By John H. Foote
How can I properly do justice to one of the greatest American films of all time? A film that was brilliantly directed by Czech Milos Forman, using his documentary style to bring to the screen a new realism that was startling? Can words truly do justice to the breathtaking, and there is no other word, performance of Jack Nicholson and the sublime group of actors he was surrounded with? And young Michael Douglas, still in his fathers shadow, struggling to make it in movies as an actor was gifted the rights to the film and went outside the business to find his funding, ending his journey with an Academy Award for Best Picture, I only hope I do the film justice.
Unable to get a film made of the book and Broadway play, Kirk Douglas gifted his son Michael with the film rights, doubtful the young Douglas could ever get the film made. After being turned down by every major and minor studio, he secured the five-million-dollar budget from Saul Zaentz, the record producer and received distribution from United Artists.
Wanting the film to have a European sense of heightened realism he approached Czechoslovakian director Milos Forman who took the job. Casting was easy, everyone agreeing Jack Nicholson should be McMurphy, and many members of the Broadway cast, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, and William Redfield were cast. The problem were two major roles, the Nurse that McMurphy wages war with, and Bromden, the towering Native American McMurphy befriends. Forman approached Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Anne Bancroft, Shirley McLaine and even Swedish Actress Liv Ullman to portray Ratched but each one admitted fearing the role. Forman decided upon little known actress Louise Fletcher who had worked with Robert Altman and earned high praise.
The search for Bromden was more dramatic, they found him, Will Sampson, working in a national park as a ranger and hired him after seeing a very short audition.
The company then packed their bags and set up a home base in Oregon, at a state mental hospital, where many of the background patients were real patients within the facility. Nicholson had arrived two weeks earlier and resided in the hospital during that time to get the sense of what it was, to be committed, unable to leave.
There are times some sort of magic happens on a film set, when everything goes smooth and they just knew they were making a very special film.
When released it was an immediate sensation, both with audiences and film critics. The deeply, moving film captured something within audiences, the fight between the ordinary against authority being urgent in the seventies, a vicious authority at that. McMurphy (Nicholson) arrives at a state mental hospital from a federal prison, where he has acted up to get out of his work detail. He figures laying around with people thinking he is mentally ill is better than working for the man. When he encounters Nurse Ratched (Fletcher) and realizes the hold she has on the timid men on the ward, he lashes out. Seeing that she has metaphorically castrated each of the men with her imperious gaze, power and tone he makes it clear to the men they have a voice, but he pays a terrible price for reminding them they are alive.
This, 1963, was a time when mental hospitals could perform, at their leisure frontal lobotomies, and hold patients as long as they felt the need. They held staggering power over committed patients and McMurphy does not realize he has been committed. Thinking he can get out when his jail time is over, he fails to see that by playing a dangerous game with the Nurse, he is bringing about his own doom. The film is a powerful statement about power in the wrong hands, about never blindly trusting authority because they might just be dangerous. Too late, McMurphy discovers just how dangerous Ratched is.
Nicholson is breathtaking as McMurphy, the finest work of an impressive career, one of American cinema’s greatest achievements. He brings such joy to each moment, happy to be alive, happy to see the men smile and slowly begin to take their lives back. There is a moment of purity from Nicholson that I love. At the party, far in the distance he hears a train whistle, and he smiles at the idea of freedom and the fact he is just a few hours from it. Ironically, he will never see it.
Fletcher, with her shark like, impassive gaze, is the perfect foe, because she believes in what she is doing. That makes her all the more frightening, because she believes in her methods, because she is convinced what she is doing to the men is correct. Watch her systemically ruin poor Billy Bibbit for no reason at all. Frightening.
To the men, McMurphy is free. The Chief embraces his friend tightly before suffocating him Post lobotomy. He then does what McMurphy had threatened to do but could not, picks up a site bath/shower and throws it through the window, making his escape.
There are brilliant supporting performances from Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, William Redfield as Harding, but best of all Will Sampson as the towering Chief and Brad Dourif as gentle Billy Bibbit.
Forman’s masterful film won five Academy Awards, sweeping the major awards with Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay. It remains among the greatest films of our time, so full of life and because of the Chief and McMurphy…hope.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor