By John H. Foote
4. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
That word best describes the purity of Jack Nicholson’s mesmerizing performance as R. P. McMurphy in Milos Foreman’s superb film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, adapted from the Ken Kesey novel. Nicholson was never better, and let’s be clear he has been mighty good since, but here was a perfect marriage of the role and the actor. He was born to play this part, slipping it on like a glove, perfectly fitting, and delivered a flawless performance, one for the ages. Was there any other actor who could have given the role what Nicholson did? I doubt it.
When Kirk Douglas purchased the rights to the book by Ken Kesey, he turned it into a play which ran on Broadway with Douglas as McMurphy. He tried numerous times to make a film, but no one was interested. In the seventies, he gifted his son Michael, then a minor actor and a regular on TV’s The Streets of San Francisco, with the rights to the book and Michael got moving. He went outside the film business to record producer Saul Zaentz who came aboard with the money to make the film, and hired Czech director Milos Foreman, hoping he could bring a hyper realism to the picture. Michael did have to break the news to his father that he was now too old for the part, which devastated Kirk, though he understood the trappings of the business.
Foreman saw the book being similar to what he had left in Czechoslovakia when the Russian invaded. Nurse Ratched and the administration of the hospital to Foreman represented the Communists, telling him how to live and what he could do and not do. He understood the complexities of the screenplay, every aspect, and turned out to be the perfect filmmaker for the film.
Nicholson was cast after Gene Hackman was briefly considered, and their greatest challenge became the casting of Nurse Ratched. Whoever took the part knew that they would be universally despised, not what every actress wants, though the part was a fine one. Anne Bancroft turned it down, then Faye Dunaway, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, and then one after another all the major actresses proved uninterested. While watching Thieves Like Us, in which Louise Fletcher had a small role, Foreman felt she had the right qualities to portray the role, and after seven meetings it was announced Fletcher would play the part. The balance of the characters were portrayed by veteran character actors, some who had appeared in the play onstage. Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, William Redfield, Sydney Lassick, and Billy Bibbit would provide solid support for Nicholson as the patients on the ward. For the plum role of the towering Chief Bromden, thought to be a deafmute Native American, they were stumped, until a chance meeting on an airplane between Douglas and a used car salesman who recommended Douglas meet Park Ranger Will Sampson. They met and Sampson was cast.
The decision was made to shoot the film on location in and around the State Mental Hospital in Salem, Oregon and in and around the Oregon coast. Real patients were used for those in the background and one of the doctors, Dr. Dean Brooks, portrayed the head of the hospital, Dr. Spivey in the film.
The story was one perfect for the seventies, the lashing back of the individual against the powers of authority taking away his rights. Is it crazy to want different things than what society might deem normal? What is normal? McMurphy (Nicholson) arrives at the hospital after faking crazy behavior during a jail term, hoping to spend his last 50 plus days resting in a mental hospital. He arrives full of bluster and hell and is soon running the ward, making a killing in the several daily poker games. He becomes aware the men are terrified of the Head Nurse, Mildred Ratched (Fletcher), who runs the ward with an iron fist, unbendable in what she believes is right for the men. But there is an agenda that becomes apparent in her methods, she hates men, and metaphorically castrates each man on the ward, taking away their freedom of choice, emasculating each one very carefully, recognizing what works to do so for each. McMurphy puzzles her because she has never encountered one like him, and she realizes he knows exactly what she is doing. He tries to have the TV schedule changed to watch the World Series, but she will not allow it, so he imagines what he is seeing on TV and gives the men their game anyway. He organizes a basketball game and brings the massive Bromden into the game, and the Native actually plays, scoring points and preventing them. Best of all he takes the men fishing, stealing the bus for outings and renting a boat for deep sea fishing. He brings them back to life, and she knows this when meek Cheswick (Lassick) challenges her authority about his cigarettes, demanding them back. It is during this meeting McMurphy challenges her at the fact she can keep him here as long as she wants, while the other are mostly voluntary, they can leave whenever they want. That they remain is indicative of the powerful hold she has on them.
The meeting is blown to pieces when Cheswick explodes in rage at Ratched, McMurphy shatters the glass to get his cigarettes, is attacked by the guards and Bromden comes to his rescue. The three are sent upstairs for electric shock therapy, hoping to calm them down and punish them. When Cheswick is taken away, screaming and fighting them, obviously terrified, Bromden reveals to McMurphy he can speak, and hear, and has in fact fooled all of them.
When McMurphy returns he knows he has to get out, he can no longer stay here. He and Bromden plan to leave for Canada, but before leaving throw a party for the men with the help of the night watchman. The party reveals much of the love the men have for McMurphy, and a great deal about him. There is a moment the camera closes in on McMurphy and far in the distance he hears a train whistle, and so many emotions for through his face, ending with a smile at the impending escape. During the party stuttering Bill (Brad Dourif) has sex with McMurphy’s friend Candy, and the men take all sorts of drugs and much alcohol, leaving the ward a disaster. Sadly for McMurphy he passes out waiting for Billy, and the guards arrive with a very angry Ratched. The ward is locked down, and the men gather around her ashamed. She knows who the engineer of this party was. The guards find Billy still locked in embrace with Candy and bring him out, escorting her from the building. When she speaks to Billy, he has no stutter. His confidence has been restored, and not once does he stutter. But seeing this she brings his mother into it, and the stutter returns. McMurphy watches this in horror not believing she could do that to him. Billy is left in her office, grabs a scalpel and cuts his throat, killing himself. Horrified, Ratched tries to calm the men but McMurphy grabs her by the throat and drops her to the ground hellbent on killing her. Locked in like lovers, he is killing her when knocked out by one of the guards.
We next see the men playing cards, talking like McMurphy, talking about him, wondering where he is. Nurse Ratched wears a neck brace and seems a tad more fearful than she was before. McMurphy is brought back into the ward that night, and Bromden goes to him in his bed. He lifts him and sees they have lobotomized him, the scar evident on his forehead. Taking his friend in a tight embrace, he holds him, then lays him gently down and whisper, “You’re coming with me.” At that point he takes a pillow and places it over McMurphy’s face and suffocates his friend, freeing him forever. Bromden then picks up the massive bath McMurphy could not budge and throws it through a window, making his escape. In his own way McMurphy has freed them all.
Nicholson was simply extraordinary as McMurphy, giving the greatest performance of his career, and consider the ones he gave before and after. Critics lined up singing his praises, and audiences filled theatres to make the film a major box office hit. With this performance he became the symbol for rebellion in the seventies, the anti-authoritarian, the anti-hero for his time. He won Best Actor awards from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Society of Film Critics, and the New York Film Critics. Further awards from the Hollywood Foreign Press, and the Academy Award make this one of the most acclaimed performances in film history.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and on Oscar night it collected the major five: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress for Louise Fletcher, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The last film to sweep the Oscars was It Happened One Night in 1934, and The Silence of the Lambs did so in 1991.
Fletcher was the perfect choice for Ratched, capturing the essence of a woman who believes in everything she does, right or wrong. Underneath her façade, if one were to explore it, she clearly hates men and enjoys reducing them to piles of jello as she does with Billy and as she has done with all of them, except McMurphy at one point. Clear eyed, shark like, her face impassive, she is a predator, seeking out the weak and destroying them. It must have been a very difficult role to portray, but the actress was rewarded with great acclaim and an Oscar. She never came close to this kind of role again.
The supporting actors were superb, best of all Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, the meek little man who explodes in rage realizing McMurphy is right about Ratched. Brad Dourif was brilliant and Oscar nominated as stuttering Billy Bibbit, Sampson was excellent as Chief, William Redfield equally fine as Harding, the entire group was flawless.
A haunting score suggested by Native American music underscores the film, bringing to mind the spirits that haunt the landscape, crying the souls to come to them and be free. And that is where Bromden sends McMurphy.
Long before he was an acclaimed actor in his own right, a very young Michael Douglas won an Oscar for producing this magnificent film. Seventeen years later he would win an Academy Award for Best Actor for Wall Street (1987) as fellow nominee Jack Nicholson cheered him on. His father Kirk must be mighty proud.
An American masterpiece.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.