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.


  1. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest: is an amazing film released during an amazing year for film. Jaws, Shampoo, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Tommy, Picnic at Hanging Rock and Nashville were all released in 1975. As a fifteen-year-old film buff on Long Island all these films held certain charms for my peers and me. They drew us to the newly invented multiplex at the Sunrise Mall. Eight postage-stamp sized screens and a very loose sneak-in policy allowed us spend many hours there enjoying what Hollywood was then unknowingly creating: The Summer Blockbuster Experience.

    We thrilled to the realism of Jaws, which could have easily been shot in our backyard. We marveled at the beginnings of the Rocky Horror phenomenon, even if we didn't quite understand it. Al Pacino wowed us by playing a funny, cool subversive, bank-robbing homosexual. Al Pacino. A homosexual! Ken Russell's stunt casting and film-as-drug-trip in Tommy was mind-blowing, especially as it predates music videos by almost a decade. Nashville had stunt casting too, but Robert Altman's tour de force direction enabled a showcase for what Method acting could be, and in doing so provided our teen spirits with a truly adult film experience.

    We enjoyed these movies, but One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest hit a raw nerve like no other film that year. Its story of rebellion over tyranny suited our teenage zeitgeist. We were all McMurphy's and we were all a bit Billy Bibbit too. We adored the characters and their antics. It was the picture we quoted and mimicked most. We enjoyed the basketball games and fishing trip. We thrilled when the Chief spoke, offering “Juicy Fruit” and later when the patients cut loose at the party. We were royally pained with the aftershocks that ensued. McMurphy's death allowed us to cry alongside each other (and it was okay to do so). Then we all became the Chief and summoned our reserves in order to break free at the end. Playing cards was never the same after viewing the movie. To this day, Martini's admonishment to "hit me, hit me" still comes up in poker game conversation.

    Redemption through death was heady stuff back then for a bunch of teenagers. It still is today, thirty-five years later.

  2. I read an interview with Gene Hackman, in which he ruefully said that not only did he turn down Cuckoo's Nest, he also turned down the Peter Finch role in Network and the part that Robert Duvall played in Apocalypse Now. He was busy making Lucky Lady and March or Die.

  3. That movie was life changing for me. The stigma that remains with "mental illness" is unfortunate.