, but he doesn’t. Instead, he sits down, has a sip of beer, and gets lost in his thoughts. What does this mean? Why didn’t he leave when he had the opportunity? He knows that if he were to be caught that it would most likely be his end, but he chooses to stay. There seems to be a look of resignation on his face, as if he has finally come to grips with some idea that has been plaguing him. You can interpret this moment in any number of ways. Maybe Forman (along with screenwriters Lawrence Haubena/Bo Goldman) is saying that no matter how much we rebel against the establishment, authorities will always have the upper hand. Or maybe they’re saying that running away from your issues won’t solve them, and that sooner or later you’ll have to come to grips with that fact. Whatever the case may be, this scene has always stuck with me—a quietly reflective moment in a film that so brazenly wears its feelings on its sleeve.
I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to be a young person in the seventies seeing this for the first time. When the people in positions of power can’t be trusted and the country is reeling from a controversial war, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest rang as the voice of a generation. Nicholson would go down as one of the great movie stars and actors; while he had seen success before this, his role as McMurphy would cement his legacy. The film would win Oscars for every major category (Picture, Leading Actor/Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay), the first time since It Happened One Night (1934). Sure, the film isn’t perfect, and with each passing decade its manipulative characteristics have become more noticeable. But that’s not enough to say that this isn’t an important and well-made piece of social commentary. Its emotion and energy has not dissipated in the slightest. The film continues to succeed in the great acting of its cast, its delicate balance between the comedic and the dramatic, and through its lasting theme of individuality. Its story may never exist in any kind of real world, but it doesn’t have to.