Warner Bros. // 1975 // 133 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // July 21st, 2008
If he's crazy, what does that make you?
Legend has it that Ken Kesey despises director Milos Forman's film adaptation of his most famous novel because it isn't faithful to the book's structure and overall feel. How could it be? Kesey's novel is a decidedly internal affair, telling Randle McMurphy's tumultuous story entirely from the skewed and sometimes hallucinatory perspective of Chief, the outsized and supposedly deaf-mute asylum inmate who becomes McMurphy's closest confidante. Forman's film is purely external, eschewing foggy subjectivity for a cold, hard, unflinching look at life in the nuthouse.
McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, Chinatown) is a con doing time for statutory rape. Whether because of his eccentric ways or a calculated strategy to escape the big house, he's transferred to a mental asylum. There he spends his days in therapy with a group of voluntary inmates paralyzed by fear, social awkwardness, and damaging pasts: an overbearing latent homosexual named Dale Harding (William Redfield, Death Wish); a stunted, stuttering kid with a history of self-harm named Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) ; squinty and addle-brained Martini (Danny DeVito, Batman Returns); explosive oddballs Taber (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future) and Fredrickson (Vincent Schiavelli, Tomorrow Never Dies); and the deeply neurotic Cheswick (Sydney Lassick, Carrie).
At first, wiseacre McMurphy passes the time by pranking his fellow inmates and winning their cigarettes away from them in poker games. In time, though, he begins to recognize that the overbearing authority of martinet Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher, Flowers in the Attic) is keeping the men weak and dependent rather than curing them. McMurphy turns his impish anti-authoritarianism toward Ratched and the asylum staff as a way of drawing his buddies out of their shells, prodding them to behave like human beings. As the struggle between McMurphy and Ratched escalates, McMurphy finds an unexpected ally in one of the chronic, incurable patients: Chief Bromden (Will Sampson, The Outlaw Josey Wales), a towering Native American deaf-mute. But, wily and street-smart as he is, can McMurphy beat Ratched while living inside the world she controls?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's long and convoluted production history is well-documented elsewhere, but I'll give you a tiny bit of background. Kirk Douglas bought the film rights to Kesey's novel after having played McMurphy in Dale Wasserman's Broadway adaptation of the book in the early 1960s (a little trivia: a very young Gene Wilder played Billy Bibbit in the stage version). Douglas tried for a decade to turn the book into a film before finally turning the rights over to his son Michael. Partnering with producer Saul Zaentz, screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, and director Milos Forman (Amadeus), Douglas was finally able to get the film off the ground. All the struggle, effort, and delays were worth it. Cuckoo's Nest was a movie waiting for its time to arrive, and its wacked-out anti-hero spoke to the generation of the mid-1970s in a way he didn't to that of the early 1960s. When the film finally hit theaters in 1975, it raked in money, critical raves, and all the major category statues at that year's Academy Awards.
Kesey's story is about the power of systems of authority to strip people of their humanity without them even knowing they're being controlled. The concept is personified in Nurse Ratched. Far from a monster in appearance, Ratched is a soft-voiced matron who gently urges her patients towards healing and wholeness. Presumably, she genuinely believes that she is doing them good. But the rigidity of the clinical environment and the rules imposed on the patients are dehumanizing. This becomes apparent when McMurphy begins coaxing the other inmates into courtyard basketball games and petty gambling -- banal activities that nonetheless provide an environment for real social interaction. The re-humanizing of the near catatonic Chief Bromden, for instance, begins at the aforementioned basketball game when McMurphy moves him into position under the basket and demands that he raise his hands to catch a pass and complete a slam dunk. When Chief finally acquiesces, it sets off a series of escalating interactions with McMurphy that draw the giant out of his shell, finally culminating with one of the most mundane but memorable lines of dialogue in movie history as the duo sits side-by-side in a hallway, awaiting electro-shock therapy. McMurphy is dogged in his insistence that the other men quit kowtowing to Ratched and the system and act like men instead of nuts. "You're no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets and that's it," he tells them.
