One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975. Directed by Milos Forman, written by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben. Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Scatman Crothers, Vincent Schiavelli, Dean R. Brooks, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, Dwight Marfield, and a score of other notable character actors.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic. There’s no question about this right? With my Dad, I had seen it in high school and by myself in college, and loved it. This story of R. P. McMurphy’s rage against the machine is meant to fill one not only with righteous indignation, but with a sense of hope. It succeeds.
Cuckoo’s Nest is funny and touching. Everyone’s got a favorite scene: mine is, of course, McMurphy’s longing to watch the World Series. It helps that director Milos Forman and producer Michael Douglas assembled one of the greatest ensemble casts of the 1970s, and Jack Nicholson’s performance as McMurphy is legendary. Oscar-wise, it’s one of the few times Hollywood really got it, handing out awards for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay to this film that dared to take on the establishment. The tagline summed it up: “If he’s crazy, what does that make you?”
Sadly, watching it again all these years later, I have to admit that what it makes me feel like is that I’m a sane man who didn’t rape a child and try to kill a woman, as McMurphy does in the film. Because for whatever reason, now I see that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is brilliantly acted, brilliantly directed, brilliantly written.. and one hell of a mean and nasty movie.
I’m serious about this. And I say that I’m serious about this because I’m guessing a lot of my friends and family shared my love of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, probably love it now. Perhaps that what makes it so scary to me.
Cuckoo’s Nest is a picture about rebellion, and I have to say that I love that theme. But this is a “safe” film about rebellion, a movie with a hero who is really nothing but fun. Rebels, as we should know in real life, are often assholes. McMurphy’s a fun-loving guy with a heart of gold. But he’s not genuine and neither is the movie as a whole.
First, consider the subject. We’re in a mental home. Despite its ugly surroundings, it’s a place we don’t mind visiting. That’s part of Cuckoo’s Nest’s enduring appeal. With its amazing ensemble cast (Lloyd, DeVito, Dourif, Schiavelli, Samson–all wonderful), Nicholson’s bluster (never better), and Forman’s sure hand (honestly, I love the direction), you get pulled in to the asylum and it quickly begins to seem like a clubhouse. Every one of the characters is crazy, but it’s a very safe sort of crazy–no one here is a threat.
This is most notable in our hero. Who doesn’t love Randle Patrick McMurphy? I sure did. Nicholson’s outfit, that cap and jeans and leather jacket–so cool. As is his trying to engage everyone in a game of poker, basketball, the World Series… this is a good friend, a guy who’s a bit of a party animal, but he looks out for everyone. When he steals away to fish, he takes everyone along. When he tries to get mad at Nurse Ratched, it’s not just for his sake, but everyone’s. When he can finally break free, he doesn’t, because he wants to make sure poor Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) loses his virginity.
Now imagine if McMurphy kept trying to break out by himself, if he were a mumbler, or had a real violent streak–he wouldn’t be as likeable. McMurphy here is almost a better friend than the people we know in real life. That likeability is what disturbs me today. Step back for a moment and consider this character. He is, truly, a lovable rapist. Now if you were to advertise or describe this character in such a way, most of us, I think, would be shocked or repulsed.
Though I’m trying to avoid setting up straw men here, I think it’s accurate to say that most people would regard McMurphy as someone who is not a rapist. It was, after all, statutory. All grown men have cast a wandering eye at girls too young for them. Most of us don’t fuck them, though. McMurphy, in his 30s (Nicholson was 37 when this was filmed), has sex with a thirteen year-old-girl. (I’ll do us all a favor by avoiding comparisons to a certain famous director… and friend of Nicholson’s.)
The first time we see McMurphy talking with Dr. Spivey, in Spivey’s office at the hospital, is significant because it communicates that the machine McMurphy is raging against is not one run by men. Dr. Spivey is a patient, empathetic man. Spivey is played Dr. Brooks who, in real life, was the head of an Oregon mental hospital. That fact, and that scene, speak volumes–Dr. Brooks wouldn’t agree to this role if he was as one-dimensional as the forthcoming Nurse Ratched. We see his office, see from photos on his desk that he fishes (remember the fishing scene later?), smiles patiently as McMurphy talks about that sweet little girl. Dr. Spivey’s a square, but he’s not evil. No, we’ll get to the evil soon enough.
There are four real women in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and two ghosts: the evil Nurse Ratched, her underling Nurse Pillbow (Mimi Sarkisian), Rose and Candy, the two oversexed women pals of McMurphy (Louisa Moritz and Mews Small, respecitvely), and, never seen, Billy Bibbits mother who is linked to Ratched, and Harding’s (William Redfield) wife, the one who we hear he has “sex problems” with. These are, if you think about it closely, six of the worst portrayals of women in a successful motion picture.
