US Release Date: 11-19-1975
Directed by: Milos Forman
- Jack Nicholson, as
- Randle McMurphy
- Louise Fletcher, as
- Nurse Ratched
- William Redfield, as
- Dale Harding
- Will Sampson, as
- "Chief" Bromden
- Brad Dourif, as
- Billy Bibbit
- Sydney Lassick, as
- Charlie Cheswick
- Danny DeVito, as
- Christopher Lloyd, as
- Max Taber
- Dean R. Brooks, as
- Dr. John Spivey
- William Duell, as
- Jim Sefelt
- Vincent Schiavelli, as
- Delos V. Smith, as
- Michael Berryman, as
- Nathan George, as
- Attendant Washington
- Lan Fendors, as
- Nurse Itsu
- Mimi Sarkisian, as
- Nurse Pilbow
- Marya Small, as
- Scatman Crothers, as
- Orderly Turkle
- Louisa Moritz, as
- Christopher Campagna as
Will Sampson and Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
This 1975 Best Picture Oscar winning film was directed by Milos Forman, produced by Michael Douglas, and based on the hugely popular 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. It was shot at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, the exact same location as in the book. The one major change from page to screen was in the point of view of the story. Whereas the book is told from the perspective of the character Chief, the movie omits his narration and instead uses a more straightforward manner to tell Randle Patrick McMurphy's story. For years Kirk Douglas had owned the movie rights to the novel and had even starred in the 1963 stage adaptation on Broadway.
This is one of the most famous and influential movies in Hollywood history based on one of the most critically acclaimed best-selling novels of the second half of the 20th Century so forgive me if I only briefly touch on the plot. McMurphy is a free-spirited antihero with a disdain for authority. He makes the shortsighted decision to get temporarily committed to a mental asylum in order to avoid physical labor at the jail he is currently serving time at for the statutory rape of a fifteen year old girl. In short, he changes the lives of the patients he comes in contact with, teaching them to believe in themselves and to stand up to the totalitarian authority of the head nurse. It is quite similar in plot and theme, to Cool Hand Luke, which predates this movie by eight years but was based on a novel that was most likely influenced by Kesey's.
Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher both won Oscars as McMurphy and Nurse Ratched respectively. It is impossible to picture anyone else in these roles but many other actors were considered or nearly cast in these iconic parts. Gene Hackman was Kesey's choice for McMurphy, but he declined. Next came Marlon Brando who likewise turned it down. Forman next considered both James Caan and even Burt Reynolds, about whom the director was quoted as saying he liked his, “cheap charisma.” As for Nurse Ratched, the part was turned down by Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, and Angela Lansbury before Fletcher was finally signed just a few weeks before shooting began.
While both Nicholson and Fletcher were deserving of all the praise they received, the movie only works because of the incredible work by the ensemble cast. It is one of the great supporting casts of all time. These actors actually lived at the Oregon State Hospital for several weeks during the filming. Milos Forman assigned each of them a patient to observe to help them prepare for their roles.
Broadway legend William Redfield is brilliant as Harding. He was diagnosed with a terminal case of leukemia midway through filming but bravely insisted on finishing the movie. He died a little over a year later at the age of 49. Future Taxi costars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd are both good as mental patients whose lives are touched by McMurphy. Brad Dourif is wonderful as the stuttering, tragic Billy (a role originated on Broadway by Gene Wilder) and Sydney Lassick played hysterically indignant better than anyone. Last but not least, Will Sampson is unforgettable as the giant silent Indian known simply as Chief. He represents the human spirit yearning to be free.
Many of the extras in the movie are actual mental patients and several real life doctors were used as well, including the head of the hospital Dean R. Brooks. He plays Dr. Spivey in the movie and has a famous scene where he interviews McMurphy. Most of the dialogue, as well as Nicholson's acting choices such as swatting at an imaginary fly, in this scene were improvised. Brooks' reactions are authentic.
But it is the tug of war for power between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched that propels the story along. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a beautiful cinematic tapestry interweaving comedy and tragedy together to form a breathtakingly powerful movie masterpiece.
Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
It had been many years since I watched this movie. It was one that I remember watching quite frequently in the 80s on HBO and loving it. Then in my junior year of high-school I was assigned to read the novel. After reading Ken Kesey's masterpiece, my view of the movie was diminished. I still saw it as an enjoyable and well acted film, but it lacks the depth of the novel.
The change of perspective from Chief Bromden to McMurphy (the equivalent of removing Nick Carraway's voice from the "Great Gatsby") that Patrick mentioned, is the most obvious change from the book. It was one of several changes that made Kesey, who was originally hired to write the screenplay, quit the project. He would proudly state for the rest of his life that he never watched the film. Other changes include amplifying the humor, the removal of certain plot points, including the suicide of Cheswick, and toning down the major themes of the book which are the emasculation and castration of men by domineering women and the homogenization of modern society that kills individuality, labeling those who dare to be different as “insane”.
Putting aside comparisons to the novel however, this movie stands on its own quite well. It's one of just three movies to have won the big 5 Oscars; Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. It was Nicholson's first Oscar win and this remains, in many ways, his signature performance. He's bigger than life and he brings a breath of fresh air into the lives of those on the mental ward. Fletcher's win was the only Oscar win of her career, and while she would continue to act, this would always remain her most significant part.
I had forgotten how much humor there was in this film. There are several laugh out loud moments. These comedic scenes are in sharp contrast to the tragic ending and make that ending more pronounced. Much of the humor is provided by the supporting cast, who, as Patrick wrote, are played by many recognizable actors.
This film is a classic and Nicholson's performance is iconic. I would, however, suggest to anyone who enjoys it, that they also read the book. As good as it is, the film only scratches the surface of the story.
Louise Fletcher and jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest asks several questions of the audience. The first is whether or not McMurphy is crazy? He walks in and whoops it up. He talks fast and loose with the doctor, justifying his actions that led him to incarceration. Then comes the first group counseling session where we notice how McMurphy observes everything going on. The rest of the inmates quickly take a shine to him and he becomes the unofficial leader of the pack of inmates.
He and Nurse Ratched first conflict over rules. She is strict with them while he wants to break them as he sees fit. She wins the early rounds, forcing him to take his meds and having the inmates vote over whether or not they can watch the World Series. They vote again the next day and still do not get to watch the series. However, McMurphy ends up on top in one of my favorite scenes. With the classical music playing over the intercom, McMurphy pretends he is watching the game, announcing Sandy Koufax's pitch and the hit. The rest of the inmates become very fascinated by his pantomime while it upsets Ratched. I am not sure why McMurphy references "Koufax." He last pitched in a World Series game in 1966.
The second question is whether or not Ratched is a villain. She is clearly intended to be. Patrick called McMurphy an anti-hero while Ratched represents the establishment. Fletcher plays her as a cold domineering rule enforcer, but she could not play her any other way. It is Ratched's job to maintain order and structure on the ward. She does not budge on any of the rules, making her the perfect foil for the unruly McMurphy, but is she really the villain she is made out to be?
The third question is what is the most effective therapy for the men on the ward? They barely talk in the group sessions and when one demands his cigarettes it breaks out into a fight. McMurphy on the other hand entertains the men on the floor and actually gives them a sense of hope. Clearly his therapy for them is intended to seem more affective, as he puts smiles on all of their faces, but it is hardly quantifiable.
Nicholson plays McMurphy as a man full of life but also full of shit. He is a criminal who knowingly had sex with an under aged girl. His excuse, "She was 15 going on 30." shows how his mind works, justifying his actions to suit his wants. Yet, he also shows that he has a heart, empathizing with the men of the asylum whom he brings life to.
The Christmas party he throws for them answers all the questions. No, Randall McMurphy is not crazy. He is always aware of his actions. Ratched is not a villain, she has her hands full with grown men with very special needs. McMurphy only adds greater stress to her life. The answer to the last and most important question is that, of course, his therapy is better than what the hospital provides. It is unconventional and sometimes illegal but it centers on the positive instead of the negative.
We like McMurphy but he is as much the instigator of most of the problems as he is the solution. Only at the end does Ratched truly become a bitch. After Bobby's stuttering is cured, she single handedly brings them back. By the end of the film both Ratched and McMurphy could nearly be considered murderers. Their power struggle makes for a very thought provoking story.
Photos © Copyright United Artists (1975)