Reviewing a movie which has been considered a classic by contemporary judgment by the academy awards committee is always difficult. Milos Forman’s, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one such film which has won critical claim winning five Oscars including Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Screenplay (Bo Goldman). (Forman, 1975). The director and the cast is apparently well identifiable so are perhaps the characters to those who have read the book of the same name by Ken Kessey.
This has however been creatively adapted in the film leading to the screen play also winning an Oscar in its category. The acting, music and the film score are thus perfect though not necessarily without areas for improvement while the technical parameters of lighting, sound and camera work is also befitting this movie which will remain a classic of its times. Without depriving the director and the actors of their credits, it would be prudent to critically examine facets which could have been projected differently or improved upon.
Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson) the principal protagonist in the movie is a criminal who declares himself insane while serving a relatively short prison term with a view to avoid the misery and discomfort of prison life. He ends up in a mental asylum run by a nurse who is regarded as a tyrant by her patients as she exercises total control over them. Nurse Ratched’s (Fletcher) influence is all the more telling on those patients who have come to the asylum voluntarily rather than for treatment of a mental illness.
Thus their submission has been institutionalized by the need for recommendations of Ratched for their release and treatment such as shock therapies which would be torturous for normal persons. McMurphy’s induction into this scenario was bound to create friction for he is an eternal rebellious, bounder who however is impervious that many of his fellow mates just as he himself are faking treatment. As in such establishments friendships develop and McMurphy is drawn towards Billy Bibbit (Dourif) a man with suicidal tendencies and Chief Bromden (Sampson) the original narrator of the plot in the book.
Bromden is a schizophrenic and a native America who is respected for his size rather than his physical infirmities being deaf and dumb. While McMurphy and Bromden are defiant towards Nurse Ratched’s domineering attitude Bibbit is submissive. Their friendship develops particularly when McMurphy discovers that Bromden is faking deafness. Thus he lets him know his plans for escape. On a late winter night, McMurphy enters clandestinely into the nurse’s station and calls his girl friend to assist him in escape.
The girl comes with her friend who is seduced by Billy. When the binge ends, the wreckage of the party is noticeable leading to heavy reprimand by Ratched principally directed at Billy. Being weak and also perhaps guilty, Billy commits suicide, in turn leading to McMurphy going into a violent rage and strangling Ratched almost to her death. A lobotomy operation is carried out on McMurphy whose plight leads the Chief to strangle him with a pillow before making good his escape from the asylum to Canada.
The plot of the movie is generally based on the book, though the screen play adaptation does not provide centrality to the role of the narrator, Bromden (Sampson), a fact rued by the author (Kessey) who had written the book based on real life characters in a mental asylum. The theme explores multiple strands, escapism represented by people voluntarily declaring themselves as insane and getting admitted in a mental asylum, politics of such establishments, power of the nurses and how it is ruthlessly exercised and the desperation of individuals caught within the rot in such systems.
It is indeed a very complex plot to portray and the director has done justice in most parts of the film. The actors in their roles have been near perfect, with McMurphy very aptly portrayed by Nicholson including the naivete on entering the asylum, inability to understand the complex relationships that emerge and power games that he plays with Ratched. Fletcher as the demonic tyrant and prima donna of an asylum is also just right. So are the other supporting actors.
For those who have read the book as well as seen the film, the exception of not viewing it through narration by Chief Bromden may appear striking, but for others it would not be that relevant. This was also seen as a notable flaw in the movie by the author, Kessey apart from wrong casting of Nicholson as McMurphy, though the critical acclaim received by the actor should lead us to overlook the writer’s comments as being too attached to the original script. There are instances however when Forman tends to stray from the main theme and the digressions prove to be not just unconvincing but also greatly weaken the plot.
The suicide by Billy is inappropriately portrayed and results in creating an impact of an imposition on the viewer which is not effectively weaved in the plot. The fishing trip on a stolen boat is perhaps the weakest link as it takes the plot on an indefinable course. The scene with all the principals on the deck of a fishing boat looks totally incongruous and the intent of the director is not discernible. Despite these infirmities, this is one movie which cannot be missed by any American. Reference: 1. Forman, Milos. (1975). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.