Birds of a feather flock together
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is directed by Milos Forman and is based on the 1962 novel of the same name by author Ken Kesey. The film stars Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, and Christopher Lloyd. The film won all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best (Adapted) Screenplay.
Hollywood Golden Age actor Kirk Douglas came across Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest novel in 1961, instantly taking a liking to the novel and securing the film rights to the story. For the next decade however, Douglas failed to find a studio that was willing to make a film adaptation of the story with him, and so, Douglas sold off the rights to his son Michael (yes, that Michael Douglas), who ended up getting the production company Fantasy Films to agree to a film adaptation. Kirk Douglas was also hoping that, after playing the lead character in a 1963-64 Broadway version of Kesey's novel, he could play the lead character in the film version. However, Douglas was deemed too old for the lead role, and thus, the role eventually went to the younger Jack Nicholson.
It's kind of amazing sometimes to read into a certain film's production history and find out people whom you thought could not at all be attached, are actually quite vital to the film's production. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Kirk Douglas conceived the idea of a film adaptation, while Michael Douglas found a studio willing to make the adaptation. It wasn't the author Ken Kesey nor was it director Milos Forman who came forth about the possibility of the novel getting a film adaptation. No, it was Kirk Douglas and his son Michael: two people you probably would have never guessed were involved unless you paid close enough attention to the credits or have a vast knowledge of Kirk Douglas and/or Michael Douglas's careers.
But anyway, that's about all I'm going to say about the Douglas' and their involvement with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, because, oh man: any and all discussions about this film are most likely to be composed of Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Milos Forman, and the other wacky collection of characters on hand. When I do a review of a film that was adapted from a novel, I usually have to state that I did not read the novel- I always fail to find time out of my busy schedule to read a book- but this is a time where that is not true! I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest way back in my junior year of high school, and I still to this day consider it one of the more engrossing reads of my academic years. My first time watching the film version some years back was also a highly engrossing experience, with a recent second viewing being no worse for wear. The 1970's was one of the best decades for Best Picture winners, mostly because the films that won did a magnificent job of capturing a full spectrum of human emotions, while also being grand representations of the decade's cynical attitude and culture strife. Gone were the days of lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests that, nowadays, would offer nothing but thankless viewings. And while lovey dovey romances, happy go lucky musicals, and biographical snooze fests would eventually creep their way back into the Best Picture scene years later, it is extremely satisfying to come across a film like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, knowing you can watch it in the year 2019 and still feel a sense of elation.
The specifics of that sense of elation would mean massive spoilers, particularly in the way the film ends, so I am left with no choice but to leave that vagueness as is. The story of the film is basically the same as it is in the novel: longtime criminal Randall McMurphy (Nicholson) is sent to be evaluated at a mental institution in Oregon, following a short sentence at a prison farm for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. The mental institution is run by the controlling, passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched, who frequently holds meeting with other patients, in which she tries to make them feel intimidated and basically like they are the scum of the earth. Some of the patients include the stuttering Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif), childish Charlie Chaswick (Sydney Lassick), delusional Martini (Danny DeVito), paranoid Dale Harding (William Redfield), and the unruly Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). McMurphy quickly strikes up a friendship with these patients, while taking a special liking to another patient: the giant Native American "Chief" Bromden, who is thought to be deaf and mute by everyone else in the institution. While McMurphy is not mentally ill by any means, his rebellious mindset earns him the approval of the other patients, and quickly puts him at odds with Nurse Ratched.
The beauty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that it's a fairly easy story to analyze, and an analysis of the way the novel/film goes about topics such as mental health, the corruption of bureaucracy, and what confines the human spirit are all worthwhile topics that can still make significant headway today. And while One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not a straight-up message film on the importance of mental health, trying to say, "all people in mental institutions are human beings too", it's an uplifting encouragement about how people should not be prisoners of their own minds, and that, under the right circumstances, it's encouraged to break out of the status quo. This kind of approach is a very interesting one. On one hand, Milos Forman is allowing the film to soak in all the cynicism and rebellious attitudes that permeated throughout American culture in the 1970's, evident in the way that McMurphy earns the trust of the other patients and encourages them to stand up and oppose Nurse Ratched: voting to watch the World Series instead of having the nightly group meeting and questioning the medicine they're told to take every day, for example. On the other hand, Forman is encouraging positive messages about soul-searching and being human, primarily seen through the relationship between McMurphy and Chief. The film's cynical attitude and messages about humanity, you would think, should contradict one another, but they don't. The cynicism and positive messages actually complement one another, as if to say there is good to be had if you know where and when to be cynical and rebellious.
