One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive

This 1975 Best Picture Oscar winning film was directed by Milos Forman, produced by Michael Douglas, and based on the hugely popular 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey. It was shot at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, the exact same location as in the book. The one major change from page to screen was in the point of view of the story. Whereas the book is told from the perspective of the character Chief, the movie omits his narration and instead uses a more straightforward manner to tell Randle Patrick McMurphy's story. For years Kirk Douglas had owned the movie rights to the novel and had even starred in the 1963 stage adaptation on Broadway.

This is one of the most famous and influential movies in Hollywood history based on one of the most critically acclaimed best-selling novels of the second half of the 20th Century so forgive me if I only briefly touch on the plot. McMurphy is a free-spirited antihero with a disdain for authority. He makes the shortsighted decision to get temporarily committed to a mental asylum in order to avoid physical labor at the jail he is currently serving time at for the statutory rape of a fifteen year old girl. In short, he changes the lives of the patients he comes in contact with, teaching them to believe in themselves and to stand up to the totalitarian authority of the head nurse. It is quite similar in plot and theme, to Cool Hand Luke, which predates this movie by eight years but was based on a novel that was most likely influenced by Kesey's.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher both won Oscars as McMurphy and Nurse Ratched respectively. It is impossible to picture anyone else in these roles but many other actors were considered or nearly cast in these iconic parts. Gene Hackman was Kesey's choice for McMurphy, but he declined. Next came Marlon Brando who likewise turned it down. Forman next considered both James Caan and even Burt Reynolds, about whom the director was quoted as saying he liked his, “cheap charisma.” As for Nurse Ratched, the part was turned down by Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda, and Angela Lansbury before Fletcher was finally signed just a few weeks before shooting began.

While both Nicholson and Fletcher were deserving of all the praise they received, the movie only works because of the incredible work by the ensemble cast. It is one of the great supporting casts of all time. These actors actually lived at the Oregon State Hospital for several weeks during the filming. Milos Forman assigned each of them a patient to observe to help them prepare for their roles.

Broadway legend William Redfield is brilliant as Harding. He was diagnosed with a terminal case of leukemia midway through filming but bravely insisted on finishing the movie. He died a little over a year later at the age of 49. Future Taxi costars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd are both good as mental patients whose lives are touched by McMurphy. Brad Dourif is wonderful as the stuttering, tragic Billy (a role originated on Broadway by Gene Wilder) and Sydney Lassick played hysterically indignant better than anyone. Last but not least, Will Sampson is unforgettable as the giant silent Indian known simply as Chief. He represents the human spirit yearning to be free.

Many of the extras in the movie are actual mental patients and several real life doctors were used as well, including the head of the hospital Dean R. Brooks. He plays Dr. Spivey in the movie and has a famous scene where he interviews McMurphy. Most of the dialogue, as well as Nicholson's acting choices such as swatting at an imaginary fly, in this scene were improvised. Brooks' reactions are authentic.

But it is the tug of war for power between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched that propels the story along. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a beautiful cinematic tapestry interweaving comedy and tragedy together to form a breathtakingly powerful movie masterpiece.

— Patrick Nash, Three Movie Buffs

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Tue November 6, 2018, 7:30 PM, Muenzinger Auditorium

USA, 1975, in English, Color, 133 min, 1.85 : 1

Director: Miloš Forman, Novel: Ken Kesey, Screenplay: Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, Theatre Play: Dale Wasserman, Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Scatman Crothers



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