Nothing drives a good drama like conflict, and with movies I love it when said conflict is someone defying authority. It can be something large scale like a rebel trying to take down a government, but it can work just as well on a smaller scale such as a rebel defying a head nurse in a mental institution. Of course in Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), it helps that the rebel is played by Jack Nicholson at the top of his game facing a head nurse played with icy perfection by Louise Fletcher.
There are many ways in which I first enjoyed this story: by reading the book by Ken Kesey on which it is based, eventually renting the DVD, and also by seeing it performed onstage. No offense to Mr. Nicholson, but that last one is actually my favourite experience since it was a school play in which my older brother played one of the patients, at one point stealing the show I might add. This was in the late 90s when my brother and I were going to an American high school in Lima, Peru, which is as culturally interesting as it sounds. In between the courses on Peruvian history, math, and American history, there was also of course the school drama club, which ambitiously aimed to bring Kesey’s story to the stage. If I remember correctly, the evening ended with a standing ovation.
Forman’s movie adaptation also has a theatre feel to it since most of the action is set in one location and is ultimately a character drama. In order to further the audience’s impression they were entering a world they were (hopefully) unfamiliar with, Forman hired unknown actors to play the patients in the mental institution in 1963 Oregon. In the role of anti-authoritarian criminal Randal “Mac” McMurphy, he cast Jack Nicholson, who remains to this day one of the most recognisable faces in the world. It also helps Nicholson has enough charisma to make any character engaging, even if McMurphy has been convicted of statutory rape and sees a stint in a mental institution as a vacation from a prison farm.
What he could not foresee is that the mental institution would be run with an iron fist by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Officially Dr. Spivey (Dean Brooks) is in charge of the place, but Ratched is a specialist at manipulating people, patients or otherwise. Her tools include mind-numbing routine, passive-aggressive humiliation, electroshock therapy, and in the worse case, lobotomies for unruly patients. The goal of a mental patient is to of course feel better so they can re-enter society, but the patients’ fear of Nurse Ratched and her power over them unfortunately has the opposite effect.
McMurphy quickly sees this, and never one to back away from a fight; he begins to challenge Nurse Ratched’s authority in order to help his fellow inmates develop a sense of self-worth. Not that McMurphy does anything too dramatic such as assault guards or stage a hunger strike. Rather he lets his fellow inmates have fun with card games and organizing a viewing party for a major baseball game. Yet Nurse Ratched sees anything that is not part of her daily routine as an affront to her authority and zeroes in on McMurphy as a threat to be dealt with by any means necessary.
One of the joys of the movie is seeing McMurphy’s impact on the patients, specifically how his behaviour helps them to get out of their shells. In a possible case of life imitating art, most of the then-unknown actors playing the patients went on to have very successful careers of their own. The shy and stuttering Billy Bibbit is played by Brad Dourif, a staple of the horror genre and a key player in The Lord of the Rings; the profane Max Taber is played by Christopher Lloyd, known around the world as Doc Brown in Back to the Future; and then there is the delusional Martini played by Danny DeVito, just a few years before he would find success with the dark TV comedy Taxi and beyond.
Unfortunately one of the actors, Will Sampson, passed away in 1987, which is a shame as his portrayal of Chief Bromden is pivotal to the story. An imposing and physically strong man, Bromden is a Native-American patient who pretends to be deaf and mute because he correctly reasons keeping quiet is the surest way to stay away from Nurse Ratched’s crosshairs. McMurphy and Bromden have had much different life experiences because of their respective ethnicities, but they easily bond over their desire to live according to their own rules.
Nicholson’s and Fletcher’s performances are among the highlights of the film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and it is definitely a classic worth revisiting, however there are other ways to enjoy this great story of rebellion in the face of unjust authority. You can read Ken Kesey’s wonderful book, or maybe you can be lucky enough to watch a play in which a group of young actors manage to deliver performances strong enough to be compared to those of Hollywood legends.