Last Saturday, we slept in late and didn’t go online immediately once we finally got up and ate breakfast. Instead, we began planning how we would spend what was an incredibly miserable day weather-wise for mid-April. With winds forecast to be 45 MPH throughout the day and snow in the forecast, we decided it was good weather to stay inside, order a pizza and have a movie marathon. We each picked two movies. One of my picks was “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” which I hadn’t seen for years (and never in HD) and Alex had never seen. Alex went online to look up some general info about the film, and the first thing that came up in her search was that the film’s director, Milos Forman, had passed away only hours earlier.
In case you are unfamiliar with the film, one of only a handful in history to win Oscars in all five top categories (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), the story is set in Oregon in 1963 and centers around convicted statutory rapist Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is moved from a prison work farm to a mental institution. McMurphy appears to be feigning mental illness, and Dr. John Spivey (Dean Brooks) knows that he is just trying to avoid work. McMurphy is admitted anyway, and soon begins to clash with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who maintains strict control over the men in the ward and manipulates them, for her own pleasure, through chaotic group therapy sessions.
I’ve seen this film many times before but never noticed how much zoom is used as opposed to camera movement. The technique is mostly utilized during the therapy sessions, and I believe it has something to do with the spatial limitations of the set. With everyone seated in a half circle around Nurse Ratched, and countless beds and support beams in the background, it seems likely that using zooms instead of tracking shots to get close ups could save a lot of time. Also, the zooms add to the sense of anxiety the viewer feels. Each therapy session intensifies towards an outburst from one of the patients. The abruptness of a zoom instead of more smooth camera movements adds to the uneasiness about the institution Forman is examining here.
Thematically, the film is often interpreted as a metaphor for counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s, with Nurse Ratched being the figurehead for the establishment. The film was released in 1975, the year Saigon fell, and the timing of such an anti-establishment film may be one of the reasons it rather notoriously defeated “Jaws” in the Best Picture race (I like both films, but I think the better one prevailed). Still, it seems a little misguided, even for 43 years ago, that a film could be so embraced as anti-establishment when all of its heroes are middle-aged white guys and only features women and African Americans playing villains, dupes or one-dimensional sex toys.
The film works a lot better as an examination of flawed, often cruel psychiatric treatment that was the norm before the movement towards deinstitutionalization in the 1960s. Nurse Ratched’s group therapy sessions do little to help the men, and seem to only cause them anxiety. Besides, some of the men’s illnesses likely result from personal traumas or difficulties that they may not wish to share in front of the others.
We also never see the men meeting one on one with Ratched, and there are only two instances where we see one of the men speaking with Dr. Spivey (McMurphy in both cases). Ratched is out of her element, but instead of being overwhelmed by the position she is in, has used it to gain control over the men in the ward. This seems in keeping with the time, as institutionalization was more concerned with protecting the outside world from mental illness, which carried different (I would argue not less) stigmas than it does today. Ratched is doing exactly what Dr. Spivery and the other specialists hired her to do, which is one of the more alarming aspects of the story. The well-being of the patients is a secondary concern behind keeping them out of society.
As with all great films, there are elements I picked up on this time that I haven’t previously. For instance, every day, the nurses play music through speakers in the ward. Nurse Ratched at one point tells McMurphy that the music is important to the patients. For some of them, she says, it is all they have. That may be true, but the nurses play the same song every day. While it may help establish a routine for some of the patients, having to hear the same song over and over, for years, perhaps several times a day (it seems to happen whenever pills are dispensed) cannot be healthy. Seriously, playing songs over and over is how the CIA tortures terrorists.
One complaint I have always had about the film is the scene where McMurphy takes the men on a fishing trip. It feels unnecessary and intrusive to the tension building in the ward. It feels like the filmmakers felt McMurphy needed to commit some major violation near the halfway point of the film to raise the stakes between he and Nurse Racthed. That is a miscalculation. His antics in the ward up to that point successfully establish that he is going to be a problem for her. He suffers no major punishment for this act either, unlike the later one when he breaks a window to grab Cheswick’s cigarettes and is then given a shock treatment. The whole fishing trip is out of place and unnecessary. The scene later on where McMurphy sneaks Rose and Candy into the ward is far more consequential and integral to the plot.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” makes for uneasy and challenging viewing, but it pays off in so many stunning moments throughout. It’s a film I always return to and is still among the best ever made. It’s also the performance that defined Nicholson’s career. Though he is a very versatile actor and has been recognized for work in films such as “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets,” it is his performance as McMurphy where he hints at just a bit of the madness he would famously display in “The Shining” and “Batman.” I guess no one is ever the same after meeting up with Nurse Ratched.
