Film Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is film royalty. One of only three films to win the big five Academy Awards (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay (O or A), Best Director and Best Picture). It is a simple story, a tragic fable of a battle between oppression and an irrepressible human spirit. It contains superb performances, iconic scenes and unforgettable characters

Why review One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Because it deserves to be enjoyed again

I was drawn to revisit it, after recently finishing the Ken Kesey novel for the first time. I won’t trouble you with a summary of its plot, probably already familiar to you, but will leave that to a comparison of the novel to the film in my next post.

The strength of the film is that it dilutes the themes of the novel to a good-old-fashioned battle between good and evil. Its weakness, to those who have experienced the novel, is that it missed some great opportunities to explore some engaging themes. Without the experience of the novel, it is hard to see it as anything but a great film.

I said previously that when I first read The Great Gatsby many years ago, even then I pictured Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. But when reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I just could not picture Jack Nicholson as McMurphy.

These days, with our post-modern aesthetic, we tend towards characters that are flawed or contradictory. It’s refreshing to experience one that feels whole and sincere to himself without being simplistic. McMurphy is a great character and one of the main joys of the novel, but it is hard imagining any actor filling his shoes.

He has to be able to portray the career petty-criminal, with a history of violence and statutory rape, who we suspect to be a psychopath. He also needs to be the easy-talking confidence man, the serial-seducer, the gambler, who we suspect may be faking his condition to get out of a sentence of manual labour. He also needs to be the insightful people-reader; his quiet, watchful moments are some of his most telling. Finally he needs considerable physical presence. He needs to look like he has lived a life of manual labour, been in many a bar-room fight, wielding massive, Popeye-like, tattooed forearms.

It is hard to picture anyone who can capture all of these aspects. Many come to mind who you may feel confident can pull off some, but not the complete set. Kirk Douglas held the film rights for many years, but struggled to get the film made and ultimately grew too old for the part. He handed the rights to his son Michael Douglas who won his first Oscar as a producer. James Caan, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were all reportedly offered the role (I think Brando would have been terrible). Jon Voight lobbied for the role but I can’t see him doing it justice either. Burt Reynolds was apparently director Milos Forman’s favourite, and would have made an interesting choice, but was ultimately not chosen.

We can go through a list of other actors through the years that also may have some of McMurphy down, but I can’t see the complete picture – De Niro, Pacino, Gibson, Crowe, Damon, Wahlberg. I think if you were making the film today, Matthew McConaughey would be an interesting choice. But I would be too tempted to try Michael C Hall, he would be excellent if he could pull it off, and even has the red hair!

Ultimately though, you have to give kudos to Nicholson. On rewatching the film after reading the novel, you have to say he did the role well, probably better than any could have managed at the time and it is hard to see anyone doing better since.

In fact I would go further and suggest he shows a versatility and a range that those who struggle to look past his distinctive voice and mannerisms would be surprised by. We are so familiar with Nicholson, and he is such an easy target for impressionists, it is easy to forget how much he brings to a performance. His early films are the best way to get a reminder. Having supplemented my viewing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with The Shining – Nicholson’s next major work – it is interesting to see parallels between the two.

The scenes from both achieved iconic status to be parodied until the end of time. Both are hated by the authors who created the original work, from which each film took considerable liberty and lost the major themes and complexity of the stories (fans would be well served to visit each of these novels). Both feature Nicholson in roles that fulfilled the promise shown in Easy Rider and Chinatown, if not mostly responsible for his status as a great actor. Yet, in both, Nicholson was far from an easy choice, but if you look past the considerable expectations each film carries – both before they were released, and since they achieved classic status – and watch them again, I think you will be surprised by his versatility.

Louise Fletcher was also far from the favourite for Nurse Ratched, but produced an excellent performance. Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury were both offered the role. As was Anne Bancroft, who may have been a good choice too.

Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny Devito, and William Redfield were all very good in their supporting roles. DeVito, I don’t think has ever acted better!

I’m unsure what to make of Milos Forman’s direction. Given how his scenes are emblazoned on the memory of all who have seen the film, who can argue? Though not prolific, he has been at the helm of some excellent films and performances – Man on the Moon, The People vs Larry Flynt (although I did not care for Amadeus). But what to make of the fact he wanted to remove the fishing escapade from the story? I guess we should stick to judging the finished product alone, which is excellent.

Cuckoo’s Nest is a great story and a powerful parable. It is rightly remembered as a great film that has not aged and deserves to be revisited. But equally, the novel it is based on provides further delights to those who enjoy the story and think they know it. Given how much more the novel has to offer, should the film be remade? It would be an interesting exercise to finally make the film from ‘Chief’ Bromden’s point of view, with his unique paranoia’s and delusions.

But when a film collects the big five from the academy, when it contains performances and scenes so superb and memorable that it is hard to imagine a better effort without borrowing considerably from the original, it leaves nothing for a new version to achieve other than satisfying a few fans of the novel and annoying the many fans of the now classic film.

As to what exactly the novel offers over the film, that is a story for my next post.


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