Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif
Directed by Milos Forman
Rowdy convict Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has an idea for a way to avoid doing his stretch in the penitentiary: he fakes insanity and is sent to the state mental hospital for what he believes will be an easy ride with a bunch of harmless nuts. What the headstrong McMurphy doesn't expect is an antagonist every bit his equal: the cool, imperious Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs her ward like a battleship and won't countenance any destabilizing influences to upset the tranquil, monotonous lives led by her charges. McMurphy arrives on the ward and quickly stirs things up, demanding more freedom for the patients and attempting to rouse them out of their unchanging stupor. His hot-blooded, boisterous energy is matched at every turn by Nurse Ratched's cold-blooded, unemotional discipline, and as the ward descends into chaos and both combatants escalate their battle for control, the other patients are caught in the middle, coveting the freedom McMurphy offers them but terrified of Nurse Ratched's power of retribution.
Czech director Milos Forman hit gold with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, adapted from Ken Kesey's famed 1962 novel of rebellion; the film won five Oscars and was nominated for four more. Kesey, the "Merry Prankster" immortalized in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, wrote the book after working at a Veterans' Administration hospital in Menlo Park, California (the book, like the movie, is set in central Oregon), and the film vividly evokes the tile-and-plaster prison suggested by Kesey on the printed page. Nearly as faithful to the spirit of the book and certainly just as crucial to the success of the film are the performances of its major stars. Nicholson, whose breakout performance had come the year before in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, created for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the definitive "Jack Nicholson role" that has come to be associated with him in the public mind: the perception of Nicholson as a rambunctious, wisecracking rebel is driven by no role so much as R.P. McMurphy. Louise Fletcher, for her part, resists the temptation to overplay "Big Nurse" as an angry, abusive tyrant; with her level voice and unblinking glare, she creates a far more convincing portrait of uncaring authority than a more emotionally heightened performance would, without descending into a robotic caricature. (When Nurse Ratched tells you she's very disappointed with you, you really know you're in the shit.)
Points to ponder:
- If you've read the novel by Ken Kesey, how do you believe it resembles and differs from the movie? Are there any themes that are present in the novel but not in the film, or vice versa?
- At the 1976 Academy Awards, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest took home the award for Best Picture; Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards; and Milos Forman won for Best Director. The film became the first picture since 1934's It Happened One Night to win all four awards.
- One of the two producers of the film was a 30-year-old Michael Douglas, then a relatively unknown TV actor three years into his co-starring role on the police drama "The Streets of San Francisco." Douglas' father Kirk, who played McMurphy on Broadway in 1963, had purchased the film rights to the novel but transferred them to his son Michael, who does not appear in the film, after the elder Douglas became too old to star. (Incidentally, because the Best Picture Oscar statuettes go to a film's producers, Michael Douglas is therefore one of a handful of well-known actors who've won Oscars for doing something else, like Kevin Costner (Best Director, 1990) and Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (Best Original Screenplay, 1997).)
- Look for: "Taxi" costars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in early roles, as well as familiar character actors Vincent Schiavelli (Amadeus), Scatman Crothers (The Shining); and Brad Dourif (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). All play inmates on the ward except Crothers, who plays Turkle, the night orderly.