One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Based on a novel by Ken Kesey, it was first dramatized by Broadway in 1963 with Kirk Douglas starring in lead role. He also bought the movie rights, however none of the studios were interested in the subject, as they felt it did not have much commercial value. Later on Kirk’s son, Michael Douglas co produced the movie along with Saul Zentz. Milos Forman, the director of the movie, however was still not a big name in Hollywood, nor was he one of the 70’s movie brats. He however had made a reputation for himself in his native Czechoslovakia, with many Czech movies, and after the aborted Prague Spring of 1968, he fled to US. Jack Nicholson, by then had already made a name for himself in cult classics like Easy Rider, a tale of two bored young men who take a road trip around US and 5 Easy Pieces, a movie about a person who flees his privileged, upper class background, to lead the life of a roughneck oil rigger. Both these movies, had established Jack as one of the 70’s rebels, along with others like Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
Chief Bromden, aka Broom( Will Sampson)– Of Red Indian origin, he is deaf n dumb, silent and literally towers over every one, with his imposing physique.
Billy Bibbit( Brad Dourif)– a shy, stuttering individual, who has been affected due to his Mother’s domination.
Dale Harding( William Redfield)– a soft spoken, intellectual, but his wife’s adultery and betrayal, left him deeply affected.
Charlie Cheswick( Sydney Lassik)– a neurotic with no self confidence
Martini( Danny De Vito)– an utterly immature person.
Taber( Christopher Lloyd)– a trouble maker, and a sadist.
The biggest problem Murphy has however is with the domineering Nurse Ratched who supervises his ward. Ratched loves to dominate and pyschologically emasculate the patients, making them feel worthless. Murphy goes about trying to brighten the otherwise dark, and depressing environment of the ward, by getting the inmates involved in basketball and also card games like poker, blackjack. Murphy proves to be a prickly thorn for Nurse Ratched, questioning the rules and regulations, refusing to follow her. He tries to forment a rebellion, by getting the patients on to his side.
Nurse Ratched is however unwilling to let go of her authority, and she keeps thwarting Murphy’s mind games at every stage. It becomes a battle between Murphy and Ratched, both of them giving no quarter. The doctors feel that Murphy is putting on a charade, and when he manages to sneak out the inmates for an outdoor trip, before being caught again, he is regarded as “dangerous”, but not insane however. Nurse Ratched however is not willing to let Murphy leave the place, as she wants to break him down fully.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, addresses the age old conflict of individual vs an oppresive system. Forman was a witness to the Prague Spring and he himself was a victim of censorship. The asylum could as well have been the metaphor for Soviet Russia, which had brutally crushed the uprisings in Hungary(1956) and Czechoslovakia(1968). Nurse Ratched’s tactics in many ways, are eerily reminiscient of the mind control techniques used by KGB , Stasi to brain wash dissidents and torture them mentally. Also the Soviet system was notorious for sending dissidents to asylums, where they were locked up forever.
The asylum becomes a battleground between Murphy and Ratched, as both try to establish their authority. For starters Murphy, never thinks he is sane, as he says
I’m a god-damn marvel of modern science
The divergence in the views of Murphy and Ratched is clearly shown in the scene, where Murphy demands a small change in the schedule, so that inmates could see the opener of the 1963 World Series, saying a little change never hurts. Ratched immediately retorts.
Some men on the ward take a long, long time to get used to the schedule. Change it now and they might find it very disturbing
Quite a sinister parallel to some of the Warsaw Pact states during the Cold War. As long as they toed the line of Kremlin, everything was fine, but if they dared to break away like Hungary or Czechoslovakia, immediately, you would have Russian tanks comming in. Not that the US was better, as for all its commitment to democracy, it propped up many tin pot dictators so as to topple democratic regimes, not in tune with its policies, Chile being the best example.
In spite of the often dark, and brooding nature of the theme, director Milos Forman, injects moments of humour and warmth. One of the best being when denied access to watch the World Series on TV, Murphy actually recreates the game play by play, using inventive techniques. Jack Nicholson’s performance in the scene is just brilliant, as he keeps switching his expressions. Just this scene would make you understand why Jack totally deserved the Best Actor award.
Another really great scene is when Murphy sneaks out the inmates of his ward , on a wild fishing trip. In one of the best comic sequences in movie history, he introduces the asylum inmates as doctors themselves.
This is Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Frederickson, Dr. Scanlon, the famous Dr. Scanlon, Mr. Harding, Dr. Bibbit, Dr. Martini, and Dr. Sefelt (William Duell)…Oh, I’m Dr. McMurphy, R. P. McMurphy.
And again here apart from Murphy and Ratched, the other characters in the movie also create a strong impact. Especially, the nervous, stuttering Billy, who suffers from mother domination, and whose weakness is made use of by Ratched, superb performance from Brad Douriff in his debut movie. Will Sampson, Danny De Vito and Christopher Lloyd, offer excellent support too.
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched is first rate. In a role, that is cold, calculating and dominating, she exudes so much menace, that you just end up hating her. You detest the way she changes rules wilfully and preys on the inmates weaknesses. She deserved the Best Actress Award as much as Jack did. And of course no mention would be complete without good ole Jack, who puts in a fantastic performance, that is rebellious, quirky and angry. He makes you chuckle, and yet in the final scenes, he affects you emotionally.
This is the only other movie along with It Happened One Night, and Silence of the Lambs to win all the 5 Major oscars, Best Movie, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay. And it deserved all of them.