It’s impossible to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest today without considering all the unhinged types in Jack Nicholson’s screen resume.
When the film hit theaters in 1975 we had yet to see Nicholson’s take on the Devil, the Joker or a man losing his mind in a hotel blanketed in ice.
That puts Nicholson’s Randall McMurphy, the lone sane soul in a mental institution run by a power-hungry nurse, in broader context. At times, it’s just Jack being Jack in faded white inpatient garb, and director Milos Forman pressing his actor’s buttons in several bravura sequences. As is typical with Nicholson’s film performances, his manic side suggests something more, a knack for unearthing the humanity in his gallery of disturbed portraits.
Nest, part of Warner Bros.’s just-released 20 Film Collection: Best Pictures DVD set, staged an Oscar ceremony coup winning honors in all five major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay). Its storytelling fury hasn’t dimmed with time, and the battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched remains one of Hollywood’s greatest grudge matches.
McMurphy, apparently a career criminal, schemes his way into a mental institution to escape hard time on a work detail. The psychiatrists aren’t sure if he’s faking being crazy, part of the less-than-PC dialogue for a film based on author Ken Kesey’s ’60s-era novel.
The new patient’s days are spent playing cards and basketball with his fellow patients, including Brad Dourif as a floppy-haired stutterer and Danny DeVito in his first significant film role.
They all live under the dictatorial thumb of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a seemingly kind provider who will not tolerate dissension. The battle lines are drawn, with McMurphy trying to defy authority at every turn and Nurse Ratched unwilling to blink in the quest to provide comfort and clarity.
So why are we rooting for the recidivist and not the healer?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest keeps the volume cranked up high for nearly every scene, and the glaring lack of security allows McMurphy to run wilder than most facilities might allow. Yet its the character’s attachment to his fellow lost souls which still catches us off guard. McMurphy reminds his fellow patients that they’re still people, with rights and dreams they shouldn’t let fester from neglect.
The film fits snugly in the era’s embrace of the antihero, with Nicholson’s willful disobedience seen as a tonic for his fellow patients. Fletcher is McMurphy’s physical opposite, tightly coiled with a mask of compassion hanging loosely over her dark heart.
McMurphy’s fate sets the story apart from more conventional yarns, reminding us that ’70s filmmakers showed little interest in following procedure. Nicholson wrote his own rules anyway, making his appearance in Nest oddly perfect.