Director Miloš Forman died in April of this year, so it’s only fitting we cover One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). This is one of Hollywood’s genuine masterpieces, adapted from Ken Kesey’s equally brilliant novel from 1962. With a powerhouse performance from Jack Nicholson, plus a heaping load of social commentary to boot, it’s not a cinema classic that’s set to be rediscovered by each new generation. With bloody good reason.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
Okay, so the setting is 1963 and charismatic petty criminal Randle P. McMurphy is moving into a mental institute due to ongoing misbehaviour in jail. He’s not mentally ill at all, but is hoping for an easy stretch of time with some crazy people until he’s turfed back out into society.
Immediately his chaotic presence causes issues, particularly with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher – now 84), the quietly draconian antagonist of the piece. She and McMurphy have an almighty clash of personalities, not helped by McMurphy’s popularity with the other patients.
McMurphy goes out of his way to infuriate Ratched, but he also takes young Billy (Brad Dourif) under his wing, encouraging him to break free from his emotional shackles and enjoy his youth.
More enduring, and dramatic for the film’s conclusion, is when he strikes up an unusual friendship with “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson – unfortunately he died in 1987 aged only 53). This tall chap had convinced everyone he’s a mute, but warms up to McMurphy’s endlessly chatty advances.
Whilst McMurphy’s stay in incarceration isn’t wholly unpleasant, his repeated clashes with Nurse Ratched get more and more volatile. Eventually, his overconfidence and rebelliousness rub off on the others. In her quietly monstrous way, Ratched starts to lose control of the situation.
Straight up, this is an impeccably well observed, directed, and acted film. Michael Douglas (prior to his acting career taking off) produced it and helped cast everyone, which led to a career defining role for Nicholson.
Newcomers like Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito got their big breaks. William Redfield as Dale Harding should get a mention, too. Unfortunately, he died in the summer of 1976 aged 49 shortly after the film’s incredible Oscars run.
There are endless moments in the film that stick in the memory. From Nicholson’s explosive performance, to the devastating (yet uplifting) ending, the bizarre soundtrack that seems to be the craziest thing in the mental ward, and the social commentary.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a one off, for sure. You take an inspired novel and turn it into an equally inspired film and, really, you have one of the greatest film adaptations of all time. And it’s a total classic – one for each new generation to enjoy.
The film was a smash hit, critically and commercially. Once the reviews and word of mouth flooded around, people got off their butts to go and see the thing. Costing $3 million, in North America alone it made $109 million.
At the Oscars it swept all before it, bagging five of them. That includes Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Actress for Fletcher, and Best Film. The win for the latter means it beat the likes of Dog Day Afternoon and Jaws. That’s one difficult year to try to win it, eh?
Miloš Forman was responsible for two all time classics, which is quite the inclusion for anyone’s CV. Alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus (1984) utterly obliterated the Oscars in 1985 and bagged eight of the things.
The Czech-American director leaves an incredible legacy behind with those two films alone. Until 1968 he lived in (what used to be) Czechoslovakia. Cuckoo’s nest was his second film in America – his fourth overall – but between 1975 and 1984 he only made two other films.
Sporadic in his project selection, other notable works include The People vs Larry Flynt (1996) and Jim Carrey vehicle Man on the Moon (1999). His final film was in 2006 – Goya’s Ghosts. And that rounds off quite the exceptional career.