March 3, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #20: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Jack Nicholson clashes with an authoritative nurse in an insane asylum in this award-winning drama.

How much has One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest seeped into American pop culture?  It is the second, and I would argue the best, of the three films that won the five big Oscars of Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay.  It has made the warring parties of Randle Patrick McMurphy and Nurse Ratched so iconic that readers of Ken Kesey’s original novel may be surprised to learn he repeatedly refers to McMurphy as a redhead and Ratched as an old woman when in reality Jack Nicholson is obviously not a redhead and Louise Fletcher is only a couple years older than he is.

But maybe the clearest sign is, as I am a rather tall man, I have been nicknamed “the Chief” by multiple people in reference to this film.

What can I say about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said before by people much better at this than I am?  I don’t know, so I will do as I always do and just type up my thoughts as they come and see what comes from this entry.  We’re down to the AFI’s Top 20 from the looks of things, so we’re getting to the really good stuff in a list that already has a lot of good stuff.

And then we have , basically, a film about the fight against authority.  Ratched is that authority figure, however unlikely.  Ask yourself:  why is a nurse running group therapy?  Either she has more to her education and training than her job title would suggest or things were different decades ago about such things or it’s just there to show just how much power she welds that she is doing what I would think is a doctor’s duty.

It is Ratched who ultimately decides McMurphy should stay in the ward rather than be sent back to the prison farm after all, and that may be more to squash the man’s spirit than it is get him well.  It’s a punishment beyond what he would have gotten had he stayed in prison.  As McMurphy learned to his shock, a prison term doesn’t mean anything in the asylum.

And yet, perhaps the creepiest part of Ratched is she rarely raises her voice.  She speaks of rules, routines, and procedures that she will not bend let alone break, and she’s more than willing to let shock treatment–something I have since learned is seen as a legitimate treatment for depression though there’s anesthesia involved–be used as a punishment.

Contrast that with McMurphy.  Now Nicholson gives a much livelier performance than Fletcher (as he should be), but the more subtle thing here is McMurphy, for all his faults, actually does more to make the men of the ward better.  The novel demonstrates this a little better.  Kesey’s book is narrated by the Chief, a man who legitimately believes a hidden machine he calls the Combine controls the world.  After McMurphy’s attack on Ratched, the Chief notes that the voluntary inmates, the ones that in the film McMurphy is shocked to learn could leave at any time and don’t, all check themselves out and go home, leaving Ratched a shadow of her former self.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that Ratched isn’t about healing.  Just a few well-placed words send poor Billy Bibbit into a relapse when he had been doing well enough to symbolically loose his stutter.  That the relapse ends with his suicide, and that all Ratched, coming the closest she ever does to losing her composure, can suggest is going on with the daily routine is the last metaphorical straw.  No wonder McMurphy snaps.  Ratched’s rules are making them all worse.  When generally harmless Charlie Cheswick loses it, it comes not from McMurphy egging him on.  Heck, McMurphy tries to stop him.  It comes from Ratched treating grown men like children.

By the by, how interesting is it that the other men of the ward include the likes of Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny DeVito, three very familiar faces, none of whom are playing the sorts of characters we normally see them play.  DeVito is a smiling, gentle simpleton.  Lloyd is on the brink of potential violence every time he opens his mouth.  And as for Dourif, there’s nothing remotely creepy about his role as poor, doomed Billy.

While researching this entry (meaning I checked Wikipedia), I was interested to learn Nicholson was not the original choice for the role of McMurphy.  The novel had been done as a play a decade earlier, and the role had been originated by someone who had intended to carry the part on to the film version:  Kirk Douglas.  Getting too old for the role, his son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas) took on the role of producer and saw to it the film was made with Nicholson in the lead.  That said, the first actor cast was DeVito, the younger Douglas’ longtime friend.  It seems DeVito was already playing the part in an off-broadway production.

You know, as much as Nicholson owned the role, there is a part of me who wonders how different it would have been with Spartacus in the lead.

Director Milos Foreman got the first of his Oscars for this one, the other being for previous entry Amadeus.  Foreman came to the West from his birthplace in Communist Czechoslovakia, and if there’s something to connect his work, it’s protagonists who defy local authorities and norms to varying degrees of success.  He gave us the aforementioned AmadeusThe People vs Larry Flynt, and Man in the Moon.  I don’t think he ever returned to the heights of Cuckoo’s Nest which was only the second film he made in America.  You know, if the Cold War is in any way responsible for giving us great films that aren’t simply about directly fighting the commies, then we can credit that international tension for indirectly giving us something like Cuckoo’s Nest which is saying more about treating people right on the personal level, but also on the national and societal.  If we treat people as less than people for any reason, even with the false belief that we are doing it for their own mental health, then we should not be surprised when the sink flies out a window and a man runs off into the night.

NEXT UP:  We must be on a mini Jack Nicholson kick right now.  We’re looking at my all-time favorite American film, 1974’s Chinatown.