One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


I participated in a “Decades Blogathon” hosted by movie review pages: Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread. Please check out their sites.  Their task was to pick a movie released in the 5th year of any decade (1950, 1955, 1960, 1965, etc.) I chose 1975 and wrote about ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest photo starrating-5stars.jpgDepending on my mood, I have about 5 films from which I often choose to give as my favorite of all time One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest is invariably the answer I cite most often. It is simply as perfect as a movie can get. Unlike cinematic works that achieved their classic status over many years, audiences immediately knew what they had with this one. It was a huge box office success, second only only to Jaws that year.  [1]  The film earned 9 Oscar nominations and made a “clean sweep” of the top 5 categories: Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay (Adapted). It is only the second of three pictures to accomplish this distinction. It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991) are the other two.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, its adaptation to screen took over a decade. Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and spent years trying to get a film version off the ground. Ultimately his son Michael purchased the rights from his father and then produced with Saul Zaentz. Czech émigré Milos Foreman directed this take of one Randle Peter McMurphy. Convicted of statutory rape, he has been sentenced to a fairly short prison term. However, at the start of our story he is being transferred from the Pendleton Work Farm to the Oregon State Hospital because he has feigned insanity. McMurphy assumes his time spent there will be much easier than the hard labor he’d experience in jail. Sometimes things don’t always work out the way we plan.

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher star. They epitomize a perfect pair of combatants. The head administrative caretaker of the psychiatric hospital is Nurse Ratched. She is a formidable woman. This is her ward and she exercises complete authority over it. “Medication time. Medication time, gentlemen,” she intones over the loudspeaker from the nurse’s station. She dispenses drugs to her patients waiting in line like a priest administering communion to his congregation. Fletcher is the antagonist, but she is no traditional villan. She is a nurse after all, someone who takes care of people. She seems well meaning at first but her calm demeanor hides a stern ugliness beneath. She rules with an iron hand, but she rarely raises her voice. Her tyrannical nature is aroused when things go awry. Cold and calculating, her words are like grenades that she carefully lobs with intent to destroy. Her quiet presence is largely felt even when she isn’t talking. The woman is inhuman, but Fletcher never reduces the character to parody. Hers is among the greatest performances in cinema.

Jack Nicholson is McMurphy, a hero but not in the classic sense. He’s a cocky, self assured rebel that rails against the establishment. Full of swagger, he makes it his mission to flout the rules. That most of the patients are there voluntarily is a revelation that doesn’t sit well with McMurphy. He’s a gambling man and he makes a bet that he can cause Nurse Ratched to lose her temper within a week. In this way he seeks to liberate the others from her grip. His confrontations with her are entertaining for the patients and for us the audience as well. He challenges the norms, slowly fortifying the group with his lack of regard for her authority. A simple plea to watch the 1963 World Series becomes a moment of desperation. The discussion is a mesmerizing battle of wills. The role solidified Nicholson as a cinematic icon and rebel superstar. This is arguably his very finest moment, of many, on film.

A telling highlight of the narrative are the group meetings over which Nurse Ratched presides. They are a nightmare, ostensibly designed to be helpful therapy sessions, but they are anything but. The mental patients, all male, are encouraged to reveal each others’ secrets to the public. The embarrassing gatherings are belittling. Her psychologically manipulative program designed to weaken their self-esteem and bolster her own authority. The dialogues of the group meetings are fascinating. You often don’t realize their insidious nature until the session is over. Jack Nicholson represents a savior of sorts to the patients that have been victimized under Nurse Ratched’s rule.

And let’s talk about those patients. The supporting cast of predominantly unknown actors form a masterpiece ensemble. Every single one of them a fully realized individual in their own right. Even a silent performance shines through. That’s Chief (Will Sampson), a towering 6’7″ tall Native American. He delivers a heartbreaking achievement with just body language and gestures. The scene where Randle teaches Chief how to play basketball is priceless. There’s Harding (William Redfield), an intelligent married man who feels emasculated by his wife and Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to temper tantrums. Brad Dourif received an Oscar nomination for Billy Bibbit, a timid, almost childlike 31 year old. Yet virtually any one of these actors could’ve been recognized. Among the smaller patient roles are docile Martini (Danny DeVito) and belligerent Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd). Three years later those two actors would be reunited on the TV show Taxi. William Duell, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith round out the group. Their assemblage meshes in a brilliant way that make their therapy sessions hypnotic.

