Feathers Fly in the Cuckoo’s Nest…
A criminal thinks he is taking the easy way out by serving his sentence in a mental health hospital.
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest – Original Theatrical Trailer, Warner Bros and photographs © United Artists.
The next film on the review list is one of my favourite films, it stars Jack Nicholson who coincidentally is one of my favourite actors. Like Michael Caine and Sean Connery, Nicholson never fails to disappoint in his movies, which makes it all the more difficult to choose a film from his ever-expanding choice of biopic, comedy or drama films.
Nicholson favourite films include As Good as it Gets (1997), Heartburn (1986), The Pledge (2001) and The Shining (1980). However, today’s review choice is One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) which was an Oscar Winner Actor in Lead Role for Jack.
It also won for the Best Picture, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay categories. The film is based on a book by the same name by Ken Kesey and based on his experiences working in mental health in the 1950s.
The opening film theme tune and images are as haunting as the plot. Set in 1963, Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a serial criminal convicted for six months for the rape of a 15-year-old girl is transferred to a mental health hospital to be evaluated. McMurphy believes a mental health hospital will be an easy option compared to carrying out a prison sentence involving hard labour.
He mistakenly believes he will carry out his period of detention there and will then be discharged home. He wins the trust and friendship of his fellow inpatients initially through a basketball game, but this leads to a long battle of wills with the Head Nurse Ratched played by Oscar Winner, Louise Fletcher.
Nurse Ratched is feared by the patients and appears in her interactions with the inpatients to be a cold, unfeeling woman. Ratched believes she is doing good for her patients to justify her actions which makes her appear more evil as she has no insight.
The inpatients include a young, Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) who has both a stutter and a great fear of his mother – with whom Nurse Ratched is friends – Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) a nervous man with little confidence, Harding (William Redfield) who appears rational but finds it difficult to accept his wife’s infidelity, and Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), a giant Native Indian Chief who all believe to be deaf and dumb.
McMurphy challenges Ratched’s authority by not taking his medication. He gambles for cigarettes with the other inpatients in card games and Ratched counteracts this by stopping these privileges.
McMurphy then asks Ratched in they can change the ward routine to watch the World Series on television. After her refusal on the grounds that some inpatients would find this change difficult, McMurphy then encourages the other patients to support him in rebelling against the ward routine and gets three votes.
Later, McMurphy then bets the others he will be able to pick up a marble hydrotherapy unit that is attached to the ground and throw it out a nearby window but is unable to do so. After Cheswick brings up going to see the World Series in the next ward meeting, Ratched puts the notion of watching the world series to the other inpatients in the ward meeting.
McMurphy encourages nearly half of his fellow inpatients with eight votes from all those attending. Ratched denies this as she argues the ten patients not attending have not had their say. Sadly, after McMurphy attempts to convince the others, his final deciding vote from the Chief comes too late as Ratched states the meeting was closed.
This leads to one of my favourite scenes, where McMurphy describes the game to the others vividly and their reactions are almost like they are seeing the game for real. After stealing a hospital bus and leaving after his fellow patients are aboard, McMurphy takes them on a fishing trip where the inpatients have a whale of a time.
After these incidents, the patients see him as a leader and begin to be more assertive and rebel a little more themselves. However on his return to the hospital, in a ward support group run by Ratched, McMurphy finds out he could be in the hospital indefinitely if the hospital staff feel he needs this, and that unlike many of the other inpatients who are thereby their own volition – much to his surprise – he will not the choice to leave…
The film was produced by a young actor named Michael Douglas, whose father, the actor Kurt Douglas – who had previously played McMurphy on Broadway – had originally bought the rights for this film. Kurt Douglas seeing himself in the Nicholson role in the movie.
It is however very much Nicholson’s film, and he is hypnotic from the beginning and despite his felony makes this character likeable, genuine, inspiring and the all round good guy. It is hard to see anyone else in this role and therefore impossible to see other contenders such as James Caan, Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds.
Louise Fletcher totally convinced me as Nurse Ratched as fearsome and controlling towards the patients. I found it difficult to adapt to watch her in her role as Karen Carpenter’s mother which I saw after this movie. It was with some surprise I learned that actresses as diverse as Audrey Hepburn and Angela Lansbury were in the running.
The film also features a superb supporting cast including Danny DeVito – as Martini – and the debut of Christopher Lloyd as Taber. These actors provide both comedic and dramatic support were also to support Nicholson in his movie Goin’ South (1978) three years later.
The movie was filmed at a mental health State Hospital in Oregon and was still being used for its original purpose during filming. This added to the authenticity both of the film and the setting. In addition, the character Dr Spivey was played by the State Hospital’s then hospital superintendent Dr Dean Brooks. Brooks and Nicholson improvised much of the evaluation scene.
In reading a spoiler filled article about the filming of this movie, I got an insight into the inspiring role Dr Brooks had in his request for the then inpatients to be involved and recompensed for their roles both in front of and behind the camera for this movie.
It was encouraging to hear how Dr Brooks approach and his argument that this experience would be therapeutic for his inpatients held true leading to the camaraderie, humour and acceptance by the whole cast towards the hospital’s inpatients.
This film will make you laugh, cry and cheer for McMurphy and his fellow inpatients and Nicholson and the cast. This is easily one of Nicholson’s best roles. Personally, I found the much criticised scene where McMurphy takes his fellow inpatients on a fishing trip after stealing them away on the hospital bus, one of the most inspiring and liberating. Here the inpatients free from the hospital, their confidence increased and the incident leading to more questioning attitudes when they return to the hospital.
This also becomes apparent when McMurphy reinforces to the inpatients telling them they are “no crazier than the average asshole on the street” ultimately liberating them from their own perceived sick role.
McMurphy recognises and fights for the patients need to be treated as human beings, who have the right to go on fishing trips, watch the world series, gamble for cigarettes and have sex with call girls, it became the film’s role in educating this to the audience.
McMurphy summed it up talking with an inpatient on the fishing trip “You’re not an idiot. Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy. You’re a fisherman!” encapturing the film’s message, hook, line and sinker…
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 /10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂🙂 /10
Classic Movie History Project Part 1, 2016 No 16 and Hollywood Genes’ Always A Bridesmaid Film Blogathon 2019, No 45
This also added to Hollywood Genes’ Always A Bridesmaid Film Blogathon. Jack Nicholson can also be found in my Mars Attacks, Terms of Endearment, Best Actor Oscar Winners in Superhero Films, The Postman Always Rings Twice and in my Here’s Jack Blogathon. Danny DeVito stars in Romancing the Stone. Christopher Lloyd is listed in my lists of 5 Amazing Cameos and more. Louise Fletcher stars in Brainstorm and Louise Moritz in The Cartier Affair.