Let’s start with the girls, Rose and Candy. Candy seems to be McMurphy’s girlfriend. Rose is Candy’s friend, and only seen in the last act, when McMurphy figures out a way to escape and that involves these two women–idiots both–to come to the window of the asylum, bearing booze, and take off. Of course, McMurphy has a heart of gold, so he’s got this pair to bring tons of booze, not just to bribe Turkle (Scatman Crothers), but so that all his pals in the asylum will have a wonderful send-off.
These two poor women are merely sex objects, in the purest and worst sense of that term. Do they have any dignity whatsoever? McMurphy basically promises Turkle that he can screw Rose for allowing him (McMurphy) to make his escape. Really? As we all know, McMurphy also convinces (through little effort on his part) Rose to fuck stuttering Billy Bibbit.
Stop for a moment to think about these scenes: McMurphy leaves the girls in the company of men confined to a mental institution. Ladies, I don’t about you, but that would make me feel a bit, well, uncomfortable, to say the least.
At least they’re not the nurses. Nurse Ratched and Nurse Pillbow are the ball-busting bitch and her sycophant. It’s worth noting that a number of notable actresses (Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Geraldine Page, among many others) declined to play Ratched because they thought the character was demeaning. They’re right. Ratched has no redeeming qualities, unless you find someone who belittles men and destroys masculinity redeemable.
If this seems harsh, or my calling Ratched a “ball-busting bitch”, consider the fact that we are, without question, meant to cheer McMurphy when he tries to strangle her late in the film. This only works if we’ve been given multiple scenes establishing her as cold hearted and excessively cruel. McMurphy, who raped a 13-year-old (which we forgive), tries to choke Ratched to death after she “kills” Billy… and we’re OK with that.
Honestly, Cuckoo’s Nest could be one of the few movies I know that still, in 2010, gets away with the notion that some women deserve a good whipping, or worse. Without Ratched’s extended torture of McMurphy and the others, we would not be able to endure her being choked nearly to death. But instead of horror for this woman, we secretly cheer. Maybe we openly cheer. We’re not meant to look upon this as a group of cruel men lusting after this woman’s throat (and Forman cuts to the circle of inmates nodding fiercely and cheering McMurphy on), but the poor soul, McMurphy, finally striking back, cheered on by the meek, who have found their savior.
As I saw the movie the other night, projecting it from HD at the Trylon, I simply couldn’t believe I ever felt elation at that scene. Maybe I’m the only one who did. Maybe we’re meant to find horror in Ratched’s near-strangulation. But if horror was intended, it is quickly diminished: McMurphy is next seen as a zombie, having been given a lobotomy for his deed. (A side note, and one on which I’ll tread carefully: I have to question the role of blacks in this movie. Forman and Co. are outstanding filmmakers, so I can’t imagine this was a simple coincidence. But why is it that none of McMurphy’s inmate pals were black? Or that the only guards in Cuckoo’s Nest with speaking roles are black? Consider the contrast: a bunch of kind, misunderstood white guys who just want to have fun, the two cold, evil women in charge, and wandering about in their bow ties, casting sideways glances and eager to punch McMurphy, are three black guys. Oh, and Turkle, who’s easily bribed with a twenty, booze, and a good lay.)
I’m honestly at a loss about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Never in my life have I made such a 180 degree turn about a picture. Silly movies I loved as a kid I’ve come to see as dumb, or less-than-complex (Star Wars, Ghostbusters and The Blues Brothers all come to mind.)
But it isn’t dumb. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, in many ways, brilliant: the direction, the writing, and Christ, all those great actors. Outside of the thumping of the Native drums at the end, Jack Nietzsche’s singing saw theme is wonderful, and daring I think.
And that what makes it so damn troubling. I’ve written about movies I wished I’d seen with my Dad, and let me tell you, this is one of them. He owned it on DVD, used to mumble, “Mmm, Juicy Fruit,” because he loved that scene so much. I’ve loved it, too. The basketball scene, the baseball scene, McMurphy trying to lift that marble sink, the Chief doing it later… everything. The movie has magic. But what kind of magic? I honestly don’t know, and I wonder what Dad would have thought about my concerns. He was one of those people I love and respect who admire this film and watch it again and again.
So is something wrong with me? Did I change somehow, become some kind of Establishment conservative? I don’t know. But watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all I could think of is this: if R. P. McMurphy’s sane, what does that make us?