One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

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Director: Milos Forman.
Screenplay: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman.
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Scatman Crothers, Vincent Schiavelli, Michael Berryman, Nathan George, Marya Small, Louisa Moritz, Phil Roth, Mwako Cumbaka, William Duell, Delos V. Smith Jr, Tin Welch, Dean R. Brooks.

In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch“.

In 1934, Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” made Academy Awards history by becoming the first film to win all top five Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress & Screenplay. 80 years on, this is an accomplishment that has only been achieved twice since that time. Most recently was in 1991 with Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs” and the other (that’s the most deserving of them all) is this 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s radical novel.

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Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a convict who fakes insanity to escape the confines of prison and instead, spend his remaining years of incarceration in a mental hospital. McMurphy gets more than he bargain for though, when he comes across the tyrannical Head Nurse (Louise Fletcher). Rebelling against her control over the vulnerable patients, McMurphy turns the hospital ward upside-down with his wildly infectious and challenging personality, which incurs the wrath of the embittered Nurse.

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Now widely considered a classic of American cinema, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was not without it’s problems in making it to the screen. The film rights to Kesey’s novel were actually owned by Kirk Douglas who starred in the 1963 Broadway production. However, there wasn’t a major studio that was interested in financing it. Douglas’ intention was to reprise the leading role but the film took so long to get off the ground, that it left him too old to play the part.
Before passing the rights down to his son, Michael Douglas, he recruited Czechoslovakia’s Milos Forman as a suitable director and even had a screenplay drafted up by Ken Kesey himself. It was Forman who rejected this version, though, as Kesey wanted to retain the mute, Native American, Chief Bromden as the narrator of the story (as it was in the novel) while Forman’s intention was to focus on McMurphy. This proved to be only the beginning of the films problems; Kesey was so incensed with the filmmakers approach to his material that he sued the producers and vowed never to watch the completed film while numerous actresses including; Audrey Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft and Faye Dunaway turned down the, supposedly coveted, role of Nurse Ratched. Nicholson wasn’t even the first choice for McMurphy either; Marlon Brando, James Caan and (Kesey’s proffered choice) Gene Hackman turned down the part while Forman had expressed interest in Burt Reynolds.

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With a sense of irony, it could be said that these fraught production issues actually reflected the fraught and rebellious themes of the material but despite the hiccups, the film opened to widespread critical acclaim and went from a $3 million budget to gross over $100 million and as well as sweeping the board at the Academy Awards, it received a further four nominations.

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Nicholson may not have been the first choice but there’s no doubt that he was born to play McMurphy. He’s an actor that has always produced high quality performances and has even become synonymous with rebellious characters but this is the absolute definitive, The only difference between actor and character is that Nicholson’s appearance is nothing like the flame-haired Irishman described in the book (where it’s easy to see why Kesey might prefer Hackman) but he’s McMurphy in every other hazardous and feral way. He’s the perfect embodiment of the character’s reactionary behaviour against the repressive and authoritarian figurehead of Louise Fletcher’s villainous and castrating Nurse Ratched.

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Although it’s these two stupendous performances that anchor the film, the rest of the supporting cast are equally solid – with particular mention going to Brad Dourif and his nominated turn as the stuttering, immature Billy Bibbit. Also not going unnoticed is the haunting score by Jack Nitzsche and the striking cinematography by Haskell Wexler in capturing the stark, enclosed environment that reflects the perceived insanity of the inmates.

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Whether observed from the point of view of Chief Bromden or R.P. McMurphy, it doesn’t matter, as there’s still no denying that it retains the free-spirited theme’s of Kesey’s novel and the revolutionary and anti-establishment ethos that was rife throughout a generation. A masterful adaptation where Milos Forman and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman put their own stamp on the indicting material without losing any of it’s emotive or uplifting power. Simply superb!

(Included in My Top Ten films)

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Mark Walker

Trivia: The play opened on Broadway in New York City, on 13 November 1963 and closed on 25 January 1964 after 82 performances. The opening night cast included Kirk Douglas as R.P. McMurphy, William Daniels as Dale Harding and Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit.

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48 Responses to “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”

  1. Agreed. I love this movie!

  2. One of my favorites of all-time. By far. Good review Mark.

  3. Absolutely brilliant review Mark. What a good movie!

  4. That’s top stuff Mark – an absolute classic but I never knew about the pre-production difficulties. Can you imagine Audrey Hepburn as Nurse Ratched? You could make a case for a few others but it’s probably Nicholson’s finest performance.

    • Yeah, the production difficulties wee quite drawn out, Stu. It still didn’t seem to hinder the film, though.

      Imagine Hepburn as Ratched? Strangely, I think I can and I think she’d have been good. Is there any better than Louise Fletcher here, though? One of the finest lead female performances I’ve seen. The same goes for Jack!

  5. Wow I would love to see Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit.

  6. When this popped up in my Reader the title was crimped and it looked like you gave this three stars. I was all “What the fuck is Muckers smoking this morning???” but then I got here and my fears were relieved.

    Great work Mark – this is a FANTASTIC film!

  7. You know how I feel about this one. It made my top seven favorite all time performances. Marvelous!

    • You have mentioned your love for this on a few occasions, Cindy. I won’t argue with you at all. It’s in my top three films of all time. Can’t say any sweeter than that! ;)

  8. Eegads, I’m repeating myself. Thank God it’s about a great film and I’m not gushing over something like ‘Jack and Jill’ or ‘Howard the Duck’.

