30 years since it came out One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has lost none of its punch, says Sharif Ali:
“Come on, which one of you nuts has got any guts?” says Jack Nicholson to the patients of the insane asylum when he insists on watching the baseball World Series and the head nurse asks for a show of hands for those in favour of it.
This is one of the many memorable lines of One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, only the second movie in Oscar history to sweep the top five awards (Best Film, Director -- Milos Forman, Actor -- Jack Nicholson, Actress – Louise Fletcher and Screenplay adapted by Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben from Ken Kessey’s best-selling 1962 novel).
The film is about a rape convict in jail (Nicholson as Randall McMurphy) who fakes insanity and gets transferred to a mental institution where he inspires the inmates to stand up to the firm head nurse and to explore their horizons.
One Flew shot Nicholson to glory. He did turn in notable performances before in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970) but his role in One Flew as cocky misfit McMurphy confirmed his leading man status in Hollywood then.
The film has a great ensemble cast including a very young, shy and carefree Danny de Vito as Martini, a childish and stuttering Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit and a host of diverse characters.
Although Nicholson’s performance won the larger share of the praise, Louise Fletcher’s restrained performance opposite him as the no-nonsense, stand-by-the-rules nurse Rachel is remarkable. She fully embodies the character of a stern head who always stands in the way of any attempt by the inmates to cross the line.
Forman does not portray her as a villain though. We all know she is just doing her job and that she cares for the inmates.
The casting of the film is its biggest strength. "I think it was the film people had been waiting for from Jack Nicholson," says producer Michael Douglas. "It fits classically into his non-conformist image." Director Milos Forman specifically praises Louise Fletcher. "She is dangerous," Forman says of the character, "because she really believes in what she is doing."
The movie is essentially a drama but Forman incorporates a great deal of film noir. It has a hopeless protagonist trying to get the inmates under his wings, a femme fatale who determines the run of events, a bleak atmosphere and some highly influential supporting characters.
It also has many amusing moments. Nicholson takes the inmates on a fishing trip, and when questioned by a guard about what they were doing, he introduces all the patients as doctors. A few moments before that a woman asks them whether they are crazy and de Vito nods with a smile.
In fact the movie is full of fine moments. In one scene where all the inmates are gathered around for consultation with the head nurse, a cigarette drops at the feet of one. He starts yelling and hops out of the frame. The focus then is on Nicholson and another patient who argues with the nurse for denying him cigarettes and Nicholson tries to calm him down. While this argument takes place the sound of the previous patient is also heard in the background. Forman effectively uses sound here to build dramatic intensity.
In another scene Nicholson gathers everyone in front of a blank TV screen and relays a commentary on a baseball World Series game after the nurse denies the right to watch it.
The film’s cinematography and art direction help create a bleak atmosphere. The scenes look dreary in both indoors and outdoors. Inside the asylum the walls are white and brown, and the inmates all wear dull greyish robes. It conveys their monotonous lives having to go through the same procedures every day. Besides the four dimensional framing gives a sense of confinement about these characters who are trapped in their own little worlds.
It is rather impossible not to associate the film with the political climate of the time. It was a time of huge failures in the American system. Vietnam war, the only war America lost in its history, just ended and the Watergate scandal had forced President Nixon to resign. The inmates may be representing the American society who were engaged in their own fight for moral freedom.
Forman might have also intended to make a parody of the Cold War through the conflicts between Nicholson and Fletcher. Fletcher is the intolerant, socialist authority that was Russia while Nicholson is the free-spirited man fighting for individual rights and freedom that was America. After all Forman was a victim of Cold War when he had to flee to the States after the Soviet crackdown on his native Czechoslovakia. Maybe that was his message: Eastern Europe’s fight for independence from Russia.
In short One Flew, which won the 20th spot in the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, is a deeply humanistic and intense portrayal of an individual’s rise against authority. One critic puts it nicely: “The awe-inspiring performances by Jack Nicholson and the ward patients remind viewers that freedom is worth the risk of rebellion.”
(This article was published in The Evening Weekly on 28 March 2005)