It’s not difficult to understand One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest‘s reputation as one of the great films of the 20th Century. Miloš Forman’s film won the ‘Big Five’ at the Oscars – Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay – in 1975, one of only three films to have ever done so, and stars perhaps the greatest film star of the talkie era in Jack Nicholson. Of course, Oscars aren’t what defines a classic movie – just ask Alfred Hitchcock, who won none – but winning every major award at the medium’s biggest ceremony certainly doesn’t hurt.
Forman’s movie is a beautifully balanced mix of drama, comedy and character study set within the confines of a mental institution. Based on Ken Kesey’s novel, it tells the tale of Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, a repeat offender who sees an easy way to serve his time behind bars by conning people into thinking he’s gone crazy, thus serving his sentence in a cushy mental hospital instead of a brutal work farm. Once committed, his wit and streetsmarts turn him into the de facto leader of the small group also on the ward, which includes stuttering nervous wreck Billy Babbitt (Brad Dourif) and Will Sampson’s gigantic Native American mute Chief Bromden. All under the watchful eyes of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, the group are intimidated and fractured; McMurphy soon allies himself with his fellow patients, and begins not-so-subtly undermining Ratched’s rule…
Now, you probably know all that. Yet Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of those classic films that surprisingly few people have seen; satirised by everything from Spaced to The Simpsons, the storyline has entered common consciousness. The film itself, however, is just as worthy of becoming standard, if not mandatory.
Nicholson, naturally, is the focal point, a bundle of energy, rakishness and wilful rebelliousness which almost nothing – not Ratched, not the other inmates, barely even Forman’s camera – can contain. The longer the film goes on, the more we side with McMurphy, largely due to the irrepressible charisma and verve that Nicholson brings to the role; the man known in Hollywood as simply ‘Jack’ may have never turned in a finer performance.
In an early scene we hear McMurphy’s rapsheet being read out, a list of crimes including multiple counts of assault and one of statutory rape, and it’s clear that in the ‘real world’ he is not a nice guy, to say the least. Yet within the frame of the hospital walls he bounces off of, McMurphy is a leader of men on an almost impossible level, leading the patients in uprisings tiny and huge. It’s hard to imagine another actor giving McMurphy the necessary mix of fervour, desperation and charm that Nicholson does; instead of being a broadly-painted paradigm of esprit de corps, R.P. is a deftly portrayed, deeply furious man who thinks he’s a step ahead but is in fact tragically behind. Nicholson, through his endless energy and masterfully crafted relationships – especially with Babbitt and Chief – makes Randle Patrick McMurphy a troubled icon and an unforgettable screen presence.
But even a star as massive as Jack Nicholson can’t make a classic on his own. Fletcher’s Ratched is colder and stiller than a mountain lake, only allowing emotion to flash across her face for a moment. Whether she’s prodding the patients’ deepest wounds or stumbling across McMurphy’s frequent chaos, Ratched barely reacts, her iciness more chilling than any burst of rage could be. Fletcher’s performance is a testament to underplaying a role without underacting it; each movement, each clearly clipped mention of “routine” or “medication” is carefully performed, and she’s a terrifyingly calm villainess as a result.
Although Dourif is hugely impressive as the unstable Billy, it’s Sampson’s gigantic Chief who stands out, literally and otherwise, from the hugely impressive supporting cast (which also includes superb work from young actors named Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito). The mute Chief comes to the fore in the final act, his silence and immobility replaced by passion and grace, and even Sampson’s extraordinary physique can’t cast a shadow long enough to overwhelm his performance. The closing sequence is amongst the most heartrending in cinema, and it’s largely down to Sampson’s emotive features and mine-shaft-deep voice. That final scene, now ensconced in the cinematic canon, is a product of 2 hours’ character development: when you spend most of that time without moving or speaking, it’s hugely impressive to create the kind of connection Sampson does with the viewer.
And if containing Nicholson’s charisma and Sampson’s stature wasn’t hard enough for Miloš Forman, he also must make a film set largely within one large ward room – and almost entirely indoors – exciting. His camera focuses on faces, not locations, to his eternal credit the Czech director realised that the power of this story was in its characters above all else, and although it is sometimes kinetic – capturing the bacchanalian excesses of McMurphy’s party, the struggle of reeling in a catch on the fishing trip – it’s always trained on the brilliant actors before it. The first and last shot, both of the countryside around the hospital, are patient and wonderfully composed: each doused in indigo predawn half-light, they keep their subjects central, and the vivid, deep colour palette Forman uses starkly clashes with the ascetic whites of the ward.
It’s difficult to think what more you could realistically ask for from a film than what One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest gives you. Joy, despair, personality, flair, skill, humour, terror, pain, redemption – all these feelings and more are squeezed into just 133 minutes of cinema. Flaws in Forman’s film are hard to find, and searching for them would be an act of true madness.
Verdict: A film not just containing six or seven magnificent performances, a taut and tight script, a master director at his best and arguably the best actor of a generation, but a memorable, affecting story and a heartbreaking, yet triumphant, finale. Cinema as it should be.