Though I like “Amadeus” (the original release, not the director’s uncut) and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” I am generally dubious of the (over)praised movies of Milos Forman. Though I read Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in college (at the height of the anti-psychiatry boom of Thomas Szasz, R. R. Laing, et al., when my second major was in psychology), I did not see Forman’s movie version until some years after it was crowned with the Oscar quadruple crown (picture, director, actor, actress; plus adapted screenplay) in 1975.
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Jack Nicholson’s insolent shtick was relatively fresh then (though after “The Last Detail” and “Five Easy Pieces”… and “The Missouri Breaks”), Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito were unknown to me, and “Question authority” was the motto of my (baby boom) generation. We regarded electroconvulsive shock therapy used to zonk out rebels (in the USSR and in the USA) with special dismay and skepticism, and its misuse is even more blatant in “Cuckoo’s Nest” than in Sam Fuller’s 1963 “Shock Corridor,” another movie in which it proves impossible to remain sane in an insane place.
When I did see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” I was underwhelmed by it. Then and now, I don’t understand that a supporting actor nomination went to Brad Dourif’s Mama’s boy Billy rather than to Will Sampson’s Chief (Sampson also made an impression in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” with Chief Dan George and Clint Eastwood). The very big Chief turns out to be the protagonist of the movie, following the martyrdom (zombification) of R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson), who got himself sent for psychiatric evaluation to avoid prison work.
I guess not only my own rebellious streak, but also my appreciation for rebellion (anarchy and self-gratification) has declined with age. I see Big Nurse (Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher) as manipulative and authoritarian, but not as a villain or even super-uptight. She has techniques for managing crazy people (in effect a license to be a dominatrix), but I think they need to be managed. In the context of stirring up the inmates, McMurphy is a management challenge that she does not shrink from. Moreover, I (now) see as his effect on everyone except for the Chief, and including himself and Billy, as harmful. I have not (d)evolved so far as to see Big Nurse as a heroine, but don’t see her as a monster, though I remain dubious about much of what passed as “treatment” before the US became the “Prozac Nation” and many profoundly disturbed people were turned out of asylums.
Watching the movie (again), I know that I am supposed to revel in most of the patients’ acting out and identify with the messianic McMurphy. Am I supposed to see the humor in his manipulating others as relentlessly (and for his own profit and amusement) as in Big Nurse’s manipulations (in the name of control and therapy)? Maybe I’m supposed to, definitely I do.
I sympathize with most everyone (except Danny DeVito’s character, Martini), including the staff (the black attendants and even Nurse Ratched), but the movie seems to me a major downer, what starts out as a comedy crashing into tragedy (a defeated rebellion and defeated chief rebel). Even with the great Haskell Wexler photographing it, the movie looks dreary (institutional green).
The movie is very misogynistic with hookers (whom McMurphy can get along with; he was in jail, incidentally, for statutory rape) and resentment of female authority (Nurse Ratched with whom McMurphy cannot get along). Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, and some others I don’t recall turned down the part in which Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for the misogyny of the story. Fletcher was very good at maintaining her calm against the assaults on the hospital’s status quo by McMurphy and conveys what seems Nurse Ratched’s sincere belief that she can help (or even cure!) him. In the final analysis, she understands mental illness and her patients much better than McMurphy did. She may not be right, but she’s righter than he is. (Perhaps the number of sociopaths and psychopaths I have seen Nicholson play over the decades influences my jaundiced conception of McMurphy…) Neither of the main antagonists is blessed with extravagant amounts of self-awareness IMHO.
The extended joke of the patients passing themselves off as psychiatrist when McMurphy takes them fishing rings hollow to me. Once out in the water, they look confused rather than liberated. Martini panics, and if it were not an anti-authoritarian movie, some or all of them could have drowned. It works better than Forman’s flat screen adaptation of the rebel musical “Hair,” but the comedy of Billy, Martini, et al. strikes me as mostly cheap laughs. Or maybe it’s the anachronism of the view of mental illness as not existing except as a rationale for social control (though sometimes it was used to remove and zombify rebels, and not always as hedonistic ones as Nicholson’s McMurphy—by which I mean political dissidents getting institutionalized).
©2010, Stephen O. Murray
(Looking at the list of many 5-star ratings, I noticed Flamepillar’s astute observation, “I liked this movie a lot more when it was called “Cool Hand Luke.’” Also see my older (and more skeptical, if not wiser!) lessened enthusiasm about the Coen brother’s anarchic “Raising Arizona.”)
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