Directed By: Milos Forman
Written By: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (based on the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson
R.P McMurphy is like an amalgamation of America’s then turbulent social climate and Hollywood’s resulting art. He’s an insubordinate, anti-establishment blue chipper in the vein of those disaffected proletarians who forged the early rebels of the New Hollywood era like Bonnie and Clyde. However his heroicness is more apparent and uncompromised. Mac, though he’s no saint, is truly admirable in his insurgence; a funny, intelligent, passionate rabblerouser whose self-serving ends are quickly distracted by the needs of his new compatriots.
Jack Nicholson plays the star of Milos Forman’s legendary awards courter One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a mesmerising exuberance and energy, the perfect figurehead for America’s culture wars as he takes to destabilising the repressive powers that be.
When we first meet Mac he’s just been transferred, gleefully, from a prison to a mental institution. We suspect he’s affecting insanity to dodge his work detail, but of course it’s out of the frying pan and into the fryer when he makes the swap to his new containment.
In the institution McMurphy finds himself surrounded by a parade of tragically browbeaten inmates, each in dire need of spiritual nourishment and all of whom are presided over by the dominatrix-like Nurse Ratched (a brilliantly calm and imposing Louise Fletcher), who masks sadism with tones and expressions of tranquillity.
Nurse Ratched is a devilish woman. We sense she’s chosen a mental institution to helm as the downtrodden men there allow her to flex her power with the least resistance. Her routine consists of emasculation and intimidation. The point to any of the questions she poses in group therapy are never clear, rather they act merely as ways she can get her foot in the door of the men’s insecurities. We see a sickness crawl across Ratched’s face whenever her patients express a trace of individual thought, and she eyes McMurphy as he pieces together exercises against conformity as though she’s calculating a sum. She typifies the repressive authority that Mac has devoted his life to rebelling against.
Upon his arrival the ward is swiftly transformed into McMurphy’s school of liberation. The film often seems to exist purely for McMurphy, such is the energy in Jack Nicholson’s performance. He moves with a bustling, happy-go-lucky liveliness and an inextricable sense of humour. The film is often side-splitting and much of the comedy stems from McMurphy’s wonderfully realised high school jock with a heart of gold routine. We know he has a back catalogue of violence and is prone to anger, but there’s a warmth in his optimism as he spots the prospect of entertainment in every situation. It’s an exciting performance, at once audacious and sympathetic, a gallant trooper fighting an up-hill battle against the system, a warring futility and hopefulness worn in his stride, a sense of uncertain destiny evoked in Jack Nitzsche’s score which mysteriously toes the line between shrill and serene.
McMurphy’s star student is an apparently deaf and dumb Indian (Will Sampson) who towers over his fellow inmates and is awoken by McMurphy’s default treatment of the patients as real human beings. Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) is most in need of Mac’s help, a stuttering, anxious young man living in constant fear of his mother’s disapproval, a disapproval drilled in him by Nurse Ratched. Among them also is an eccentric but deceptively strong willed Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), a rambling, frustrated intellect Harding (William Redfield), a volatile Taber (Christopher Lloyd) and a benign Martini (Danny De Vito) all of whom fit into a terrific ensemble, interacting though offbeat, emotionally charged dialogue which feels as though it’s been improvised.
Once we’ve met our players, Cuckoo’s Nest quickly settles into a routine of moving from one inspirational checkpoint to another, each overly simplistic in their message but each illustrated with a magical verve and passion. Among the instances are McMurphy taking bets to see if he can hurl a water fountain through a window (an impossible task but it’s the fact that he’s willing to try which counts of course), a basketball game against the attendants which unites the patients under the beauty of team work, the high-jacking of a fishing boat (“you’re not a goddamn looney now boy, you’re a fisherman!”) and the most wonderful of all, the viewing of a baseball game on a blank television set which McMurphy conjures in his imagination and commentates to his comrades, working the whole ward up in a frenzy over the fictional game.
Each instance signals an anti-authority battle which would threaten to be seen as overt and heavy handed as they truly are if they weren’t ruled by such an infectious big heartedness and profundity.
Like R.P McMurphy himself, Cuckoo’s Nest is showy. At times Milos Foreman is a little too self enthused, the film applauding its own lessons of individuality and liberation. But when you’re lessons are this important, when you’re this alive, this outright entertaining, who cares?