One of the most powerful anti-establishment movies I’ve seen, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a criminal McMurphy who prefers an insane asylum to prison, and leads a sustained revolt against the suffocating and stultifying atmosphere and practices of the barbaric asylum. Unlike mainstream movies, here the anti-hero does not win, in fact the establishment wins in the most brutal fashion, leaving us shattered.
I find it shocking that some people see this movie as a comedy of the revolt led by McMurphy with the fishing trip, the orgy at night, and the caricatured inmates. These people are lucky souls who have never experienced the vice-like grip of a cruel establishment and are so blissfully ignorant that they can view this film as a comedy. For the less fortunate among us, Forman uses our intellectual and emotional sensitivity to deal a severe blow that is devastating. I have written before about this film being one of the most intense cinematic experiences for me.
The film’s success – it bagged 5 Oscars and was a box-office hit – was completely unanticipated. It beat Jaws and Nashville at the Oscars. Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando had turned down the lead role, and co-producer Michael Douglas chose not to act himself. Five other actresses turned down the role of the domineering Nurse Ratched. Finally, Louise Fletcher won the Best Actress Oscar for her stunning portrayal of the Nurse, accepting the role just a week before filming began, and turning what was arguably a supporting role, into a lead one. Jack Nicholson, as McMurphy, won his first Oscar and the film catapulted him to super-stardom.
Jack Nicholson lives and breathes McMurphy, a wisecrack who loves to break the rule, is prone to violence, and like any sane person, can have insane impulses when trapped in an insane asylum. While Nicholson’s performance is universally and frequently appreciated, Fletcher’s Nurse is often overshadowed. Observe that Fletcher does not make the Nurse a typical monster, or witch. Rather, the Nurse is a sexually and emotionally repressed authoritative figure, who plays by the rule book, and actually believes that what she is doing is good for the patients.
Western critics believe the treatment of mental illness shown in the film is dated, and modern practices are not as brutal. While it is true that practices such as lobotomy are discontinued, electro-convulsive therapy is still widely used, especially in developing countries. Forman, a Czech, has likened the asylum to communist Russia, and the film doesn’t let viewers escape its grim reality. The escape of the Indian Chief was meant to offer a cathartic end, but for me, McMurphy’s end was simply too devastating.
I once composed a poem inspired by this film:
I was flying on a quest
With a great deal of zest
When I fell down
Into a cuckoo’s nest
Thus I had a fracture
And lost all my rapture
While I kept pondering
The reasons for my capture
All my friends told me
The nest was the best for me
And as the days went by
I forgot how to fly
As my mind reeled
My lips were sealed
My fracture healed
But my fate was sealed
A personal favorite that must be watched on the big screen. Pollack’s best picture. Streep, Redford, and Brandauer’s performances. David Watkin’s eye-popping on-location cinematography. John Barry’s soul-stirring background score. A dollop of Mozart – the K136 Divertimento in D, K331 Piano Sonata in A, Clarinet Concerto. The complex characterizations of the baroness Karen Blixen and Denys. The story of a woman who never accepted defeat in any way.
The apes playing with the phonograph. The big game hunting scene with lions. The Masai tribe in the desert. The English school for the natives. The owl gifted to her. The view of the world through god’s eyes. The flight sequence followed by the love-making scene in bed. Ah, what cinema!
On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando are a tour de force that make powerful films.
Once Upon A Time In America, Sergio Leone’s explosive saga of gangland America.