One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest screens on Saturday, October 18 as part of the festival's 50th Anniversary Retrospective. Producers Saul Zaentz and Al Bendich will be in attendance. More information can be found at the Chicago International Film Festival's website here.
As far as Academy Awards are concerned, there’s not a better year of Best Picture nominees than the 1976 slate. With nominees like Robert Altman’s Nashville, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon and Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it was an atypically remarkable selection of nominees that represent the very best in American cinema. So of course, it’s only characteristic that the Academy highlights the absolute worst of the bunch. Not to say Foreman’s film is a bad film, but rather it’s the one that fails to translate its qualities of a good film into a great one. That is to say, it is commendable on all fronts, but not especially exceptional in any.
The film details R.P. McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson) maneuvering through a mental institution. He’s been committed for evaluation upon failure to conform to normative behavior. Or he might as well have been. He was initially incarcerated for statutory rape and with that, his failure to work within the prison system has led him to a mental institution. When the cuffs come off, he laughs. A perennial goofball, McMurphy’s sanity is never in doubt. He’s the outsider fighting for change, never willing to conform to society’s norms. So as he encounters men in the facility that have trouble with their marriage or are handicapped by shyness, McMurphy takes it upon himself to introduce them to his world of carnal delight.
Cuckoo’s Nest works best when it treats its institution setting as an impenetrable fortress. Where there’s no sense of escape. A particular sequence, where McMurphy leads a brigade of patients for a bit of fishing just feels so contextually out of place with the confinement of the rest of the picture. The best scenes involve attempts to democratize the facility as McMurphy contends with the politics of the mental institution. It’s through his interplay with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) where the film finds its greatest source of dramatic nuance -where the gatekeeper of social acceptance combats the would-be rebel.
Despite the flaws in characterization and structure, it’s hard not to be blown away by the picture’s conclusion. The simplicity of the film’s thematic concern of rebellion versus conformity is realized with a clear-cut winner, or rather, loser - and the imagery of seeing that loser is really quite unshakeable.