A rare screen adaptation of a beloved novel to maintain the emotional and dramatic power of the original while establishing its own distinctive approach to the story, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is an underdog masterpiece. “It was a classic story: the story of an individual fighting the system,” is how producer Michael Douglas explained his attraction to Ken Kesey’s novel about a strong-willed rebel fighting a domineering head nurse in a mental hospital. “Particularly in the Sixties, people identified with this individual trying to overpower the system…” Yet it took more than a decade to come to the screen.
Kirk Douglas originally bought the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel before it was even published in 1962 and produced a Broadway adaptation with himself in the lead role of Randle P. McMurphy. The book became a bestseller and a counterculture classic but Douglas couldn’t get a film version financed and he eventually signed it over to his son, actor Michael Douglas, who teamed up with another first time producer, jazz record impresario Saul Zaentz, and émigré director Milos Forman. It became a box office smash (eventually earning $200 million on a budget less than $5 million) and the second picture in Hollywood history to sweep the top five Academy Awards.
Director of such Eastern European classics as Loves of a Blonde (1965) and the pointed political allegory The Fireman’s Ball (1967), Forman had fled Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his career had foundered in Hollywood until this project came his way. “In my youthful arrogance, I thought, Of course I’m the right director because the book is about what I just left – the totalitarian system,” Forman recalled later. They took a more realistic approach than Kesey’s novel, which is told through the hallucinatory perspective of Chief Bromden, a giant of a Native American patient who never speaks and sees the world through a drug-induced daze. Forman’s film is more reflective of the post-Watergate seventies than the counterculture sixties, and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography gives the film a documentary vividness.
The character of McMurphy was reconceived from the big, brawling cowboy rebel of Kesey’s novel to a sly troublemaker jailed for a statutory rape charge, who feigns being crazy to get off a work detail and into what he thinks will be a cozier stint in the mental hospital. Big Nurse, a voluptuous caricature of sexual domination in the novel, was softened and humanized as Nurse Ratched, a less obvious villain, more subtle in her control of the ward and even, in her own way, protective of the patients under her care. As long as they followed her rules. Chief Bromden’s role was scaled back to just another of the patients roused by McMurphy’s brand of insanity, but his poignant character becomes central in the film’s harrowing finale.
Jack Nicholson was Forman’s first choice for McMurphy (other actors considered for the role include Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando and Burt Reynolds) and when he signed on to play the lead, the financing started to fall into place. The role of Nurse Ratched was the more difficult to cast. Angela Lansbury, Colleen Dewhurst, Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page and Ellen Burstyn all turned down the role, nervous about playing a villain. Forman saw Louise Fletcher, a one-time struggling actress who had retired in the early sixties to raise a family and had only recently returned to the screen, in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us while scouting another performer. “She was all wrong for the role, but there was something about her,” Forman wrote in his memoir. “I asked her to read with me and suddenly, beneath the velvety exterior, I discovered a toughness and willpower that seemed tailored for the role.”
The film centers on the collision and struggle between these two powerful personalities. As incarnated by Nicholson, McMurphy is less a sixties symbol of frontier individualism and counterculture freedom than a scruffy, disreputable everyman roused to rebellion by circumstances and temperament. He’s kind of a counter-culture rebel, not so much defying authority as deflating it, but in this ward he’s something of a misfit king leading the subjugated souls to moments of freedom against the rigid authority of their lives. But his challenge to the authority of Nurse Ratched is also personal. “My secret design for [McMurphy] was that his guy’s a scamp who knows he’s irresistible to women and expects Nurse Ratched to be seduced by him,” Nicholson confided in later interviews. “This was his tragic flaw.” Fletcher played the part of Ratched as a repressed character who genuinely believes she is helping her patients. “To do that she had to control her environment because she was afraid of experiencing real feelings,” she revealed in an interview with Rex Reed. “I played it with repressed sexual feelings and fear and took it all out on Jack Nicholson through control and hostility.”
The film was shot almost entirely on location at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon—the very hospital where Kesey set the novel—with real patients and doctors participating as extras to add to the accuracy and the atmosphere of verisimilitude. “The realism of the location rubbed off,” says Douglas. The actors participated in therapy sessions with the patients and carried their characters outside of shooting. “We got so involved that some of the actors actually took on the psychotic problems of the patients they played,” according to both Fletcher. Nicholson remarked that: “Usually I don’t have much trouble slipping out of a film role, but here, I don’t go home from a movie studio. I go home from a mental institution. And it becomes harder to create a separation between reality and make-believe.”
The supporting cast was largely unknown performers. Brad Dourif (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor) was previously on Broadway. Danny DeVito was cast from a stage production of the play that Douglas saw a few year before. The casting of Chief Bromden was particularly difficult because the part called for a tall, physically massive American Indian. Will Sampson (making his film debut) was found in an open casting call and makes a striking impression as the impassive figure that everyone thinks is a deaf-mute, until McMurphy manages to engage him in conversation.
The film was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five. Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar (after four nominations) as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher accepted her Oscar with a moving acceptance speech that she gave simultaneously in sign language for her deaf parents. And it took home the gold for the screenplay adaptation by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, Milos Forman’s direction, and for Best Picture: the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep the five major categories. It launched the producing careers of Michael Douglas (The China Syndrome and Romancing the Stone) and Saul Zaentz (who went on to win two more Best Picture awards with Amadeus, again with director Milos Forman, and The English Patient), relaunched the careers of Milos Forman and Louise Fletcher, and established Jack Nicholson as a rebel superstar. Curiously, reviews of the time were mixed, praising the performances but critical of the “simplification” of the novel and the obvious allegories, even as it created more complex characters of McMurphy and Ratched. It’s stature has grown ever since, becoming one of the great stories of defiance in the face of unchecked power, and one of the most powerful character dramas of its time.
Originally published in slightly different form on the Turner Classic Movies website
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Blu-ray Book Packaging]
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Two-Disc Special Edition DVD]
Warner released the film on DVD and Blu-ray special editions. “This is a movie about a society where I just lived 20 years of my life,” described director Forman in the accompanying 47-minute documentary “The Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a 1997 documentary that features interviews with every major living creative participant but one (Mr. Nicholson is conspicuously absent) as it reaches back to the original stage production commissioned by Kirk Douglas (who created the role of Randle P. McMurphy on stage) and follows it back through the rocky road to film production. Also features commentary by director Milos Forman, producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz and eight deleted scenes. The Blu-ray is also available in an edition with a small hardback booklet featuring production notes and stills.