Oct 15, 2010
On DVD: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
I first saw this movie from 1975 when I was about 12 years old. My mom had already seen it and loved it so much that she took me to see it with her. The guy at the entrance didn't want to let me in (I looked like 10) and my mother said something like "I'm her mother and I'm giving her permission to see this movie".
To make a long story short, it was like nothing I had ever seen. After it was over, I cried, unconsolably, for about three nights. At that age, movies about injustice unleashed tempests of tears in me. Another two that destroyed me were The Hill and Dog Day Afternoon (both, curiously, by Sydney Lumet).
So it was very interesting to watch Cuckoo's Nest again. Today, this classic film by Milos Forman seems to me strikingly European. The sense of humor, the ease with which the camera by Haskell Wexler roams the mental hospital, the breezy playfulness, the frankness, don't come from an American sensibility. However, this is a bona fide American story. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, it is a perfect metaphor for America as it collided head on with the Sixties. The hospital is the straitlaced, puritanical, controlling, supposedly well-meaning Stepfordian America, embodied by Louise Fletcher to chilling perfection as Nurse Ratched. McMurphy, (an epic and life changing performance by Jack Nicholson) symbolizes what was coming around the bend. The clash between these two titanic impulses is a succint and powerful illustration of what was going on in this country at the time. The movie takes place in 1963, it was made in 1975: it's that era in a nutshell, or a nuthouse, to be more precise. When I was twelve I understood the story literally, having no idea yet that the United States was such a schizophrenic place. As a child, from the vantage point of Mexico, the States seemed to me a paradise of order, justice and equality. I once said that to my mom (after my first trip to Disneyland) and she told me the U.S. was not as perfect as I thought. I chose to ignore her. How dare she rain on my U.S.A parade?
At that age I was very entertained by McMurphy's inmates, who seemed totally nuts. Now I can see that although they are quirky, and overly emotional, they are not so crazy. The movie is worth watching just for the incredible ensemble cast. As far as I know, this was the first time anyone ever saw Danny De Vito, the sweetest thing in the movie, as Martini, an ever smiling guy who eats dice and does not understand how games are played, or the first time anyone ever noticed the amazing Sydney Lassick, who plays Cheswick, or saw the intensity of Christopher Lloyd, or Vincent Schiavello, or my adored Scatman Crothers or the incredible Brad Dourif. This was a career making movie for many of the actors. And this is the movie that changed Nicholson into an actor specializing in anything over the top. You can see his films before and the ones after, and the shift towards exaggeration is clear. Still, McMurphy is one of the greatest characters in American movies and Nicholson made him. Legend has it that Gene Hackman turned down this part. How can anyone turn down this part?
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest holds up very well. Like many of the American films of that era, it is a painful reminder of how far Hollywood has fallen. The movies that win Oscars today for the most part can't hold a candle to intense, controversial, committed films like this one.