The big winner at the Academy Awards for 1975 was “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. It took five statues, including the big ones and remains to this day a very famous and celebrated movie. Yet, I never saw it until now. Probably something to do with that it takes place inside a mental asylum. I have always had a fear of mental illness.
Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) arrives at a mental institution from a labor camp (prison). He is there so they can find out if he is insane or just faking it. What Randle discovers is that life at the ward is tightly controlled by nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and that the other inmates are effectively pacified. Randle McMurphy is a maladjusted rebel and he soon chafe under the tight regime and instigate various rebellions, including a spontaneous fishing trip and a party in the ward with prostitutes. It is will against will, but nurse Ratched is no pushover.
When I learned that director Milos Forman saw the story as a metaphor for life under the communist thumb in Czechoslovakia, it was not difficult to decode this movie. The patients are the powerless and largely pacified regular people who has been dumbed down into apathy and are considered nitwits by the authorities. Those who do rebel, in particular McMurphy, are faced off and dealt with, the electro chock likely being a metaphor for torture and re-education.
I like this metaphor, it is very sympathetic. My problem is just that to some extent I actually sympathize with the hospital. Many if not most of the patients are very sick and need to be cushioned. They need the protected environment that is the hospital and as some of these inmates can get quite agitated there need to be some degree of firmness. At the same time Randle McMurphy is an asshole, he is in prison for a pretty good reason, and he is a very disturbing element in the ward. That is a poor starting point when you are supposed to take his side in the power struggle with nurse Ratched.
McMurphy does get to sympathize with many of the other patients, although he think them more capable than they really are, and when the system gets pushed it is revealed as being more interested in asserting its control than the well being of the patients and the fatal ending is on the head of nurse Ratched and the institution, so I guess in the end I was won over.
“One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is notable for introducing a number of famous actors, such as Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif and Christopher Lloyd and that in itself makes it an interesting movie to watch, but also for its own sake it is a well put together movie and a strong performance from both Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. I am still early on 1975, so I cannot tell what it was up against, but I was not so impressed with it that I would have expected it to be in contention for all those Academy Awards. But then again, the Academy loves movies about disabilities.
I do think it is an interesting perspective though, to see the inhabitants of communist East Europe as living in an insane asylum and treated as disenfranchised cattle, unable to take care of themselves and the rebels as being lobotomized by the authorities. I am just not certain the metaphor was entirely successful. I am preparing myself to be crucified for that position…
Nevertheless, this is a must-see, if nothing else then for its significance and a Jack Nicholson at the top of his game.