We have been planning on watching this movie for a long time. It just so happened that we decided to watch it the day after Milos Forman died. Nathan kept telling me that I was going to have a lot of issues with how they represent mental illness in the film. Because of that, I went into this film expecting to hate it. However, I actually had quite the opposite experience.
Let’s start with the cast. Jack Nicholson was wonderful. He had an energy that I am not sure another actor would have brought to the role. And let’s be real, young Jack Nicholson was a stone-cold fox. His onscreen relationships with other characters came across as so real and pure. Without ever having to say it, you could tell the deep care that he developed for his friends in the hospital. It was also fun seeing actors that I have always known as old men in their prime. Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd were awesome. There performances were definitely memorable.
Speaking of memorable performances, I have heard the Nurse Ratched references before. I never knew who she was though. Because of this, I kept waiting for Nurse Ratched to do something absolutely horrific in this film. She was generally horrible and it was awesome. Female villains are often defined by over the top and unbelievable attributes. It was nice to see a female villain who was just generally terrible. She was a believably bad person. That’s why Louise Fletcher wins the coveted title of film crush of the week.
Plot time! If any of you have ever watched anything with me, you should know that I am really good at guessing what is going to happen in a movie or TV show. It drives Nathan crazy. I consider it a skill really. This film though was outside of my skill set and I loved that. I love movies that I can’t predict. There were so many twists and turns, especially at the end of the film. Considering the elaborate escape plot, I assumed that’s how it would end. The real ending was much more emotional than I was expecting. I wanted to think that McMurphy was going to escape and continue his antics outside of the hospital. The scene where Chief (Will Sampson) suffocates McMurphy is dripping with anxiety and desperation.
Honestly, the biggest moment of shock that came in the film though was when Billy (Brad Dourif) commits suicide after his run in with Nurse Ratched. For just a moment, Billy had it all. He had finally gotten his girl, he had a friend in McMurphy, and he had gained some confidence. Once he is on top of the world, we see Nurse Ratched slowly strip it all away from him. You literally see him shrink. The way in which he commits suicide symbolizes how Nurse Ratched strips away the men’s masculinity in the hospital. You see it slowly happening throughout the film as she asserts more and more power.
The first time you truly see it is when she denies Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) his cigarettes and he has a breakdown. Cheswick’s anxiety and anger builds and Nurse Ratched remains calm. You slowly begin to realize that Cheswick does not stand a chance against her. She remains calm as things in the room become more and more desperate. In that moment, you see truly what a terrible person Nurse Ratchet is. Throughout the film, she asserts power over the men and you witness them all become smaller.
As I mentioned before, Nathan kept telling me that I was going to take issue with the representation of mental illness in this film. However, I think this assumption leads to a larger discussion of how film is a snapshot of a moment of time and place. This film cannot be viewed through the lens of today’s society. This film was created in 1975 and it is very representative of the time in which this film was made. Unfortunately, the discussion and stigma surrounding mental health in 1975 was not stellar. On top of that, this film was set in the 1950s when the situation around mental health was even more dire. It is unfair to view films of the past through the lens of today’s society. By today’s standards, this film is insensitive, unrealistic, and even more stigmatizing. Unfortunately, that is what our past is and we can’t change that. I would rather have films that accurately represent the past than films that erase our history in an attempt to be politically correct.
If you can’t tell, I couldn’t find many negative things to say about this film. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and the unpredictable plot. For 1975, I actually found this film to be quite enlightening. The female villain was more fully developed than most films that are being made today and the plot accurately represented the stigma around mental health. I would like to think that somewhere out there, Chief is living his best life in Canada.