One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman)

This was the second of three films to sweep the five major Academy Awards, after It Happened One Night and prior to The Silence of the Lambs, and its reputation — outside of the scorn lent it by the author of the source novel, Ken Kesey — has never flagged in the nearly four decades since its release. Because its worldview is very much an element of its time period, its treatment of both idealism and shame — its two fixations — lacking serious dimension and insight, I believe there are two reasons for its continued popularity. The first and most obvious is the quality of its performances; Jack Nicholson’s central role as McMurphy is one thing, a defiant individual badass he’d already perfected in Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail (a profoundly superior, far more sensitive film about the “male experience” that deserves to be as beloved as Cuckoo’s Nest), but the supporting cast is dazzling: a veritable collection of future stars who’d either make a world of their newfound visibility or squander it. Regardless, any audience is likely to be enchanted by the background presences of Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavalli, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, and especially Brad Dourif as the stuttering, sweet Billy.

The secondary element to the legend now attached to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is deeper and more interesting — disregarding the extremely discomforting strangulation sequence (of which more below), its last half hour is nearly as rapturously beautiful as American cinema gets. As its lead character drifts into a kind of abyss between life and death, we’re sent sailing off into a colorful nothing and, sentimental though it may be, as the splendid Jack Nitzsche music swells up we feel the triumph of Billy’s expanded pride then the Chief’s breaking of the window and race out into the scary, beautiful open air. It’s such a breathtakingly sad and gorgeous finale that it has managed for decades to make many of us forget the long-winded excess of much of what comes before it in sequence.

What comes before it is a distressingly superficial and deeply troubling (not in the intended fashion) movie, one that baldly attempts to fit Kesey’s wild ideas into a Hollywood scenario — a dilution of far more sophisticated source material, even if some of its eyebrow-raising misogyny and racism are inherent to the novel. In the book, McMurphy is an enigmatic character drifting in and out of the life of the protagonist, the Chief, played by Sampson in the film, his role reduced mostly to the background and to the climax. Thanks to the importance of the ending, the film suddenly shifts perspective five minutes before it cuts out, and at that point it’s all too obvious that the story has been told incorrectly, a realization that only deepens after the film ends and you realize how little of significance has been put forth.

Ken Kesey’s opinion of the movie version seems to support the argument that someone read his book and saw a commercial commodity they could make of it, not a new way to capture its spirit. The adaptation clearly does not come out of a love of the material but excitement about what can be done with it. That would be fine if the material didn’t display far more imagination than Forman is capable of; though he later made the fine Amadeus, his films — this one included — tend to be episodic and far too obvious in tone and intent. So there are long-winded sequences dealing with McMurphy’s attempts to bring the other patients out of their shells, sitting impatiently and causing a ruckus and mounting a seemingly endless number of abortive escapes.

The film loses focus when it leaves the asylum, but even then it proves problematic and ultimately disturbing; though Bill Butler (or Haskell Wexler, depending on who you trust) lights and covers the actors’ faces beautifully and the harsh, endless close-ups reveal much about the technical chutzpah of the tic-filled performances by the likes of Josip Elic and William Redfield, they also lay out a world that is thoroughly lacking in complexity and subtlety. Some of this is undoubtedly a function of life in a mental institution, which makes it harder to accept the degree to which the film demonizes and eventually dehumanizes the character of Nurse Ratched, portrayed with more sophistication than the script warrants by Louise Fletcher. The movie first asks us to accept that most of these men who are voluntarily in this institution would be better off outside of it by plugging McMurphy’s often amusingly overzealous pleas for changes to the “routine,” then asks us to accept that their childlike behaviors and communications are a world apart from us because, well, they’re in a mental instition, and then fails so utterly to sense the contradiction in this that it makes a villain out of a woman who’s very plainly doing her job. It makes complete sense that breaks from a normal, structured schedule would be frowned upon in a mental hospital, and it makes sense for Ratched to fight to try and keep the men in her care safe and well-disciplined. All of the problems she has in the film arise from the fact that she is plainly at odds with a man who is not insane, who should not be here to begin with and is here on false pretense, so of course her ruling powers don’t sit well with him. (But also, of course, she’s a woman, and movie and book both posit that women are only good for screwin’ and should stay in their place.)

Ratched’s major transgression, the one that causes Jack Nicholson to pounce upon her and attempt to choke the life out of her like a brutish ape, is to shame Billy for having a conjugal visit with a girl, to point out (somewhat dubiously, of course) that his mother will be ashamed of him when she’s told about the incident. This, in classic dunderheaded movie symbolism, sets Billy back to stuttering, thus back into “illness” and out of the larger world to which McMurphy was supposedly poised to introduce him, then drives him in record time to suicide. This then prompts the attempt to murder Ratched, in turn prompting McMurphy to receive a lobotomy and to finally be put out of his misery by the Chief. It’s hard not to feel mortally wounded when Billy is told that he’s done wrong in this small act of liberation, hard not to feel catharsis when McMurphy attempts revenge, and that’s terrifying because the sheer implausibility of the situation underlines how much Kesey, Forman, and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman are pushing forward an agenda, wherein the female nurses and black residents are suppressing the white man’s needs and impulses, a stupid notion devoid of the intellectual value it pretends to have. It’s a testament to Forman’s skill as a director, and to the sometimes haunting power of motion pictures in general, that most of us feel more or less on board with, and derive pleasure from, the near-strangulation of a woman who has almost undeniably done nothing wrong. (And even if she had done wrong, is wishing her death really the correct response?)

It’s no news to anyone, of course, that history records any number of cases of abuse, neglect, forced sterilizations, and rape within mental institutions in the last century — but this movie isn’t about a hospital in which those things take place. It seems a clean and safe environment. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about the simple-minded affinity we, the audience, feel with people the vast majority of us are not equipped to properly understand. We are represented by McMurphy, a normal and sane man who attempts to sell these impressionable men on his own complex and individualistic ideals, which puts him at war with a woman who actually does have a nuanced understanding of the needs of mentally ill persons, most of whom are at the hospital voluntarily. It’s an inherently unfair film, and the nastiness it gives vent to at the finale is hard to shake, for days afterward. It’s hard to know how much to blame Kesey for that, if at all, given how surface-level the treatment of his fragmentary and obtuse narrative must be when it’s literalized for a color camera.

On the other hand, of course, the film is undeniably effective, however wrongheaded it may be. And there may be some historical context I’m missing for mental institutions letting troublemaking able people in and then issuing them lobotomies, but I doubt it. There is much to admire here, and the film is funnier than I remembered — in fact, Nicholson’s reading of the words “Mr. Harding,” though impossible to explain out of context, prompted the loudest laughter from me when watching a movie alone in quite some time. But once again, a trend: an Oscar-winning film from the ’70s coasting on powerhouse acting but absent of imagination and ideas, dispassionate enough to make its sentiments awkwardly fake. All I can say is, Barry Lyndon losing the Oscar to this makes no sense to me. If you think that makes me sound anti-populist or something, well, I think it robbed Jaws too — that’s a film that involves a number of people being killed and never once asks us to take pleasure in it. And it’s a thriller. Think about that.

[Contains some content from a review I posted in 2006.]

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