At first, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would seem a depressing film. The setting is a mental institution. The colors are drab. The milieu is bleak. Many of the patients look unkempt wearing robes. This is most assuredly a condemnation of psychiatric institutions as an emblem of compassionless bureaucracy. The chronicle contributed to the departure of electroshock therapy from mainstream mental health care for example. However Randle is a strong-willed individual bucking the system. He represents hope in a place where there seemingly is none. He can snare an audience with a cocked eyebrow and a winking glance. He charms the patients in the asylum like he does the viewer. His foil is the equally strong-willed Nurse Ratched, an emasculating presence portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The two play a game of one-upmanship while we sit and watch, basking in the glory of their finely tuned characters. That the atmosphere can go from tense to hilarious to unrelentingly grim, all in the same scene is a tribute to the script by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Their screenplay highlights the complexity of the dual nature of the narrative. It builds to an emotionally shattering conclusion that could either be considered the saddest or the most inspiring ending in the history of film.


[1]  The Rocky Horror Picture Show, largely ignored in 1975, became a success over the years due to midnight showings. It now ranks as the 2nd biggest hit of the year due to the phenomenon that it ultimately became.

24 Responses to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

  1. Excellent review of a hard-hitting classic, great work


  2. Great review! I love this film for all the reasons you state. Billy Bibbit is tragic and the ending is one of the more uplifting, (no pun intended) satisfying endings out there. As much as I love the film, the book by Ken Kesey, is twice as good as the novel. I highly recommend anyone to try out the book — especially if you love the film! Nice job 🙂


  3. abbiosbiston Says:

    This is one of my favourite ever Oscar best picture winners and the book is even better!


  4. Great review of a great movie! Very complmentary (and justifiably so), of Nicholson and Fletcher for their performances, but I especially thought the bouquets you threw to the supporting cast worthy of note. The cast goes far in explaining the long term classic status of this great film.


    • Those patients are so tragic. Some in performances where they don’t even speak. My heart goes out to them.

      P.S. I know it’s just a movie, but that’s how powerful this was.


  5. Great review. Had no idea about the Douglas’ involvement. Nice input of background. I agree with probably everyone. Nicholson and Fletcher were amazing, but shout out to all the side characters. They really added more to the film too. 5 stars


    • Remember their first confrontation over the volume of the music?

      Nurse Ratched: “What you probably don’t realize is that we have a lot of old men in this ward who couldn’t hear the music if we turned it lower. That music is all they have.

      Your hand is staining my window.”

      The calm manner in which Nurse Ratched delivers this response is pure brilliance.


  6. Great review. I love this movie. I’ve seen it twice so far and I want to see it a few times more. Jack Nicholson’s performance in this movie is incredible, and those last few scenes kill me.


  7. Great review. This is actually one of the examples where a film is as good as the book.


  8. Mark you say according to your moods you have 5 all time favourite movies. One is The Godfather, then One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption. Which are the other two ?


    • That’s such a great question that I don’t have a definitive answer to. LOL The Fifth Element and The Wizard of Oz are the others. While The Godfather is a classic that I enjoy immensely, I’ve never given that as my favorite film.


  9. I don’t have a rock solid relationship with The Godfather, nor do I have one with Wizard Of Oz and The Fifth Element, but Shawshank is a whole different experience. I would have watched One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest if I wouldn’t have been reading the novel right now. Once I finish it, I will definitely watch it. Mark, your love for foreign movies is apparent due to your numerous reviews of them. I wanted to ask if you have watched any Indian movies. And thank you for placing Perks of Being A Wallflower on top of your 2012 top 10 list. I would have never have had the courage to watch because of the immense emotional attachment I have with the book.


  10. I knew One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a classic, but I didn’t realize it did a clean sweep of the top 5 categories at the Academy Awards that year. Wow. As a character Nurse Ratched clearly made an impact on popular culture, because any caretakers who are tough on their patients are jokingly refered to in daily life as Nurse Ratched.


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