Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has achieved cult status among high school and college youth. In a parabolic way, the book catches two very persistent and basic American fantasies: (1) the individual with personal freedom and complete independence, and (2) the rebel standing up to and subverting structures of oppression. Dale Wasserman adapted the novel for the stage, and Kirk Douglas starred in a successful Broadway version of the story in 1963. The drama subsequently played across the country in large and small cities.
This cinematic version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ought to please devotees of the book and convert new fans to this modern American classic. Released in 1975, it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director Milos Forman, Best Actor Jack Nicholson, Best Actress Louise Fletcher, and Best Adapted Screenplay Bo Boldman and Lawrence Hauben.
Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred from a prison work farm to an Oregon state mental hospital for 90 days of psychiatric observation. Dr. Spivey (Dean Brooks), the mild-mannered hospital administrator, does not quite know what to make of this man whose papers describe him as belligerent, lazy, resentful, and violent. It turns out that he is a robust primitive who enjoys people and hates bureaucratic structures.
McMurphy slowly psyches out his fellow patients: Cheswick (Sidney Lassick), a fidgety and neurotic fellow; Harding (William Redfield), who fancies himself an intellectual; Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a stuttering, indecisive kid; Martini (Danny De Vito), a childish good-natured simpleton; Taber (Christopher Lloyd), a fearsome looking chap; Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), a giant deaf-mute Indian; and an odd assortment of other characters. The ward is dominated by the patronizing, authoritarian, and strict Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and her strong-armed orderlies. It doesn't take McMurphy long to see that she has made gutless wonders out of all the men. Anesthetized by drugs and afraid of the electro-shock therapy used to punish wrong-doers, the inmates cower before her during therapy sessions and free time.
McMurphy sets up his own version of Monte Carlo in the ward and bets the men that he can get Nurse Ratched's goat. His first assault on the regulated life of the mental institution is an attempt to change the daily schedule so that they can watch the World Series on television. When he doesn't get his way, McMurphy has the men watch the turned-off TV set and pretend they're seeing the game. In another very funny sequence, he uses the 6' 4" Chief as center on the bumbling inmate basketball team. They beat the orderlies. Then for a real change of pace, he commandeers the institution's bus and takes his fellow inmates down to the ocean for a boat ride. The men most of them self-committed to the institution experience a mixture of joy and dread on the open sea. McMurphy has broken the rules and given them a sense of life on the outside. The capstone of his liberation project is an all-night party with booze and broads.
Jack Nicholson is McMurphy in all his roguish and rebellious fullness. He exudes energy, quick wit, and a flashy smile that signals a rebel's will not to be broken by the system. It is a role quite in line with Nicholson's depiction of other outsiders in Easy Rider, The Last Detail, and Five Easy Pieces. In one of the movie's most magical scenes, McMurphy sits in front of the open window after the all-night bash and stares into the camera. We know that he and the Chief have planned to escape that morning. But McMurphy realizes in one epiphanous moment that the other inmates have projected their hopes for independence onto him. Instead of leaving them, he remains to face up to his punishment for breaking the rules.
Czech director Milos Forman (The Loves of a Blonde, Fireman's Ball, Taking Off) has refused to make McMurphy and Nurse Ratched into cartoon-strip characters. Louise Fletcher underplays the nurse so that her villainy comes across as it should not crude, but subtle. Nurse Ratched's humorlessness and obsession for control are convincingly conveyed. By toning down the "Them" against "Us" tension of the novel, Forman gives the story more humanity than the stage versions of the work. The director's fine way with actors shines through in their excellent performances.
Will Sampson's depiction of Chief Bromden is especially moving. In the last analysis, it is this character who truly understands the meaning and value of McMurphy's liberation crusade. The Indian is given back to himself. His escape from the hospital in the movie's emotionally high-pitched finale strikes a note for freedom that is singularly rich in its imagery and impact.