McMurphy's interactions with the other inmates work so profoundly as drama and comedy because of Milos Forman's commitment to verisimilitude. In the commentary track included on this disc, he talks about casting unknown actors to play against Nicholson (many, such as DeVito, Dourif, and Christopher Lloyd, went on to greater fame but none were recognizable at the time) and having them shadow inmates at a real mental institution so that they could depict various mental illnesses as truthfully as possible. The results are powerful, human, and full of pathos and comedy. Not for a second do any of the actors appear to be acting. They are entirely convincing. And the men's raw vulnerability resonated more in an exhausted, frustrated American society nearing the end of the Vietnam War than it possibly could have in the quieter political times during which the novel was written. Kesey's tale of paranoia and the almost invisible inhumanity of systems of authority was prescient.
The revelatory performance in the film is, of course, Louise Fletcher's. For the film's challenging balance of drama and comedy to work, the actress playing Ratched had to exude an emotionally detached cold interior beneath a warm exterior. She had to be half mom, half Nazi she-bitch. And she had to hold her own against the dynamism of Nicholson's charismatic screen presence in full preening spectacle. Fletcher delivered on all of the above so thoroughly that she earned herself a much-deserved Best Actress Oscar. Over 30 years down the road, her thespian sparring with Nicholson is still astounding to watch. Palpable tension ripples through the movie whenever the two interact and carries over into scenes in which they don't. The greatest compliment that I can give One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is that it is the most side-splittingly funny tragedy in modern American film. Milos Forman and all of the actors contributed mightily to that union of opposites, but it was Fletcher and Nicholson at the center of the maelstrom. Their vicious shared energy was a horrifying and hilarious beacon leading the other actors to the greatest performances in many of their careers.
Warner Bros. has known how to handle their catalogue titles on DVD since the early days of the format and they appear to know how to handle them on Blu-ray as well. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's 1080p VC-1 transfer looks gorgeous. The high definition master was created with sensitivity toward handling a 30-year-old celluloid source. The Two-Disc Special Edition DVD of Cuckoo's Nest released a few years ago was pleasing to the eye, but the Blu-ray ups the ante with more accurate colors, deeper blacks, brighter whites, and sharper detail. Grain is fine and controlled, but has enough presence that you feel like you're watching film. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler lit and the shot Cuckoo's Nest to reinforce Forman's almost documentary realism. The image looks pristine and beautiful without sacrificing any of Wexler's work to digital noise reduction or other tomfoolery.
The film's original monaural analog soundtrack is cramped and limited by nature. Warner's Dolby 5.1 presentation of the source is clean and free from age-related flaws, but otherwise unremarkable. Dialogue is always discernible, and Jack Nitzsche's Theremin-tinged score sounds as good as the original recording allows. You won't be using One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to demo your home theater's sound system for your friends, but Warner's done a fine job restoring a no-frills source. In addition to the English-language surround track, there are five single-channel mono dubs and a baker's dozen worth of subtitles in various languages (not including a few tracks for the hearing impaired).
Supplements are identical to those found on the previous two-disc DVD with the addition of a 38-page book of liner notes included in the stylish DigiBook case. Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz provide a decent feature-length audio commentary. In terms of substance, the track is excellent. It provides a wealth of information about the film's production. Style-wise, the track is lacking. Cobbled together from separate recordings of each of the participants, there are no introductions, no warm banter, and no laughs. It's all relatively dry business.
There is also a decent 30-minute making-of documentary as well as a collection of deleted scenes. The film's theatrical trailer is also archived on the disc.
If someone asked me what the big deal was about the New Hollywood film movement in America during the late '60s and pre-Star Wars '70s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would be one of the first movies I'd recommend as a point of explanation. Simply put, it's a great movie made during an important period of cinema history, and it exemplifies everything about why the New Hollywood mattered and continues to matter.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is as innocent as Randle P. McMurphy. She was fifteen years old going on thirty-five, Doc.
Review content copyright © 2008 Dan Mancini; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (German)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Italian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish, Castilian)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
Running Time: 133 Minutes
Release Year: 1975
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary
* Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
* Additional Footage