Classic Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Miloš Forman
Production Company: Fantasy Films

In my teen years, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a book by Tom Wolfe about author and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey.  This prompted me to immediately read Kesey’s most famous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  At some point later in life, I watched the movie, but I only vaguely remember not really liking it.  Well, I’m glad that I was prompted to rewatch the movie, because it turns out to be a compelling drama.

Jack Nicholson stars as Randle McMurphy, a convict who fakes insanity in order to avoid hard labor at a prison work farm.  His free spirit and combative attitude begin to stir things up among the men in his ward at the mental hospital.  What makes this movie for me is the excellent ensemble cast who portray the other patients.  This includes Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd (before they would work together again on Taxi), Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit, Sydney Lassick as the anxious Charlie Cheswick, and William Redfield as Dale Harding, who is kind of McMurphy’s biggest rival among the patients.  Another key character is “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), an apparently deaf and mute Native American.  Chief is the narrator of the book, but his significance in the movie is not as apparent until the final act. Nicholson’s future co-star of The Shining, Scatman Crothers, also has a key role as a night orderly.

Much of the drama in the film comes from the battle of the wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who leads the therapy sessions for the men in the ward.  I find it interesting that Nurse Ratched is commonly understood as a villain and wonder if patriarchal fears of men under the control of a woman play a part in that assessment.  In the film, Ratched is clearly an antagonist to McMurphy, but she is calm and I don’t believe she is malicious, at least not until the film’s denouement.

I read that Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy in a stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and wanted to star in the movie. It occurs to me that McMurphy is very similar in temperament to Douglas’ character in Ace in the Hole. They both believe that they can take control of a chaotic situation to serve their own ends.  And their hubris leads to a tragic ending.

Rating: ****1/2

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