As a teenager, you probably wouldn’t expect to come home after a night out with friends to your parents enthusiastically holding up a Netflix copy of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, insisting that you watch it with them at that very moment. Indeed, it’s something that can happen. Seeing that film in my vulnerable teenage years certainly left an impression. As a budding movie addict, it contributed deeply to my quest to watch great films, classics as they can be called. As a person, it made me realize the complexities of human nature and how fragile the mind is. My teenage self did recognize its power then to an extent, but re-watching it now so close to its 40th anniversary brings up a lot of new emotions.
Based on the book by Ken Kesey and directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus, Man on the Moon), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released in the US on November 21, 1975. It’s one of the many films of the 70s that tackled tough and dark subjects in an up-close and realistic way. As a reminder, the story follows a group of men in a psychiatric hospital whose lives are changed by new patient R.P. McMurphy. Played memorably by Jack Nicholson, McMurphy is the catalyst for all of the events in the film, disrupting the typical hospital routine and challenging the hospital’s authority that takes the shape of the formidable Nurse Ratched (played to an evil perfection by Louise Fletcher).
While being an Oscar-winning vehicle for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the film showcases the early years of Christopher Loyd, Danny Devito, and Brad Dourif (who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) who, with the rest of the cast, fully embody the patients they play. The fact that it’s filmed in an actual psych hospital in Oregon with most of the extras being real patients there is a testament to Forman’s insistence on realism and capturing true emotion and reactions. This of course adds to the realism, the feeling that you’re watching actual events take place in a psychiatric hospital in the 70s. It also deals with a subject matter that tends to be avoided. Mental health and how it’s been handled over the years isn’t the easiest topic to explore, and this film tackles it head on in an unforgiving way.
It’s hard to imagine McMurphy played by anyone other than Jack Nicholson, despite the fact that many other actors were considered for the role, including Burt Reynolds. Nicholson so encompasses the role, most likely helped by his own seemingly manic behavior. People may say that he’s just playing himself since he’s always fallen into the role of “crazy” so well that it’s become a staple of who he actually is. But Nicholson’s eccentric qualities are perfect for the authenticity that Forman was going for in Cuckoo’s Nest. On the surface, Nicholson’s own quirks show, but there’s a subtle deepness that sneaks out in his performance that makes it truly unique. It’s not as showy as some may think. It’s loud and disruptive, but it fits into the atmosphere of the film. Right from the beginning it’s obvious that an outside character is going to come in to alleviate the monotony of psychiatric living. The way McMurphy goes about doing that is enthralling to watch, especially when it pits him against the authority of the hospital.
What also makes Nicholson’s McMurphy not completely overwhelming is the ensemble cast. Kudos to Louise Fletcher for instilling fear in all who gazed upon the stone-cold face of Nurse Ratched. My teenage self resurfaced briefly during my re-watch of the film every time Ratched came on screen. She’s unassuming at first, but her authority slowly looms over McMurphy and the rest of the ward up to the film’s unnerving climax. The non-violent battle (at least until the end) between her and McMurphy is fascinating to study. He’s clearly the first one to truly challenge her, and even though she falters at moments, she ends up winning to a certain extent. Her manipulation of the patients and the ease at which she can make patients turn against each other makes her one of cinema’s most formidable antagonists: a woman who embodies authority with no sympathy for those whom she determines as inferior to her.
Undoubtedly Nicholson and Fletcher are powerhouses of the film, but they would be nothing without the rest of the cast who play the patients. While Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) and Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) stood out to my teenage self, the whole ensemble is crucial because they all resemble the many different levels of mental illness. There’s no shying away from displaying the messiness and tragedy of mental disease. The vulnerability is unimaginably tangible, and almost every character shows it (yes, even McMurphy). There’s no glamour, no typical Hollywood touch-ups, just a genuine reflection of this side of humanity put together with such thought and strive for realism.
Revisiting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest provides a slew of emotions and new discoveries. Coming back to it after many years serves as a reminder of the lack of films nowadays (at least in the mainstream arena) that focus on mental illness. They are out there, certainly, but there hasn’t quite been one that has had the lasting impact that Cuckoo’s Nest has had. It being a Best Picture Oscar winner isn’t the reason why you should re-watch this film (or watch it at all if you haven’t yet, in which case please, please do so). Watch it for its realism, for its ability to illicit strong emotions as a mere representation of a harsh reality, and for it’s lasting legacy as being a sincere film about humanity that is unafraid to show the messiness of it all.