Halfway through the week and Tom from Plain, Simple Tom Reviews finally join the blogathon! Tom reviews all kinds of movies and television series on his site. No matter your tastes, chances are he reviews it so go give his site a look. As for what he brings with him to the Ultimate 70s Blogathon, well, it’s of course the Jack Nicholson favorite One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Let’s just jump into it!
It’s been a while since my last blogathon participation and this time, it’s all about films from the 1970s – a particularly phenomenal decade for film since it treated us to such classics as The Godfather I and II, Network, M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange and Star Wars. And that’s just skimming the surface. For my participation in this blogathon, my original plan was to revisit All The President’s Men, seeing as how I recently saw The Post, but as this event is meant to be a celebration of our favourite 70s films, I decided to pick a film that I feel is one of the very best of the decade as well as one of my favourite films in general. And since it picked up “The Big Five” at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress anď Screenplay), obviously other people thought so too!
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Adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name, director Miloš Forman’s 1975 film stars Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, a penitentiary inmate who is transferred to a psychiatric hospital for observation and evaluation, it being heavily implied that McMurphy purposefully got himself transferred there to escape the hardship of the work farm. In the hospital, he strikes up friendships with several of the patients, many of whom are drawn to him because of his free spirit, confident nature and “devil-may-care” attitude, and he tries to get them to stand up for themselves and to rebel against the harsh tyranny of the controlling and manipulative Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
One of the major reasons why this film is so amazing is Jack Nicholson’s Oscar winning performance as the roguish but inherently supportable R.P. McMurphy – probably his greatest role ever in my opinion. It’s him at “peak Nicholson” as McMurphy has that devilish grin, unmistakable laugh and that swagger that Nicholson is well known for; he excels in the leading role since he is charismatic, clever, loud and funny, with an insatiable devil-may-care attitude but is also warm and caring towards his fellow patients and also gets to be rightfully annoyed and hostile towards the tyrannical Nurse Ratched, getting to genuinely develop his character throughout the film and culminating in a perfect conclusion. So who knows how the film would have turned out had Nicholson not been in it – definitely not the same.
Directly opposite him in the antagonistic role of the “Big Nurse” Mildred Ratched, a character who is often included in the “greatest film villains of all time” lists, Louise Fletcher is pitch perfect in the villainous role, also winning an Academy Award for her efforts. Ratched is cool, calm and collected and knows exactly how to prey on fears and emotionally castrate her male patients, keeping order around the hospital and never relenting or allowing McMurphy to achieve victory. In the original novel, she’s incredibly machine-like and the narrator firmly believes that she’s not human; in the film, there’s definitely an element of that but instead of going directly down that route, Fletcher’s Ratched displays a certain amount of humanity and is simply drunk on her own power – she’s one of those screen villains who believe that they’re doing the right thing, not seeing themselves as the bad guy at all, which makes Fletcher’s performance all the more nuanced.
The supporting cast is equally as impressive and it features debut performances from future big names such as Brad Dourif, Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli whilst also featuring great performances from William Redfield, Sidney Lassick and Will Sampson. In particular, Dourif is wonderful as the sweet, stuttering Billy Bibbit – an innocent figure who takes a shine to McMurphy and gains some self-confidence, eventually (though temporarily) losing his stutter as he stands up to Ratched but he soon endures a tragic fate when the evil nurse threatens to talk to his mother about certain things that he did.
All in all, there is heart and soul in abundance when it comes to the cast and certain scenes where they’re all together (many of them improvised as the camera was left rolling in between takes), bonding as they stand up to authority, are rousing and entertaining to watch while also having a tense, dramatic dynamic in the more emotionally charged scenes.
Having studied the book when I was in school, I can tell that it was adapted perfectly for the screen; obviously there were minor changes but the plot structure and characters remain the same and this film is a perfect example of a literary adaptation done correctly – an instance where the film is as good as, if not better than, the book. The script is essentially note perfect as all the character dialogue rings true, it has a very clear structure and all of the important themes (insanity vs. sanity, society’s censoring of natural impulses, the power of laughter) are presented powerfully and succinctly, without being preachy or obvious. Plus, the ending is surely one of the most iconic and memorable finales in film history (it’s certainly one of my favourites, close behind The Player) as it is a triumphant victory over authority and a celebration of freedom.
And adding to that, the award winning direction by the great Miloš Forman is brilliant because there’s a perfect balance of comedy and drama, the pacing is perfect and he gets the very best out of his actors – a worthy accomplishment given the problems that filming surely encountered along the way; the perhaps risky decision to include actual patients and doctors as cast members gives the film definite authenticity and it pays off greatly at the end of the day. Forman also knows the perfect times to use close-up shots of the characters to let the audience see the joy or despair or pain that they’re feeling – an important technique for a character driven piece like this.
The film is also lovely to look at as the locations are authentic, sometimes unnerving when it comes to the disturbed ward (it was filmed in an actual hospital), and the exterior shots are often tranquil and just so beautiful – Jack Nitzsche’s opening/closing score, played on a saw of all things, is also incredibly poignant, iconic and wonderful to listen to; never has a saw been played so beautifully. Except in Another Earth.
So all in all, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of the best films of the seventies as well as one of my all-time favourites; it was adapted expertly onto the screen from the original book, the story is original and easy to follow and the whole cast is mightily impressive – especially the award winning performances of Jack Nicholson (who is at his all-time best here) and Louise Fletcher
If you’ve missed any of the entries, you can find a list of them all here.