“They’re going off the rails on a crazy train!” Academy Award winners Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher and Academy Award nominee Brad Dourif star in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Cast of Characters:
Randle McMurphy – Jack Nicholson
Nurse Ratched – Louise Fletcher
Billy Bibbit – Brad Dourif
“Chief” Bromden – Will Sampson
Charlie Cheswick – Sydney Lassick
Max Taber – Christopher Lloyd
Martini – Danny DeVito
Bruce Frederickson – Vincent Schiavelli
Orderly Turkle – Scatman Crothers
Dale Harding – William Redfield
Director – Milos Forman
Screenplay – Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Based on the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Producer – Saul Zaentz & Michael Douglas
In 1963 Oregon, Randel McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is an anti-authoritarian criminal who’s in the midst of serving time on a prison farm for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. His sentence is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation, and though he appears to show no sign of mental illness, he’s more than happy for the transfer, hoping to avoid hard labor and enjoy a more relaxed environment.
But he soon learns the hard way that a relaxed environment is not in store for him as his ward is run by the cold, steely, and uncompromising Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who goes to great passive-aggressive length to remind McMurphy daily that perhaps his time on the farm wasn’t so bad after all.
Jack Nicholson certainly had an acclaimed career prior to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I mean, four Oscar nominations don’t lie (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail and Chinatown). But One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be the difference maker in elevating Nicholson from a great actor to a superstar.
Along with Jack’s newfound superstardom, this film would be the American breakthrough for Czech filmmaker Milos Forman (Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon), and would be one of only three films to win the Oscar’s “Big Five” (actor, actress, director, screenplay and picture), the other two being It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs.
One common criticism that I’ve heard from some, even from those who like the film, is that this isn’t an accurate depiction of mental illness, but that’s far from the film’s intent. That would be like me complaining that Network isn’t an accurate depiction of broadcast news (in reality, Howard Beale would probably be wrapped in a straight jacket, not given his own hit show). One could accuse Forman and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman of creating caricature patients, albeit highly colorful ones, if they were going for an insightful look at the psychiatric institution. However, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest serves as satirical statement on the rift between the conformist establishment (the psych ward) and the free-spirited individualist (Randle McMurphy).
Despite Forman’s simplistic approach to mental illness, he doesn’t entirely avoid exploring the psychoses of McMurphy’s fellow patients. By allowing us us to sit in on their therapy sessions fly-on-the-wall style, Forman lets us observe their quirks and personal issues. These sessions are also where over time, we, like McMurphy, slowly come to see the iron grip Nurse Ratched has on these patients, despite McMurphy’s efforts to inspire even the tiniest bit of confidence within them.
Yes, the patients are comic caricatures and Forman’s by no means going for subtlety, but the beauty of satire is that it allows for certain embellishments. Not only do they work here, in some cases they’re effectively heartbreaking, e.g., Billy Bibbit.
No doubt, the film’s greatest strength is Jack Nicholson, whose real life persona has become just as much Hollywood’s rebel as the system-bucking McMurphy, the wild antihero who at first is not all that likable of a character and is even at times just as much the problem as he is the solution to the patients’ problems (that he appears to make no apologies for sleeping with a 15-year-old girl means he’s gonna have to go above and beyond in earning our admiration). His stellar performance, which would lead to his first of three Oscars, manages to utilize all the colors on his palette. Nicholson’s trademark sense of unbridled comic anarchy that he’s become widely known for is, of course, on display and fits McMurphy’s unapologetic, “don’t give a shit” attitude, but he also knows when to hold back and let what few glimmers of humanity McMurphy has left shine, most notably in the relationships that develop between he, Bibbit and Chief.
It’s unfortunate that despite her Oscar win for Best Actress, Louise Fletcher has not received the same amount of praise that Nicholson’s gotten, ’cause she’s certainly earned it. Fletcher is so magnificently cold and you can practically cut through the tension that builds between her and Nicholson’s battle of the strong-willed sexes. What makes her performance so compelling is that she doesn’t play Nurse Ratched as a villain. Ratched firmly believes that what she’s doing is right and that it’s in her patients’ best interests. No matter what, even at her most aggravating, she’s calm and composed, yet you still wanna bitch slap her because of it. Basically, she’s like the annoying clicking of the pen by your ear. It’s a testament to how phenomenal she is that she’s able to get under our skin without going over-the-top evil, and it’s a shame that this moment here would be as good as her film career would get.
Among the supporting players, careers were kickstarted through this film, and some have gone on to achieve some level of stardom (Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito). Though, as been mentioned, they are portraying caricatures, each of them provide enough unique comic flavor to their roles. In a handful of scenes, Christopher Lloyd gets to showcase the manic energy that would later define his career. The banter between Sydney Lassick’s Cheswick and the late Broadway star William Redfield’s Harding is great. Redfield was diagnosed with Leukemia midway through filming, but he insisted on finishing the film. He died a little over a year later, but left us with a memorable performance here.
The best of the supporting performances belongs to Brad Dourif. Even with only one uncredited appearance to his name prior to his career-starting turn as Billy Bibbit, Dourif locked up a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and as great as George Burns was in The Sunshine Boys, he should’ve won. Dourif’s obviously the “third wheel” behind Nicholson and Fletcher, but his shy, stuttering Billy is arguably the most tragic figure out of all the characters, and he earns every heart-wrenching emotional note he hits.
Post-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dourif has become more a cult favorite among B-Horror film fans (voicing Chucky in the Child’s Play franchise, The Exorcist III, Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboots), though he has popped up in dramas like Mississippi Burning, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and was an inspired choice to play Grima Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Not that winning the Oscar would’ve guaranteed a bigger career – just ask Fletcher – and not that the success he’s earned among horror fans is anything to be ashamed of either, but for a guy who’s become forever linked to a possessed ginger doll, his performance here is proof of a dramatic range that you might not see from him in say Critters 4.
Poignant, funny and, at times, utterly heartbreaking, Milos Forman’s biting satire of the establishment and culture wars of the ’70s is every bit as relevant today as it was when it first appeared on screens over four decades ago. Anchored by an emotionally honest, live-wire Jack Nicholson, this would be the turn that would transform the iconic actor into a superstar, and it speaks incredibly well of his performance here that out of his long, acclaimed resume, Randle P. McMurphy arguably remains his signature role.