1963: McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has a criminal past and is in trouble once again. To escape hard labour in prison, he takes the insanity plea and is sent to a ward for the mad and insane. When he gets there, he is both at the brunt of and a witness to systematic abuse from the oppressive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). She gets kicks out of using her superiority to degrade others, by manipulating the flaws of the ward’s inmates. McMurphy and the other patients join together in an act of mutiny to dismantle her oppressive regime, in hopes of making their current environment a little more bearable to live in.
Based on Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, the film is a blend of black comedy, and drama. With that said, that doesn’t mean this film isn’t filled with many powerful scenes. And I couldn’t help but feel the heavy Marxist tones. When the oppressed want to take out the oppressor, it’s all very “power to the people”, and I loved it. The tension between the inmates and the ward staff becomes more prominent with each moment. This leads to an explosive climax which is very interesting indeed. After seeing films like All The King’s Men, On The Waterfront and Mutiny on the Bounty, I’m an advocate for characters who have a rebellious streak and challenge authority.
Jack Nicholson as McMurphy (The Shining) is one of those characters that I’ll carry with me to the grave. His performance is outstanding, yet I’m pretty sure we’ve all known someone who will never be content with how things are. In my life, that was me and in this movie, McMurphy just wants to instigate change. It’s starts with small changes like watching The World Series (baseball) and then by the end, we’re in the midst of fully fledged revolt against the oppression of the systemic machine, with Nurse Ratched as the face of the dictatorial evil. As first time watches go, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one I’ll remember, and I can’t wait to read the novel.
Jack Nicholson is brilliant in this, and I think I enjoyed this performance more than his role as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s horror picture, The Shining. Nicholson fully deserved the Oscar for McMurphy. Louise Fletcher also won the Oscar for Best Actress, along with the film winning Best Picture, and Adapted Screenplay to Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, as well as Milo Forman receiving Best Director. The film thrust Danny DeVito (Space Jam) and Christopher Lloyd (Back To The Future Trilogy) onto the world stage, in addition to Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) who was also given an Oscar-nod for his performance as Billy Bibbit.
This picture is both invigorating and depressing, often simultaneously. With most films before “going in”, I tend to watch trailers and look at a brief summary. Not so for this one. I went in knowing it had won the top five Oscars: leading actor/actress, director, adapted screenplay and Best Picture. I also had heard many whispers of it being a 70s classic and one of Jack Nicholson’s finest roles. What’s more, it was next on my list of Best Picture-winners to watch, and after that hype, how could I refuse? And to watch this in all its glory as I did last night, was a great honour and surpassed all my hopes. It’s an achievement for cinema, that’s much is certain.
Even the title is worth talking about. The title is a literal summary of the movie. The cuckoo bird is renowned for stealing other birds’ nests by laying their eggs in the said nest. And I guess, McMurphy is the cuckoo bird in the sense that he laid his ideas (eggs) in a mental institution (nest). Once he was done, he flew over it. Though, if the end is any consolation, he didn’t physically escape, but he did escape in the sense that he beat the man. What is ideology? What is unity? What is change? He pushed ideas. They’re just abstractions, and ideas are bulletproof. So, in a way, McMurphy did win. On a side note, cuckoo is also a slang term for anyone who’s mad.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest shows that all men can be equal if we allow ourselves not to be split into ‘us and them’ but judge one another on our characters. It’s a Marxist depiction of an institution, and the same analysis can be applied to other institutions like the media, organised religion and law enforcement. With excellent performances from all the cast, this film is certainly one I intend to revisit in the future.