Directed by Miloš Forman
Based on the book by Ken Kesey
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Direction (Miloš Forman), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture
I've been hearing about One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest for so many years that I finally decided last spring to rent and watch it. Well, winter intersession ended long before I got through my NetFlix and Blockbuster trials, and so I didn't watch it until last night.
A quick review
One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of those films that everyone agrees is important and meaningful, but few people are dying to watch. It starts off uneasy and a little slow, in a series of vignettes and dialogues depicting the arrival of a newly-committed asylee, Randle Patrick McMurphy (played by Nicholson in one of his best performances). McMurphy is serving jail time for battery and gambling, and had recently evaded a charge of statutory rape when the 15-year-old girl he was with refused to testify against him. It is implied in the film as well as in the book that he has himself committed for evaluation on purpose to avoid work detail.
The mental institution's psychiatrist surmises as much, but McMurphy quickly befriends a "mute" Indian chief (the narrator of the book, but not the film). He becomes a small-time pinochle hustler and gradually earns the trust and interest of most of the patients in his ward. Meanwhile, he earns the ire of the cold Nurse Fletcher, who runs the ward and rules her assistants, orderlies who double as guards, with an iron fist.
The film as a whole is a study in two phenomena: the tyranny of the sane and the ways in which an otherwise recidivist personality can imbue a tyrannized culture with the love of life. In particular it depicts the spirit and indomitable will of a healthy human society, and demonstrates both how this spirit can be crushed by authoritarian rule and revitalized by a rebellious soul such as McMurphy's. The story of a night of revolt instigated by McMurphy, and its aftermath, demonstrate the cruelty of those in petty positions of authority over those disenfranchised by genuine mental illness, such as Chief Bromden (played very competently by Will Sampson), Martini (played by Danny Devito), and Billy Bibbit (portrayed brilliantly by Brad Dourif). Dourif gives the most memorable performance besides those of Nicholson and Fletcher themselves. I am surprised that he did not win Best Supporting Actor. His role in this film would become his signature, reflected by his performances as Peter de Vries in David Lynch's Dune and Grima Wormtongue in Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, and even as a Betazed empath in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Tin Man".
(Spoiler warning.) I should have seen McMurphy's frontal lobotomy and subsequent euthanasia coming, and it wasn't even such a shock when he turned out to have been lobotomized rather than just drugged, but I had read and heard nothing concrete about the ending until I saw the film. It was unexpected and distressing, but Chief Bromden's escape coming immediately on its heels gave the film a somewhat uplifting ending, much like the ending of The Shawshank Redemption and Murder in the First, which followed in the footsteps of this great movie.
All in all, I think One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest is a must-see, if only because most Oscar winners for Best Picture are indeed worth seeing, and I recommend it highly. I will be seeking out a copy of Kesey's book eventually, and will let you know what I think of it and how I feel about the deviations between the film version and the book.