35 years ago,One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest introduced the world to R.P. McMurphy. At once hilarious, poignant, and iconically tragic, Jack Nicholson’s performances was one of the best of his career. On the surface, the story was that of an inmate doing time in an asylum for possible insanity. But in actuality, the story was about the liberation of the rest of the patients, all held back by their metaphorical shackles. There’s something incredibly exhilarating about watching this group of people, and seeing them slowly awaken to the possibilities around them.
The film was nominated for a staggering 9 Academy Awards, and took 5 of them home, including Best Picture. This is just one of those films in which everything worked. Over the years, the film has been emulated (or ripped off, depending on your point of view) by several other movies and shows. However, I’ve never seen another attempt at this story match the power of this film.
It really isn’t just Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy that makes this film as powerful as it is. I was surprised to see amazing performances from such well-known actors as Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd. However, with the exception of Nicholson, the true standout in this film is Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. On the surface, she seems to have the best intentions. But underneath, you can sense the sadistic glee that she takes in asserting her dominance over the rest of the inmates. She thrives on the power that she has over them, and while it’s subtle, there is a war between her and McMurphy.
These two characters represent two extremes. He is liberated, has no structure, and lives his life however he wants. On the flip side, she is cold, calculating, and representative of authority and control. It’s a fascinating dynamic that develops throughout the film. There are several setpieces throughout the film demonstrating this dichotomy. A particular standout involves Nurse Ratched forbidding the patients from watching the World Series, only to watch in disgust as McMurphy gets all of the other patients worked up by pretending to call the game, even though while the television is off.
You can tell that everyone involved knew they were making something special. It comes through in the performances. Every character is memorable, and all the of actors give it their all. The film feels real. Part of this has to do with the fact that they filmed in a real asylum, with real patients as extras. There was some controversy as to the ethics of this decision, but it definitely adds that extra layer to the film.
The film has a fascinating history, all documented in the amazing 1997 feature “Completely Cuckoo.” The entire 86 minute feature is included on the recently released Blu-Ray, and this feature alone makes the set worth getting. This is a very honest look at all of the hardships that went into the making of the film. There were a lot of conflicts between Ken Kessey (the author of the novel on which the film is based), director Milos Forman, and Jack Nicholson. While Nicholson doesn’t appear in this documentary, there is fascinating insight from Kessey (who admits to being high on peyote while locked up himself when he wrote it), executive producer Michael Douglas, Forman, etc. Everything from script development to the actual filming itself is covered in this feature.
Also included is a 31 minute feature called “Asylum: An Empty Nest for Mentally Ill.” This feature doesn’t directly pertain to the film, but rather, is a look at real-life asylums. It’s an interesting feature, but nowhere near as compelling as “Completely Cuckoo.” Rounding out the set is the trailer, some deleted scenes, and an insightful commentary track. It’s a pretty great set of extras, but the film itself is the best reason for picking up this set. Also included are some playing cards, posters, etc., and while fun, they aren’t necessary.
Overall, I was surprised at how well the film holds up. It’s easy to see why these characters have become so iconic over the years. While the story may be simple, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a testament to just how powerful cinema can be.