The picturesque landscape image that opens Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a beautiful image of rolling land lit by a sun setting over a distant mountain, looks like the opening of a Western – and it sounds like one too, thanks to the disturbingly evocative music (bowed saw and wine glasses) by Jack Nitzsche. The story begins in that spirit as well, with a loner and gunslinger wandering into town to shake things up. But in this case, the town is a Northwestern mental institution, and the gunslinger is Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson).
McMurphy’s transfer to the state mental hospital reeks of desperation. Jailed for statutory rape (“She was 15 years old goin’ on 35, doc, and she told me she was 18 and she was very willing, know what I mean?”), he’s had several fistfights in stir, and though he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his mind, “they’re tellin’ me I’m crazy cause I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable.” So here he is, for a bit of the ol’ observation and evaluation. What could go wrong?
Ken Kesey’s novel, which was adapted for the screen by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, was quite a different beast from its eventual film iteration, told as it was from the perspective of “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson). “Chief” is an imposing Native American who claims to be deaf and mute, but is in fact able to both hear and speak, and acutely aware of the events around him. He remains in the film, and a key character at that, but without the framework of his perception and interpretation, Forman’s film becomes much more the story of McMurphy – and his struggle, first for respect and then for power, with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
Their conflicts come to a head in the floor’s group therapy sessions, a show she is accustomed to running without much in the way of pushback or objection. McMurphy’s initial rebellions are small and trivial, and easily dealt with; she swats down his requests with polite but quietly hostile explanations. She won’t give him the satisfaction of hearing her raise her voice, and she knows that she has The Rules, the ultimate authority, on her side. She returns to the argument of rules for the sake of rules when McMurphy proposes shuffling the daily schedule so the ward can watch the World series – and when she refuses, he starts doing a play-by-play of the game anyway, leading his fellow inmates in a mass delusion. Forman’s camera pushes in on Ratched watching, the fire finally lighting in her eyes; she’s losing control, for the first time.
On this viewing of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” I kept thinking about Paul Thomas Anderson’s description of “There Will Be Blood” as a boxing match. The directness of the conflict has some unfortunate side effects on the film overall – there’s an unavoidable but decidedly misogynist tinge to the picture, particularly when McMurphy cacklingly refers to her as “something of a cunt,” which is played as a laugh line.
But it’s nevertheless a charged and complicated match-up. “He’s not crazy, but he’s dangerous,” explains one of the facility’s doctors, and a colleague agrees, because questioning the norms is infectious, and thus dangerous. Forman is ultimately making a film about control – and said as much, admitting to using Ratched and her unbending, unshakable authority as a stand-in for the Communist Party of his Czech youth. Nurse Ratched can handle McMurphy, no matter how far he gets under her skin, but when the other patients start questioning her, she loses control, and when she loses control, she loses her temper. “Rules!” rages Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who only wants a cigarette. “Piss on your fucking rules!” The full-blown melee that erupts thereafter – broken windows, thrown punches, bloodshed, a pile-on of scrapping patients and orderlies – has consequences, as a crying and screaming Cheswick is dragged in for electroshock therapy, and McMurphy follows. Sometimes revolution is messy.
Kesey published “Cuckoo’s Nest” more than a decade before the film, in 1962, with Kirk Douglas playing McMurphy in a Broadway stage adaptation shortly thereafter. Douglas tried to get a film version off the ground for years, finally giving up and selling the rights to his son Michael, who was making the transition from television actor to film producer. By that time, Kirk was too old to play the role – which is for the best, as Douglas was a great actor, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Nicholson as McMurphy. From his first appearance, glaring at his captors under his beanie and famously knitted brow, it’s the quintessential Nicholson performance.
But there’s more to his work than whooping, hollering, “crazy Jack” iconography; his best moments are his quietest, the rare beats when he lets his cocky, confidant guard down. Watch as they’re settling him in for the shock treatment, and he realizes he can only play so tough for so long; marvel at the long, wordless close-up as he waits outside the door for the Billy and Candy to consummate their “date,” his visage working through a whole range of emotions, reactions, and concerns.
That date, as you may recall, does not go well, and Brad Dourif’s turn as Billy remains potent and heart-wrenching; the genuine fury and fear of his final scene is, at times, hard to watch. It affects McMurphy as well, and what finally, truly sets him off is Ratched’s insistence that “the best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.” She reverts to authority and rules, and he can’t take anymore, and it’s hard to blame him, frankly.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of only three films to sweep the “Big Five” Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay), alongside “It Happened One Night” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” And it is, to be clear, an excellent film – well-acted, precisely crafted, and emotionally involving. But it’s also striking, on this 45th anniversary, how lodged it feels within its moment, whereas the best of ‘70s cinema feels untethered, timeless, and alive. Watching it now, one cannot help but feel that the response to “Cuckoo’s Nest” at the time was, at least partially, connected to its moment, and its subtext, which is not subtle.
It remains a potent metaphor for the struggles of the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time in which the powerless pushed back, raised some hell, even had some fun. But when it was all over, the people in power were still in power, and the rest were safely stuffed back in their boxes. (If we’re entering a moment like that now, well, maybe there’s a lesson to be learned.) That narrative nihilism is why the final moments of the picture, and their stab at triumph, ring hollow; by then they’re a dramatic gesture, and little more. The honest ending comes moments earlier, in McMurphy’s ultimate fate: bleak, to be sure, but sadly believable, and unceasingly resonant.