- None of the film's messages would feel worthwhile had it not been for some outstanding performances, primarily Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. McMurphy and Ratched are total opposites: McMurphy is the goofy, fun-loving rebel who tries to encourage everyone around him, while Nurse Ratched is the cold-hearted, all-business enforcer who strictly imposes the rule book on others. When Jack Nicholson is giving his all, he makes sure you know it. There is a not a dull moment to be had when Nicholson is on screen. McMurphy is either going to amuse you by doing/saying something funny, or he's going to explode with frustration and anger (and when he dies, the film takes a sharp dramatic turn). Either way, Nicholson does a great job of giving McMurphy an all-around charming and upbeat feel to him, despite the fact that we know McMurphy's a criminal who we don't want to invite over as the guest of honor to a fancy dinner party.
Fletcher, meanwhile, is magnificent in the way that she makes Nurse Ratched so captivating to watch, and likewise, so despicable when she succeeds. Ratched never smiles or laughs during the film, and in the few times she gets angry or stern, she's very controlled. In the hands of the wrong actress, Nurse Ratched would more likely resemble a robot that is learning how to express emotion, but with Louise Fletcher, she gives Ratched the iron hide she needs without losing that cutting, passive-aggressive edge that makes her performance more human and all the more convincing. Nicholson and Fletcher don't have to be in the frame together in order for their individual performances to thrive. Whether they are on screen together or not, Nicholson and Fletcher show they are fully immersed in their roles, taking the film to soaring heights.
- It's something of a minor spoiler to say that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is light on plot, but but I think, when you add in the fact that the film clocks in at 133 minutes, it speaks volumes of the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Good portions of the film are made up of the meetings involving McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, and the other patients, and not once do they ever get boring. That's the other part that makes the lack of plot and longer running time combination more impressive: it's never boring. The dialogue throughout the film gives us engaging and interesting dives into the lives of each patient that come to be in McMurphy's circle of friends, with each and every new meeting becoming more snappy and argumentative. None of the characters go on long monologues about what they've learned in life and what they hope to get out of being in the mental institution. All the conversations are very natural with grounded dialogue, and because of all the different personalities bouncing off one another, it never grows old. Who knows what the likes of Billy Bibbitt or Charlie Chaswick are going to say next? Just when you've think they've said the funniest or craziest thing yet, they might say something new that's even funnier, even crazier, or, hell, maybe both.
- Laughs: that's unfortunately something that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest doesn't end up having nearly enough of. I get why this movie is normally deemed a comedy-drama, but the problem is that the dramatic component overwhelms too much of the comedy component, so much that the movie struggles to balance a more lighthearted tone with a more serious one and thus, it's hard to tell sometimes when you think the movie is being dramatic, it's actually being funny, and vice versa. Nicholson is the film's main source of comedy, but knowing when and when not to laugh at the other patients feels rather dicey, because you run the risk of coming off as a sick human being who takes joy in others' misery. Then again, isn't all comedy rooted in misery? The point is: it's rather difficult to decipher what is supposed to be funny versus what is not funny from anyone that isn't Jack Nicholson. Maybe it's better if you just don't overthink it and, whatever you laugh it, you won't hate yourself later for it.
The other little bit of trivia I should mention as this review comes to a close is this: Ken Kesey hated the film, saying it "butchered" the story. That's a pretty stunning thing to hear from the author of the novel, who likely had optimistic feelings when Kirk and Michael Douglas worked on getting the film into production. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has developed a reputation over the years as being one of the greatest films ever made, on top of already being one of the greatest Best Picture winners of all time. Why should it not be? It's a marvelous feat of acting, directing, and screenwriting, taking the cynicism and rebellion that highlighted American culture in the 1960's and 1970's, and magically spinning it into an uplifting film that provides righteous commentary on how conforming to the status quo can make you a prisoner of your own mind. Nicholson and Fletcher are the obvious stand-outs from the cast, and the strong, natural-sounding dialogue from the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman never let the film become boring. The only place the film struggles is balancing its drama with its comedy, but when the dramatic parts are as good as they are, it's hard to get too upset about not getting enough laugh-out-loud moments. It's everything a Best Picture winner should be, and the decades since the film's initial release have not harmed it one bit. This is one old bird that still knows how to fly.
Recommend? Yes. Highly recommended.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: