I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1975 winner, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, directed by Milos Forman and starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Will Sampson. I've seen the movie a couple times, the first time about 20 years ago, much as it pains me to admit it.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a drama based on the book by Ken Kesey. Through both humor and serious moments, the movie critiques both the mental health system and our society.
The other Best Picture nominees that year were Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, and Nashville. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest also won Oscars for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Nicholson), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Fletcher), Best Director, and Best Writing (Screenplay Adapted from Other Material).
The film focuses on Randle P. "Mac" McMurphy, played skillfully by Nicholson, who is moved from the prison system into a mental hospital after causing one too many problems. Initially, he is sent there simply for evaluation, to determine if he has some sort of mental illness.
It doesn't take long for him to figure out that the mental hospital, while regulated, is a much freer environment than the prison. He befriends the more lucid members of his ward, many of whom seem normal except for a few quirks. It doesn't take Mac long to begin stirring up trouble, trying to make opportunities for these inmates that they don't normally receive, such as watching a baseball game on TV or taking a fishing outing. Ultimately, though, Mac truly wants to escape.
I don't know if it's because I have seen it more than once or because it made an impression on me, but I remembered a good deal of this movie. I did forget a few key moments, so I was surprised to see them play out again.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a very quiet film, and Forman wanted it to be very claustrophobic, initially resisting the idea of leaving the hospital grounds at all. Yet, the producers prevailed on him to include a key moment from the book, and he said in the DVD commentary that he's glad he did.
On the commentary track, Forman and two of the producers, including Michael Douglas, discussed the casting of the film. They said that, while they knew they wanted a star for the lead, they deliberately chose unknown actors for the other roles. It's a measure of the quality of their casting that so many of those unknowns are now respected in their field, such as Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, and the prolific character actors Sydney Lassick and Vincent Schiavelli.
The most serendipitous casting decision was of Sampson, who played Chief Bromden, the towering silent Native American. This part was difficult to cast because it called for a tall Native American man, which is rare. Using some connections, they heard about an artist from Yakima, Washington, who might be a good choice. As soon as stepped off the plane, they knew he had the look, and they asked him to join them for a reading. When they found he could act, they knew they had their man.
The cast was an important aspect to the movie's success, in part because of Forman's directing techniques. He arranged for the actors to follow some patients at a mental hospital and pay attention to their mannerisms. During the shooting, he took a novel approach, having one camera focus on the important characters while another camera roamed around, getting reactions. This meant the actors always had to be in character.
When Nicholson, who was late due to another project, arrived for the shooting, he was unnerved that he couldn't get these actors to break character, even for lunch.
It didn't take Nicholson long to adapt, and Forman credits him for improvising some of Mac's dialogue. Occasionally, this was planned, for example, in the scene where he is processed by the head doctor. Dean R. Brooks, who played Dr. Spivey, was actually the administrator of the mental hospital where the film was shooting, in an empty wing. He and Nicholson were not given any dialogue. Rather, Forman gave him a file and told him to process McMurphy like he would any other patient. Nicholson answered in character. One of the hardest tasks of the editing process, Forman said, was boiling down the 20 minutes of footage into only six, because it was all so compelling.
That is really what makes this movie so watchable, even after repeated viewings. As Forman said in the commentary, it's the fascination of watching other people and how they behave. These actors were always in character, never knowing when the camera would find them, and there are a lot of marvelous moments that would have been hard to orchestrate otherwise.
When I first watched the film, I didn't know much about author Kesey, but since then, I've read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, as well as other contemporary accounts of his cross-country journeys with a bus full of young people in the '60s. In keeping with Kesey's views, the movie takes a firm stance against regimentation and conformity, coming down on the side of passion, exploration and individuality. Yet, it acknowledges that often, the square peg is eventually forced into the round hole, regardless of the damage that may do.
Mac, I think, can be seen as an alter ego for Kesey, who rounded up a group of misfits to travel the country, sample psychedelic drugs, and try to find a higher truth. While he was trying to teach these people to loose their reins, follow their instincts, they looked increasingly to him for guidance and inspiration. And while he was a strong personality who initially welcomed this adoration, eventually it became a burden and an annoyance. Perhaps he feared that this would ultimately lead to his self-destruction. Predictably, when he decided to end his journey, many of his followers were disappointed. It must have been frustrating for him that he'd spent so much time trying to teach people to think for themselves, and all he'd managed to do was get them to think like him.
I'm sure it was gratifying to him to write a book like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where at least one character finds his own inner strength. I won't say more, for fear of spoiling the movie, even though clips have been shown widely of some of the key moments. I will say, though, that Kesey sued over the adaptation, because he was upset that the film didn't show things through Chief Bromden's point of view, as the book does.
To modern viewers, this kind of role is perfect for Nicholson. However, as Douglas explained in the commentary, at the time of this movie, Nicholson was seen as an intellectual. This was the first film that hinted at a darker, more dangerous side.
I'd be interested to hear from anyone with knowledge of the current mental health system to learn what has changed since the 1970s. While I know there have been many changes, several years ago, I attended a dinner with my father, who's an osteopath. The keynote speaker advocated electro shock therapy as a cure for bipolar disorder, which upset my dad greatly, who considered walking out. I understand, though, that it is still used on occasion.
Even if there have been strides in the mental health system, there is still a tendency within our society to seek conformity. This movie's statements about that are just as relevant today as when the film was made.
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
An ensemble cast depends upon strong actors.