Overview: Milos Foreman’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey’s anti-establishment novel. United Artists; 1975; Rated R; 133 Minutes.
Pe-cul-iar: Randall P. McMurphy is not crazy. Erratic, reckless, and selfish, to be sure. But Nicholson’s version of the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s protagonist is acutely aware, sharp and manipulative, an intelligent rebel infiltrating as a politician to challenge the status quo. He is a keenly observant card shark, an on-the-spot basketball coach, and a veritable revolutionary fighting for ideals of freedom and democracy within an authoritarian dictatorship. As defined by the law he broke and by the inflexible rules of the mental institution into which he is committed, McMurphy is a criminal, an outlaw, but he is not crazy.
Nor is he wrong. In 1882, French criminologist Alexandre Lecassagne stated, “La société a les criminels qu’elle mérite .“ (“Societies get the criminals they deserve.”) It is only through the scope of this idea that we can fully appreciate Nicholson’s legendary performance, come to terms with Milos Forman’s brilliant borrowing of Nicholson’s madness, and grasp the real conflict vaguely hidden in the heart of this movie.
Nurse Ratched: Some 80 years after Lacassagne’s testament, Robert Kennedy cosigned and elaborated on the notion: “Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.” Here, that enforcement comes by way of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched.
At first, Nurse Ratched’s stranglehold on the patients of her ward might be interpreted as strict adherence to an established and necessary behavioral regiment. She’s a figure of rules and regulations, fulfilling the duty outlined in her job. But we realize soon that it’s more than that. She applies methods of humiliation, torture disguised as treatment, and her emphasis on routine is a weapon on its own, one designed to devalue the worth of her patients. She is soul-crushing, emasculating (the tightness of Ratched’s nurse uniform against her feminine shape is no accident). I contend that she is the best antagonist in the history of movies, a manifestation of the worst and realest form of evil. In fact, Foreman’s decision to remove the patients from Nurse Ratched’s oppressive reign by taking them on a fugitive fishing trip may be the film’s only (forgivable) misstep.
Not Talking About One Person, I’m Talking About ALL People: Robert Kennedy offered his modified pronouncement of Lacassagne’s sentiment in 1964. This movie takes place in 1962, a time period in which civil discontent was boiling on the heat of American leadership recklessly spending the lives of young men in the morally questionable Vietnam conflict and the gamble of safety and civilization also culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis. For perhaps the first time in Post-Industrial American history, the U.S. government seemed to be exercising an expectation that a subdued population would allow authority to reign unchecked. If the metaphor wasn’t clear enough, there’s a scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in which the patients are cataloged by admission status and we learn that most of them are voluntary, brainwashed into thinking themselves mentally ill, unfit to matter, their self-reliance poisoned. There’s even reflection of civil rights struggles in the positioning of the black guards and staff, with their menial duties and the way they are more comfortable with the patients than with the nurses and the white doctors (who are segregated in safe rooms the entire movie). The violent conclusion is essential to establish the necessity of those “criminals” created by unjust and oppressive power. Yet, there is no struggle between the narrative and the symbolic here. Nearly the whole story and certainly the powerful ending works on either level because such commendable effort was given by these actors into their characters. (Beyond Nicholson and Fletcher, the film also brought to attention the talent of Brad Douriff, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny Devito). When the movie became just the second ever to sweep the major categories of the Oscars,* it went home with a fraction of what this kind of storytelling deserves.
*To help you with bar trivia night: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, accomplished before only by It Happened One Night and after only by Silence of the Lambs.