Sunday, February 27, 2011

Canon Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Since the Oscars are going to be awarded later on today, I figured I'd watch an Oscar Best Picture winner. So I decided to watch the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, mainly because it was on Turner Classic Movies and I had never seen it before. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of only three movies to win the Oscar for best picture, best director (Milos Forman), best actor (Jack Nicholson), best actress (Louise Fletcher) and best adapted screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is based on a book by Ken Kesey, and stars Nicholson, Fletcher, William Redfield, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Brad Dourif, and Will Sampson as Chief. In this movie, a criminal named R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) fakes his way into getting transferred from a prison work-farm into an insane asylum, figuring that he would have an easier time in the asylum. Instead he runs into a cold and seemingly heartless woman in Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), and McMurphy's new goal seems to be to free his fellows in the ward like Chief, Billy Bibbit (Dourif), Martini (DeVito), and the rest from the control of Ratched. A few notes about this movie, and there will probably be SPOILERS, so read carefully.

- As R.P. McMurphy, Jack Nicholson put in perhaps the finest performance of his distinguished career. As McMurphy, Nicholson is not only able to portray the rebellious, optomistic dimension of McMurphy, but is also able to subtly portray how the asylum and the people in it have changed McMurphy as the film progresses.  There's a great scene towards the end of the film, after McMurphy is just about to break out of the place, where he sits back and seemingly comes to the realization that this place has changed him and he will never be the same. In this scene, Nicholson's face expresses amusement, fear, and even a bit of sadness over leaving this place and his fellow inmates behind, all without saying a word. Just an excellent performance all around from Nicholson here from beginning to end, and I can't see anybody else being able to portray R.P. McMurphy as well as Nicholson did here.

- There were a few other actors considered for the role of McMurphy besides Nicholson. Kirk Douglas had actually portrayed McMurphy in a play based on the book years ago and really wanted to take the story to the big screen, but by the time the movie was to be made, Douglas was considered to be too old for the part. Interestingly enough, his son Michael was one of the executive producers, but at the time he was filming the TV show Streets of San Francisco, and to the best of my knowledge never really considered taking the part for himself. Other actors considered were James Caan, Marlon Brando (note: if Kirk Douglas was considered too old for the part, wouldn't Brando also be too old for the part as well), Gene Hackman, and Burt Reynolds. Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time seeing Reynolds and Caan as the lead in this movie. Nothing against those actors, but the role seems a bit different than the roles that those men usually excel at. Also, there were many actresses considered for the role of Nurse Ratched, including Angela Lansbury, Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page, and Ellen Burstyn. Lily Tomlin was originally cast in the role, but turned it down to star in the Robert Altman film, Nashville. In an odd twist, Tomlin took the role in Nashville that was orginally meant for Louise Fletcher, who then was later cast as Nurse Ratched. At the end of the day, both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards (Tomlin for best supporting actress) with Fletcher eventually winning best actress.

- Speaking of Nurse Ratched, Fletcher definitely deserved her Oscar with her performance of the cold-hearted nurse. Ratched is almost the polar-opposite of McMurphy, as while McMurphy is an outgoing, rambunctious guy who seems to crave change, Ratched is a distant, nearly emotionless figure who is very scrict about routine. When McMurphy threatens the control of the ward that Ratched has cultivated over time, Ratched seems to become determined to break McMurphy, even calling for him to stay in the ward when other asylum officials were willing to send McMurphy on his way. By breaking McMurphy, Ratched can increase her control over the rest of the inmates in the ward, and that control is seemingly the only thing that she really cares about. Basically, the story paints Nurse Ratched as the evil, cold-hearted face of the establishment who controls the people for 'their own good'. In a lot of ways, Fletcher is portraying a symbol more than she is a character, but to her credit she does a great job of making Nurse Ratched human, who does what she does not just to be evil, but because ultimately she thinks it's right.

- Although One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won a lot of Oscars and considered one of the great films of all time, one person in particular didn't care for it too much. That person was the author of the book, Ken Kesey. Kesey disagreed with the direction that director Milos Forman took the film in. For one, while Chief is a major focal point of the book and serves as the narrator of the story, in the movie the Chief is mainly a background character up until the end of the film. Also, Kesey didn't feel that Forman included much of the subtext of the novel, including the political undertones of the asylum as communist Russia. As a result, Kesey refused to have anything to do with the film, and has never even bothered to watch the movie.

- As far as Forman's directing goes, I thought that for the most part he did an excellent job. The story was paced just right, as it neither moved too fast nor were there a lot of wasted scenes in the film. Forman also plays to the strengths of his actors and lets Nicholson and company tell the story, instead of relying on camera tricks and other effects to increase drama. Forman also includes a lot of reaction shots, primarily from Nicholson and Fletcher, that serve to further develop each character. If there was one misfire in this film, it was the inclusion of the fishing boat scene. Yes, it did serve to give the inmates a slight taste of freedom and increase their regard for McMurphy, but it went on too long and seemed forced in just to lighten the mood after being in the asylum for so long. As a result, it's a jarring departure from the main storyline of the film and there's really too much going on at once.

- To increase the realism of the film, the producers decided to make the setting an actual insane asylum, the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon. Also, some of the actual asylum detainees were extras in the film, and the part of asylum head Dr. Spivey was played by the head of the state hospital, Dean Brooks. The actors were also forced to stay in the asylum during the entire filming process. As a result, some of the actors began to exhibit the early stages of paranoia and other mental illnesses. But I will say, it did add a lot of realism to the film.

Overall, this is a great film, and there's very little bad to be said about it. The acting from Nicholson on down was tremendous and spot-on, the story was compelling, and the direction of Forman was nearly perfect. I'd give this film a 9.1 out of 10. Well, thanks for reading, and if you any ideas for future posts, or thoughts about this post, than either leave a comment on the blog or send them to me at e-mail at

1 comment:

  1. I read the book without knowing it was written by j k Rowling. It is a hard boiled detective novel and very well written. I could not figure it out till the end and what a surprise it was.