Jack Nicholson turns 80 years old on April 22. To celebrate, we’ll be discussing our favorite Jack Nicholson performances through the preceding week in our Jackin’ It series, a collection of critical love letters penned to Nicholson’s best characters.
Remembering One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I think a lot about the way Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) laughs when Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) loses control of the therapy circle. Or the look of unbridled and ornery joy that slowly appears on his face when he’s offered a stick of Juicy Fruit. Or the way he whoops and hollers triumphantly on the basketball court once his farfetched strategy gives his team of hopeless misfits the upper hand against the facility staff.
I think that’s the reason McMurphy is my favorite Nicholson character. Nicholson turns 80 this weekend and it is nearly impossible to discuss his contributions to film (67 movies already with another just announced in an American remake of the Cannes-smash Toni Erdmann) without reserving at least half of the conversation to cover the insanity of his roles—both in a figurative and clinical degree. The terrifying descent into full psychopathy in Kubrick’s The Shining, the smiling, face-painted sociopath in Burton’s Batman, and the sneering megalomaniac in Scorsese’s The Departed, some of Nicholson’s most iconic roles (and iconic collaborators) have sought to weaponize his talent for exhibiting a short temper and that grin which swings so readily from charming to menacing. But Miloš Foreman’s Oscar-sweeping film re-repurposes the expectations created by that same persona and skill set, as well as the actor’s now near-mythological reputation for living his life unapologetically in as a Sinatra-esque manner as any public celebrity figure ever has.
In a movie where Nicholson’s wild and wide-eyed recklessness could be expected to flourish at its highest heights—the film is named for a nursery rhyme-born colloquialism about losing one’s mind and set inside of an institution meant to treat those who do—Nicholson plays a character who proves himself to be very not crazy, someone who is liberated, logical, hyper-rational, and yet constantly made to feel crazy, wrong, and criminal. McMurphy is a con man, a cool cat who lives by his own terms (which, okay, yes, include keeping the company of women of a questionable age), a charmer who rebukes the boring normalcy of life and then prison and then the mental hospital to which he is committed.
And saner still is the way Nicholson plays McMurphy’s benevolent desperation to recruit his fellow inmates and eventual friends into his saner understanding of the world. The best of Nicholson’s moments here are very human beats and very rational reactions to the events: vulnerability, sadness, hope, and hurt. It’s the way he rallies the entire unit to vote for a baseball game, his at-first selfish suggestion growing into a desperate plea for the patients to elect, for a moment, the simplest of pleasures, to choose for themselves a happier, healthier option. It’s in the way he tries to encourage them to find their way to the outside world where they can define their own lives, straining every muscle in effort to tear the fountain from the floor and through the window. Even his most criminal exhibition, stealing the bus and taking the field trip attendees on a fishing trip, is a sort of messianic pilgrimage of hope, a lesson of freedom witnessed by his self-imprisoned disciples. Even his physical attack of Nurse Ratched is, in some ways, a rational expression against the continually stacked deck and the violent (and now mortal) manipulation of his his friends.
At worst, McMurphy’s hijinks are rebellious but not insane. And that’s why the film works.
McMurphy’s centralized sanity is a mapping point, and the further we move out from him into the org chart of the care center and then into the world, starting with his fellow inmates, out to the supervising doctors, then ultimately Nurse Ratched (one of the greatest and most chilling antagonist in film history), we can see a cycle of comparative insanity intensifying in those positioned furthest from him.
Ken Kesey’s novel, from which the film was adapted, makes for an interesting metaphor about the dehumanizing oppression of post-industrial capitalism in a nation whose power structures have historically been built by more violent manifestations of genocide and supremacy, the way in which an uncaring society can control its populace by shifting the definition of “sanity” to deflate the sense of hope and self-value in its everyday citizen. At the time of the publication of Kesey’s novel (1962), there was utility in the madhouse as a metaphor. But now, over a half century later, five decades of having those tactics of oppression employed more forcibly, more frequently, and with less concern for hiding the intent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feels less figurative and more like a session of straight talk. And, to that degree, it will always feel good to see someone like McMurphy, enlivened by someone like Nicholson, face those oppressive machinations, laugh, and simply say “No.”
We like to place ourselves in movies. It’s human nature. It’s the entire functional appeal of the everyman and the pristine hero. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of those films where we (or at least a high percentage of us) sub-consciously or semi-consciously or perhaps fully consciously believe that we are the hero, that given the chance in that circumstance, we’d be Randle McMurphy. But we’re wrong. We are all the other patients living lives of routine sedation before their liberated leader’s arrival. At some point in the film, each supporting character who eventually aligns with McMurphy—Cheswick, Billy, Martini, Chief, Taber, and even the old curmudgeon Harding—is caught looking affectionately at the transferred savior, both as a friend and as a source of hope and possibility. Because, like just about all of us living in the real world decades later, each of them is crippled by his own anxiety, his own insecurity, self-doubt, the weight of a life quarter-lived. The beginning of the movie sees a collective of patients psychologically neutered. Slow-stepping, resigned shells of former selves who are desperately in need of the arrival of a reminder of hope, of an example of the spirit’s ability to break the chains we put on it and fight back against the world that provided those chains. Right when they most needed a free spirit to guide them, that crew was gifted by the arrival R.P. McMurphy. And for the last four decades, with our every day real lives feeling more and more like life in that hospital hall in less and less metaphoric measure, we have always had Jack Nicholson.
Featured Image: United Artists