Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Release Date: 19 November, 1975
Oscar Ceremony: 19 March, 1976
Director: Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman
Nominees: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville
“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddammit, at least I did that.” – Randle Patrick McMurphy
I’ve always been interested in the mental institution trope in film, television and literature. I went through a pretty extensive phase where I watched American Horror Story: Asylum, Gothika, Shutter Island, and Girl, Interrupted (read the novel too). Somehow, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest escaped me. I’ve always known about it and I’ve often told myself I should read/watch it, but just like many other works, I never got around to it. In a way, I’m glad I left it to now, because I just appreciate it that much more.
In 1963, Oregon, a criminal named Randle McMurphy gets transferred to a mental institution after having worked on a prison farm. He’s obviously not mentally ill, but he’s here to be assessed, and at the same time it floats his boat because he’s exempted from any hard labour to serve his sentence. It doesn’t take long for him to get frustrated with how the place is run. The woman in charge, Nurse Ratched, is a passive-aggressive, order-obsessed, power hungry nurse who wants everything to go her way. McMurphy quickly assumes the role of a rebellious leader and tries to get his fellow patients to live a little. He consistently challenges Nurse Ratched’s authority and teaches the patients card games, basketball and gambling with cigarettes. When he eventually learns that his sentence may become indefinite, he devises a plan to try to escape the institution.
It’s hard to properly talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. As a result, if you plan on watching it and you don’t want to know how it ends, I suggest you stop after this paragraph. I’ll just tell you that I thought it was fantastic, and I really recommend it. It’s definitely somewhere in my top 10 so far, and it offers an interesting critique of American mental health institutions in the 60s. Also, it happens to be the second of only three movies to win every major Academy Award (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay – Adapted or Original). The other two are It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest kind of reminded me of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Jack Nicholson being Snow White and the other patients being the dwarves). Mind you, Jack Nicholson doesn’t cook for them or anything but there’s still this looming feeling of rescue and leadership that I can’t explain. However, instead of a happy ending and a kiss from Prince Charming, Snow White ends up getting a lobotomy. That’s right, the perfectly sane Randle Patrick McMurphy gets his life completely ruined by the idiots at the institution. After one of the patients commits suicide because of Nurse Ratched’s threats, McMurphy loses his temper and attempts to strangle the nurse. As a result, he gets taken away and lobotomized. I know that this type of conduct and procedure was not uncommon at the time, but it still never fails to shock me.
Honestly, if you brought me to this type of hospital and kept me at the mercy of a woman like Nurse Ratched, I probably would have behaved exactly like McMurphy. Nothing he did seemed irrational to me, and by extension, to all viewers. We are meant to sympathize with him and condemn these outdated “medical” procedures. It’s so hard to watch him come back to the ward looking like a dead vegetable, especially after having witnessed over two hours of the tremendous lust for life he brought to everyone. I actually knew that the movie would end this way, but I still found myself sighing and feeling terribly sorry about the whole thing. However, there’s still a bit of hope at the very end, because one of the inmates, Chief Bromden, manages to escape. He was initially supposed to escape with MacMurphy, but after seeing him in that state, Bromden decides to smother him with a pillow to end his pain. A life like that would not have been worth living.
Hopefully, Bromden’s escape will demonstrate that MacMurphy left a legacy and that he will always be remembered as the man who challenged the system. Some people in society have way too much power. How do we know we can trust them with human lives? I mean, who on Earth thinks that electroshock therapy and lobotomies are legitimate long-term solutions for those suffering from mental health problems?
Mental institutions aside though, this movie represents society on a larger scale. It represents the dangers of passively following norms without ever questioning their merit. While Ken Kesey, the author of the novel, expressed his disappointment with the film adaptation of his story, the overall feel of anti-authoritarian rebellion is still very present. The fact that a lot of the inmates decide to stay in the institution after what happened to MacMurphy shows that sometimes, despite some people’s best efforts, things may not change. However, Bromden’s escape shows that slowly, we might be moving in the right direction.