“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch.”
Books being adapted into movies rarely seem to live up to the source material according to fans of that source material. And in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, original author Ken Kesey thought the adaptation was so off the mark at script stage, he refused to even watch the finished product. But here’s the thing, books and the movies they inspire are two totally different things. There are different rules, different tropes, different things that work and don’t. I’ve read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it’s great. I’ve seen Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and it’s great. Just in a different way.
Thinking it will be easier than working on a prison farm, small time crook and general fuck up RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) fakes minor insanity and is admitted to a State Mental Hospital. Once there, he meets a variety of inmates, from the uptight and impotent Dale (William Redfield), the delusional Martini (Danny DeVito), the young, stuttering Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) and the supposedly deaf mute native American, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson). On the other side of the glass is the hospital staff, including head doctor Spivey (Dean R Brooks), and the despotic nurse who really runs the ward, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
While McMurphy’s good old boy charm is enough to get Dr Spicey on side immediately, he clashes with Nurse Ratched just as quickly. It turns out that the rules and routines keeping this ward subdued might be even more oppressive than anything on the prison farm. Little things like wanting to watch the World Series on TV lead to a huge stand off and battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched, with the other patients caught in the middle. Initially, while campaigning for the other patient’s freedom and happiness, it’s obvious that McMurphy is really only out for himself and taking advantage of the others. But eventually, he comes to genuinely care for them and genuinely campaign for what he believes are their basic rights as human beings.
After his last decade or two of work, it’s easy to write Jack Nicholson off as a bit of a ham. He doesn’t really act, he just does the patented Jack Nicholson thing. Even when he’s been really good in the last 20 or so years, it’s because a role was written specifically to suit that Jack Nicholson thing. I’m thinking of roles like The Joker in Batman or Frank Costello in The Departed. But in the 70s, Jack Nicholson acted the shit of roles like RP McMurphy.
There’s the manic joy of RP McMurphy, the pure rage of RP McMurphy, the tragic sadness of RP McMurphy. And Jack Nicholson makes them all totally believable. He even somehow gets a literal twinkle in his eye whenever McMurphy is coming up with his next scheme.
But all of that would mean very little if there wasn’t an antagonist up to the task of holding their own against the unstoppable force of Nicholson. Which is why Louise Fletcher’s work as Nurse Ratched might be even more impressive than his. You totally hate her as much as McMurphy does, but you can also kind of understand her twisted logic in acting the way she does, even if you don’t agree with it.
One of the few movies to win the big four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest more than lives up to that legacy 40 years later. All those awards, plus another for Best Adapted Screenplay, are still totally justified. And it’s one of those movies that seems just as fresh every time I watch it.
Best Actor – Nicholson
Best Actress – Fletcher
Best Supporting Actor (Dourif nominated, lost to George Burns for The Sunshine Boys)
Best Adapted Screenplay