February 7, 2014

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Grade: 87/100

Director: Milos Forman
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif

What it's about. Set in an Oregon state mental institution. Humorless and determined Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) has cowed a motley gathering of mildly to seriously disturbed male inmates. She is assisted by a young and mostly silent nurse (Lan Fendors, in her only film role) and has the support of the head of the asylum, Dr. Spivey (Dean R. Brooks). A couple of athletic black men serve as guards.

The inmates, several of whom are voluntarily committed, include high strung homosexual Harding (William Redfield), sexually repressed and stuttering Billy (Brad Dourif), readily agitated and immature Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), psychotic Taber (Christopher Lloyd), and man-mountain Native American "Chief" Bromden (Will Sampson), as well as future character actor movie stars Danny DeVito and Vincent Schiavelli.

The arrival of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) to the ward changes the dynamics. The anarchic and potentially violent McMurphy wins the allegiance of his fellow inmates as he instigates a battle of wills with the rigid and dislikable Ratched.

McMurphy attempts to show the inmates what they are missing by remaining institutionalized. He commandeers a bus and takes them on a fishing boat excursion. Later, he smuggles two party girls, Candy (Mews Small) and Rose (Louisa Moritz), into the ward to entertain the inmates. This requires bribing night watchman Turkle (Scatman Crothers).

Ultimately, however, Ratched finds a way to silence McMurphy and regain control of the ward. Her usual methods (humiliation, drugs, scheduling and even electroshock therapy) prove ineffective against him. But her trump card, a lobotomy, will defeat anyone.

How others will see it. Though Ken Kesey's novel and a Broadway play adaptation had some success, the film surpassed all expectations, and became a blockbuster. It became the second highest grossing 1975 film, trailing only Jaws, though eventually surpassed by the cult musical comedy The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Even more stunning was the success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on the festival circuit. It swept the five most important Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, something that has happened only two other times.

Today at imdb.com, the film has a massive 480K user votes and a remarkably high user rating of 8.8 out of 10. The grades are extremely consistent across all audience demographics.

How I felt about it. Close examination of the plot reveals minor flaws. On the night McMurphy brings two "easy" women to the institution, he is more interested in getting Billy laid than in escaping. Time is of the essence if he wants to make it to Canada. It seems preposterous that Scatman Cruthers, McMurphy, Candy, and the "Chief" would all fall asleep and not awake prior to the employees coming to work the next morning.

The next day, McMurphy attempts to flee, and is facing an open window. He injures one of the guards with a key, and is confronted by a second guard. It seems unlikely that, regardless of the commotion surrounding Billy's suicide, that McMurphy and the guard would both "stand down" to investigate the scene surrounding Billy.

Further, Billy's suicide is an unlikely and extreme reaction to his mother learning that he has had sex with a woman. McMurphy might despise Ratched for her role in the tragedy, but murderous rage is against his character.

Overall, of course, the film is excellent. It is primarily a Nicholson showcase, pitting him against the system with expected results. True to his character, Nicholson also rebelled against Forman's direction, and effectively acted as a director during his own scenes. Along with the quality of the screenplay, this may explain why the movie is better than any other Forman movie, although The People vs. Larry Flynt and Valmont are very good.