Friday, January 28, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

          Despite being one of the seminal dramas of the 1970s and an almost universally praised Oscar winner for Best Picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has its detractors, not least of whom was the late Ken Kesey, who wrote the book upon which the film is based. Kesey, a counterculture legend who extrapolated the narrative from his experiences as a participant in LSD experiments at a military hospital, said he never saw the picture because the filmmakers informed him they were taking liberties with his story. Notwithstanding Kesey’s misgivings, Cuckoo’s Nest is an extraordinary piece of work that might not necessarily capture Kesey’s unique voice, but substitutes something of equal interest and power. Jack Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a prison inmate who feigns insanity to dodge a work detail, then gets sent to a mental asylum for his trouble. Once there, he becomes the charismatic leader for a group of lost souls, uniting them against their common enemy: tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
           Under the audacious and sensitive direction of Milos Forman, a Czech native who lost his parents in the Holocaust and fled Czechoslovakia during a violent communist takeover, Cuckoo’s Nest plays out as a profound metaphor about the hardship and necessity of fighting fascist regimes; McMurphy personifies the rebellious soul of the free populace while Ratched represents the heartless machine of the oppressive overmind. The mid-’70s were just the right moment for this intense counterculture statement, and what makes Cuckoo’s Nest so extraordinary is that it meshes its idealistic themes with raucous entertainment. Whenever McMurphy leads his fellow patients in mischief, he’s like a high-art version of the sort of anarchistic rabble-rousers Bill Murray played in his comedy heyday. This irresistible charm (both McMurphy’s and Nicholson’s) makes the downbeat path the story follows totally absorbing, just like the work of the splendid cast makes ensemble scenes intimate and vivid.
          Fletcher and Nicholson won well-deserved Oscars, and they’re matched by artists working in top form: Actors Brad Dourif and Will Sampson are heartbreaking as two key patients; composer Jack Nitzsche’s score is subtle and surprising; and the loose, documentary-style images by cinematographers Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler are indelible. Incidentally, Cuckoo’s Nest netted Michael Douglas his first Oscar, because he produced the film, and watch out for future Taxi costars Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as two members of McMurphy’s merry band.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: OUTTA SIGHT


Tommy Ross said...

and of course the always enjoyable but not seen nearly enough CANDY CLARK as Murph's g-friend. Always loved her!

ZELIG500 said...

That wasn't Candy Clark.