One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – 1975
Director – Milos Forman
Starring – Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, and Louise Fletcher
Based on the popular novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those iconic, larger than life movies, where the public’s impressions of it have grown beyond it’s content. Jack Nicolson plays, well…he plays the Jack Nicholson that he always does. The story, while it follows Nicholson’s character (R.P. McMurphy), isn’t about him. His character acts as a catalyst for the other residents of the ward, and with all the expectations and preconceived notions about this movie, this fact is a bit of a let down.
For starters, Nicholson is playing Jack Nicholson, period. Where in Five Easy Pieces he deviated from his usual approach to acting, here in Cuckoo’s Nest, he embraces it. I guess the fact that he plays a character in a mental asylum makes the style more appropriate, having seen it literally a dozen times before does somehow lessen the impact.
As I hinted at before, Nicholson plays a character by the name of R.P. McMurphy, who at the beginning of the film is being admitted to a mental hospital due to his acting out repeatedly on the job. Immediately, McMurphy manages to rile up the other residents of his ward with his antics and questioning of the status quo, normally kept in check by the imposing nurse Ratched. McMurphy, who is there by force, is flabbergasted to find out that the other men stay in this place by choice. He shows his disdain for the institution and its staff by consistently breaking the rules, breaking out, and challenging the authority of his captors.
So, I’ve covered my thoughts on Jack Nicholson’s acting, but luckily this film doesn’t rely solely on his performance. The other residents of the asylum as well as the wonderfully devious turn by Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched provide a bevy of wonderful performances that truly move the plot of the film forward. A lot of familiar faces show up as relatively minor roles, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Scatman Coruthers, were all people I knew instantly, but there are a number of other lesser known actors that inhabit some of the other roles. One prominent, completely believable character, Billy Bibbit, is fleshed out by the character actor Brad Dourif. Despite Nicholson’s appearance on the poster and his notoriety pushing the popularity of the film, it is these other smaller roles that completely envelop us. Through McMurphy we are allowed to watch Dourif’s Bibbit grow, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched fume, and scheme, and perhaps most famously Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden free himself from his self-imposed bondage.
I don’t know if this rather voyeuristic outcome was intended by the director, or by Nicholson’s performance, but thankfully that is what happened. Nicholson represents a chaos to these people, the same way a tornado or a car accident might in another film. His character is something almost as powerful as a force of nature, something to be endured and weathered by each of the other characters. If that was the desired outcome, then I take back my negative criticism of Nicholson’s performance. Unfortunately this sort of thing only works once and a while, and he’s been playing the same character for years.
The cinematography, while fitting for the setting and tone of the film, didn’t seem all that different from other films in the seventies, and as a result didn’t catch my attention so much.
Despite my initial impression of Nicholson’s performance, I did really end up enjoying the film. I didn’t realize quite how many of the plot points I had a decent knowledge of either, thanks to pop-culture references in other movies and television shows, so there was quite a lot of material that was fun and engaging. I’d be interested in reading more about the history of this film, and it’s appearance on this list, but for the moment I’m content with having seen the film.
“Don’t fuck with your nurse” – Ashley