Sunday, October 30, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 33
Year: 1975
Writer: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman (adaptation), Ken Kesey (novel)
Director: Milos Forman
Star: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is one of those movies you admire so much in the broad strokes. I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and my memory had forced all the odd edges and annoyances out of the picture, and I remembered the film as a masterpiece. I remembered the fantastic moment where Nurse Ratched demands her soiled hat back. I remembered the Chief speaking for the first time. I remembered Nicholson begging the other patients in the ward to raise their hands so he can watch baseball. And those scenes are still great. But, looking at the movie today, I can’t help but be a little let down.

Perhaps it’s because those aforementioned scenes (and many others) are so good, you want to like the rest of the movie more than it merits. Or perhaps it’s because the movie touches greatness so often you can’t help but notice its failures. Maybe I’ve just become more cynical. Maybe movies have just become more cynical. Maybe it’s a little of all of the above.

It all centers on McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, who is brilliant), who was in prison but gets a transfer to a mental institution to, ostensibly, relax and take it easy for a few months before he’s released. Little does he know that the ward is ruled with an iron fist by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, every bit as good as Nicholson). The movie becomes anti-establishment, with McMurphy fighting against “the man” and introducing the other patients to sex, drugs and alcohol.

McMurphy is such a defining character that we’ve stopped thinking of him as a “character” and simply believe that he is Nicholson. Most actors hate the word “effortless” to describe a performance because so much effort is put into any good one, but that word describes Nicholson in this film. And Fletcher’s quiet reserve serves as the perfect compliment to Nicholson’s unhinged nature. When the relationship becomes explosive, it’s resonant because the moment has been built and paced beautifully over the film.

The rest of the patients in the ward are portrayed well by a great slew of character actors, including Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick and Brad Dourif. They know when to go subtle and when to go over-the-top, and I feel like their performances are the real reason we find ourselves laughing “with” these characters, not laughing “at” them.

The highest compliment I can give the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman is that the dialogue doesn’t seem like dialogue. The entire movie has the feel of improvisation, which might be the toughest thing a writer can pull off successfully.

The best scene the movie comes when Nurse Ratched (and the audience) realizes that she’s lost control. No, not the late night orgy of booze and boobs, this comes earlier. They are having group counseling and McMurphy is livid because he’s realized he’ll have to remain an inmate until Ratched says he’s free to go. First, one of the patients simply asks why their bedrooms are locked during the day, and then another (played by Lassick) begins screaming for his cigarettes. Ratched remains stone-faced as the screaming turns into anarchy and the anarchy turns to violence…resulting in Lassick’s character, McMurphy and the Chief (Sampson) being taken to electroshock therapy. The scene is probably almost seven minutes and the direction, editing, acting and slow build of tension makes the entire thing crackle with energy. I look at those moments and think just how amazing the movie could be if every scene was as true as this one.

But then there are the problems.

First and foremost, it becomes clear that McMurphy believes (and the movie does as well) that he can cure these men through the use of masculinity. Just shove enough alcohol (never mind what side effects it might create for the drugs they are taking) in their mouths and enough breasts in their faces and they can recover. These men are mentally ill. The writers try (but don’t succeed) in side-stepping this by stating that most of the patients are there voluntarily, so obviously they aren’t crazy, right? Right? Yes, McMurphy metaphorically and mentally “frees” the Chief, but what of the others? The ones with real issues. Billy’s death is just as much McMurphy’s fault as Nurse Ratched’s, but it’s easier to overlook that because this is an anti-establishment story.

In fact, there’s an entirely different interpretation of the movie one could see, one where Ratched is the hero and McMurphy is the villain. She is, after all, just doing her job and he’s putting these guys in harm’s way every chance he gets. In this version, McMurphy gets what he deserves at the end and sanity is restored. I’d normally call a movie working just as well under several interpretations a great thing, but this movie is so obviously on McMurphy’s side, this can only be seen as a fault.

Also a major issue is the blatant misogynistic spin. Ratched has removed all semblances of femininity from herself, and as a result is called a “cunt” and “bitch” early and often by McMurphy. Her assistant barely has three lines. Dourif’s character has issues with his mother and ex-girlfriend, and Redfield’s character loathes his wife. The only women seen in a good light are the whores who go sailing with the boys and sneak the booze into the hospital.

And then there’s the little fact that the (I’m guessing) 40ish-year-old McMurphy was in prison because he raped a 15-year-old girl. This is actual dialogue: “She was very willing, if you know what I mean. I practically had to take to sewing my pants shut. Between you and me, she might have been 15 but, when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of you, I don't think it's crazy at all…and I don't think you do either.”

We’re supposed to cheer for this guy. The movie basically forgets this little exchange happened five minutes later, so I guess they figure we should as well?

These are all major, major problems that prevent the movie from working as it should. But it’s so much easier to forget. To forgive the movie for its issues. To just focus on Nicholson and Fletcher and cheer when the Chief breaks that window and embraces his newfound strength. Good luck with that.

My Score (out of 5): ***

1 comment:

The_Awesometeer said...

Hey man I am currently watching the AFI top 100 too. Like your blog. You should check mine out but we have a little bit different of an approach given you know about film and I know nothing. All I have is opinion. Anyways great blog, keep it up looking forward to reading more