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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nestled comfortably in the middle of the best stretch of Oscar winners in history, we have 1975’s best picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was the first of the three best picture winners starring Jack Nicholson (preceding Terms of Endearment and The Departed), and the best movie dealing with psychology.

Nicholson plays Randle P. McMurphy, a seemingly normal man sent to an insane asylum after being convicted of rape. The doctor in charge is convinced he is faking mental illness to avoid prison time, and Randle never disputes this. He winds up in a ward with several colorful characters, lead by the eternally humorless Nurse Ratched. Eventually Randle and the nurse get into a massive battle of the wills, after she refuses to let him listen to the World Series on the radio. She tells him she’ll put it up for a vote, and he convinces all of the patients attending the therapy session she’s hosting, but she tells him he needs the vote of at least one of the patients not involved in the session, most of whom are completely out to lunch. Just when he’s about to do it, she claims the voting is over and tells the group to proceed with its schedule. Randle responds by using his imagination to recreate the game, which draws the attention of the other patients and causes a commotion. When Randle realizes he can’t crack Ratched, he tries to escape. When his first plan to smash the window with a sink fails (he can’t lift the sink) he comes up with another plan to hijack a bus waiting to take some of the patients on a field trip, and he takes the group fishing.

Randle continues to be headstrong, but this results only in receiving electroshock therapy. He decides he needs to escape now more than ever, and tries to convince one patient which whom he is close, a large Native American known as the Chief, that the two can escape together. Chief tells McMurphy he is not ready to leave, and Randle proceeds with the plan, by having two female friends bring in booze to bribe the overnight guard. Once the guard has passed out, they are about to leave when another patient, an emotional cowardly man named Billy who has been flirting with one of the girls all night, seems depressed to see McMurphy go. Randle convinces one of the girls to sleep with Billy and waits, but tragically falls asleep in the meantime. Ratched shows up the next morning to discover the mess, and discover Billy in bed with the woman. At first he is proud of what he has done, but Ratched threatens to tell his mother, and an embarrassed Billy commits suicide. Enraged by Ratched causing the death of his friend, Randle tries to kill her, but orderlies pull him off and lead him away. When he returns, he has fallen victim to a lobotomy. Chief, unable to bear seeing his friend in that state, smothers Randle with a pillow and lifts the sink McMurphy had been unable to lift, throwing it through the window and heading off into the world.

The true gist of the plot is the battle of wills between Ratched and Randle, but there is quite a bit more to it than that. Ratched tries to treat the patients on the ward through fairly conventional means, and strict adherence to order above all. Randle lets them have fun. He takes them fishing, gets them drunk, involves them in a basketball game, starts a gambling ring, and just generally teaches them to have fun. And his way works. He isn’t setting out to cure anyone, though that was certainly why he stuck around to let Billy sleep with the woman, he just wanted to amuse himself, but he did help them out, and Ratched didn’t take to kindly to it. Ratched in the end represents the pure evil of unchecked authority. With her cold demeanor and unflinching refusal to let Randle deviate from the plan at any turn she is bad enough. But when her actions directly lead to Billy’s death she becomes evil incarnate. It does my heart proud to see Randle try to squeeze the life out of her, and that moment is when her expression changes for the first time. It makes it all the more difficult to see her survive the attack, consign McMurphy to his fate, and continue on after Chief’s departure with the same cold, emotionless way she always did.

There is some good acting here, with Nicholson up to his usual standard and Louise Fletcher playing the cold-hearted bitch-nurse. Also excelling are Brad Dourif, who would later provide the voice of Chucky, as Billy and William Redfield as an older, more civil patient named Harding.

This movie is a perfect tragedy with just about everything, including a condemnation of the horrific practices of shock-therapy and lobotomy, practices so horrific anyone who ever performed one ought to be hanged.

Other nominees that year included Al Pacino’s Dog Day Afternoon and a little something Richard Dreyfus was in called Jaws. There was only one notable movie not nominated for best picture, a little British comedy called Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both Holy Grail and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are wonderful movies. One is the perfect character study. The other the perfect comedy. It’s hard to pick, but I’d have to say despite being the most quotable work since Hamlet, and featuring a most distemperate rabbit and Graham Chapman playing the monarch who derives executive power from some watery tart throwing a sword at him, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is slightly better. The interplay between the characters is wonderful, and the depiction of the dark ages of psychology is terrifying. It’s tough to go against one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I feel I have to.

comments (1) 12-20-2007

The People's Comments:

Just finished watching this, after seeing it was on AMC a few weeks ago and taped it. Very sad that shit like that even happened. An enjoyable movie, but I did get bored with the length...

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