  9. God this is such a classic movie. It’s been far too long since I’ve seen it. A worthy write up for such a great film.

    • Cheers Mark! It is such a good film, man. It makes that bit harder to write about, to be honest. What can you say that hasn’t been said already? The word “Classic” should just about cover it ;)

  10. Nice review. It certainly is a great movie worthy of praise and surely an all-time classic. Nicholson has so many amazing performances and I’d call this his best one.

    • Thanks man! I’d agree there for sure. Nicholson has countless great performances but this is his finest moment. He made McMurphy such an iconic character of cinema and one that most of us can identify with.

  11. Awesome review, Mark! I love this film (and the book). Also – nice new blog, I’ve not been over here for a while but it’s looking sleek!

    • Thanks Georgina! I loved the book as well and for the most part I think the film stuck very closely to it. What changes they did make didn’t hinder the film (or the story) at all.

      It’s good to see you drop back in after your travels. I don’t know what I’ve changed on my site since the last time you seen it but I have been tweaking here and there. :)

  12. Hi, Mark:

    Excellent work!

    One of the wisest things Michael Douglas ever did was listen to his dad in buying the rights to Kesey’s novel. Then eschewing the lead and making a gift of it to Jack Nicholson. And filling the numerous slots in the cast to young, hungry talent.

    Especially Danny De Vito and Christopher Lloyd.

    • Hi Jack,

      Thanks for stopping by, man. It such a classic movie and everything just came together wonderfully (despite the production issues beforehand). The whole cast are perfectly chosen with a good number of them being genuine inmates. Even the doctor (played by Dean R. Brooks) was the actual doctor of that hospital.

  13. Brilliant review Mark. This film is just simply amazing, the ending was great, very dark and unexpected.

  14. Fine review of a fine movie mate. It’s a weird one this one; it’s not always the easiest film to watch and yet you can’t take your eyes off it. This’ll go down as an all-time classic, if it’s not a that status already.

    • Much obliged my good man! I think it probably is regarded as an all time classic already, and rightfully so. It’s one I always have to revisit from time to time. Pure class!

  15. Excellent review sir. You’ve done the classic justice with this informative little piece. Crazy to think about this movie without Jack Nicholson in it now!

    • Very kind words, Tom, and exactly what I wanted to hear.
      I’m glad I’ve done some justice to it. It’s hard to write about a classic film where everything has already been said. That’s why I went the road of commenting on its history and about it’s journey in making it to the screen. Thanks buddy!

  16. Excellent write-up! :-) For an excellent film! One of my all-time favorites. Classic! I don’t review stuff like this because I can’t do these films justice.

    • Much obliged. I tend to think the same way when reviewing a classic film that means so much to you. It’s very difficult to say anything that hasn’t already been said and doing it justice is always a major issue. I still don’t think I managed everything I wanted with this review but it’ll do. :)

  17. Yet another fantastic write-up Mark! This has been missing on my film-watching resume but I should watch this one day, I actually read about the trivia about this film and that Michael Douglas won the Oscar for producing it. Very cool!

  18. Ken Kesey was a graduate of my high school (Springfield High School in Oregon), so we read the book and watched the movie in AP Literature when I was a student. Both are very good, and worthy of most of the hype — I say “most” because around here Kesey himself is a bit overhyped. (Especially in Eugene, despite that not being his alma mater, because the city’s personality fits Kesey’s attitudes more than Springfield does.)

    Kesey was invited to speak to our school my senior year. This was probably a mistake in a few different ways, as what he delivered was a rambling, incoherent speech peppered with recommendations that students take up pot smoking. Entertaining, certainly, but not for the intended reasons…

    • So you went to the same school as Kesey eh? Nice one Morgan. :)
      I can imagine that some wouldn’t take Kesey’s opinions or antics but when I read Cuckoo’s Nest and Tom Wolfe’s Electric Cool Aid Acid Test, I was totally taken by him. I remember seeing him on tv quite a bit when he visited Scotland in his big bus.

      I’ll forever have a good opinion of him due to this film and the marvellous book.

  19. Saw the movie a couple of years ago, thought it was great. Read the book earlier this year, thought it was excellent. I think I need to watch the movie again! Nice review.

  20. Great review Mark and you’ve pretty much said it all. The film is simply poetic. Its themes turn from warmth to tragedy but these transitions in tone are seamless and handled with skill by a director at the top of his game. And the cast, well they are the life of soul of the film as you know. TRULY SUBLIME!

    I was lucky enough to catch a small stage production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival many years ago with non other than Christian Slater in the lead role as R.P McMurphy. Needless to say he nailed it!

    • Cheers man! Yeah, it’s hard to actually say anything about this film that hasn’t been said already. Such a classic piece of cinema with everyone pitching in.

      I meant to go through to Edinburgh to see that play but never found the time. I’m totally gutted I missed it. I suspected that Slater would have been great in mcMurphy’s role. You lucky man you. There’s not many that can say they seen that.

  21. I think I can safely say this would be in my top 10 of all time too. A great film and one that I return to often. I think it actually gets better with viewing and the ending never fails to move me.

    • I just love it Dan. It’s been in my top ten for as long as I can remember. Such a classic movie. I think it will always remain in my top ten, to be honest.

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