As one of only three films in Oscar history to win all of the “Big Five” (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress), the other two being “It Happened One Night” and “The Silence of The Lambs”, what’s incredible about Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is how blatantly it refuses to be constrained to a genre and how it doesn’t pigeon hole its characters. This is a hauntingly beautiful film; equal parts funny, endearing, horrifying, sweet and surprising with two of the most iconic lead performances of the 20th century. There’s a lot to this story, but essentially, convicted felon Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to a mental asylum by feigning insanity to get out of hard labour for the last few weeks of his sentence. Once admitted, he turns the ward completely upside down with various acts of rebellion and encouraging his fellow patients to defy the tyranny of the icy and controlling Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Nurse Ratched and McMurphy engage in a battle for power in the ward and for the loyalty of the patients.
Even now I think people still have difficulty trying to define what this film is actually about, which is why it’s often subject to analysis by film groups and university students. Is it a film setting out to depict individuals suffering from mental illness? Potentially, but then again the suite of quirky patients depicted only really seem to be insane to the point of zany, with many of them shedding their ailments fairly definitively once McMurphy comes onto the scene and brings a little bit of frat house style fun to the place. So no, I don’t think the film is seeking to have some deep and intrinsic insights into mental illness, other than perhaps that those suffering deserve to be treated with dignity and humanity. Could it be about the dangers of conformity and the importance of resistance against tyranny? It could well be, and with such a formidable symbol of the benevolent dictator in Nurse Ratched I can see the merit in this argument as well. It should be noted how impressive Louise Fletcher is as Nurse Ratched; it’s one of those phenomenal performances that is so iconic that the actor never really reaches the same heights again (think Margaret Hamilton in the Wizard of Oz or even Jennifer Grey as Baby Housemen). She is absolutely terrifying, yet in a way that is so understated, coldly calm and collected that she is even more unsettling than if she had been frothing at the mouth and wielding an axe. Her icy adherence to rules and principles even in the face of human suffering is the perfect foil for McMurphy’s rough and pleasure driven impulsiveness.
Does it work as a depiction of the horrors faced by patients in asylums in the 1960s? Again, perhaps. The electric shock therapy and lobotomies and other barbaric practices by the psychiatric practitioners are such a small, albeit powerful aspect of the film that if that’s the goal of the filmmakers I imagine they would have honed in on it more. This ambiguity is I think a clever and very deliberate approach by the filmmakers, because not only are the themes of the film a little clouded, but so too are the characters. McMurphy is the undoubtable hero of the story; charismatic and anti-establishment and responsible for bringing some joy to the sullen and repressed existence of the other patients. But the entire reason he’s been transferred to the hospital is because he pretended to be insane to get out of hard labour after being convicted for the rape of a fifteen year old girl. So it’s not like he’s exactly the soundest moral example, and it could easily be argued that what he does for the other patients isn’t for them at all, but for his own ego and to antagonise Nurse Ratchett. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case though, I think that despite him being a scumbag out in society, he does care for the patients and would consider them his friends.
The point is though, he’s not a straight forward individual and its not a straightforward story. Just like the doctors trying to evaluate McMurphy and determine if he’s genuinely insane or not, so too are we as an audience kept on our toes trying to determine what sort of cinematic experience the film is providing. And in the final profound and again, emotionally somewhat confusing scene, we come to the horrifying realisation that McMurphy has been lobotomised and is now a shell of a person now, with no discernible consciousness or soul left. McMurphy’s unlikely friend, the supposedly mute Native American named Chief (Will Sampson) tells him that he’s coming with him and smothers him to death. But instead of finishing on the sombre and grim note that could have easily (and understandably) been undertaken by the director, we are left with the uplifting visage of Chief picking up the marble hydrotherapy fountain that McMurphy had tried and failed to lift earlier in the film, smashing a window and escaping while the other patients cheer him on and he runs into the glowing sunrise.
I don’t think the film gets the credit it’s due for being (for the most part at least), an often funny and wholesome experience. It features a smattering of impressive performances beyond the lead performances (including first time appearances from Christopher Lloyd as the antagonistic and intense Max and Danny De Vito as the infant like Martini). The scenes in which the patients are all just having a good time with each other and ribbing each other for being, well, insane, are light hearted and scripted perfectly. Again, this film has no business providing so many happy moments; it’s set in a mental asylum in the 1960s and often deals with some extraordinarily sinister concepts. And yet it does still manage to be a hopeful and joyous story; defying what we expect as an audience and by making us laugh with the characters and feel happy for their wins, we feel their disappointment, their uncertainty and their terror all the more as well.
By Jock Lehman