I was very surprised, after finishing the lackluster classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to find that the movie is one of only three titles to have won all five of the major Academy Awards – for Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. To save you some time, the other two are It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs. Okay, I’ll let the acting awards slide, as Nicholson is his typical manic self and Louise Fletcher certainly holds her own. Harder to take in stride, though, is the staid direction and mawkish plot being congratulated so highly. Despite being a movie about rebellion, the film remains resolutely unadventurous and its characters never become more than the sum of their characteristics.
We’re introduced early to Randall McMurphy (Nicholson), transferred from prison to a mental institution so that the staff can evaluate his sanity. It’s important to note that McMurphy found his way behind iron bars for multiple reasons, including numerous counts of assault and one count of statutory rape, all of which he readily admits to. The fights he waves away as inconsequential, given that Rocky Marciano fights all the time and is celebrated for it. I suppose there’s no point trying to explain how the differing context of Marciano’s fights to a convict, though. As for the statutory rape, he claims the girl told him she was 18, though even so the inclination to seek a sexual partner twenty years younger than yourself seems a bit perverse. I mention these facets of the character’s backstory because I want you to remember that this is the hero of the story: a violent repeat offender and child molester. In any case, McMurphy has been sent to the mental institution not because of his psychopathy but instead because he’s so damn lazy!
It is here that he crosses swords, figuratively, with the hard-hearted Nurse Ratched (Fletcher). In truth, Ratched seems likable if a touch misguided. In a daily therapy discussion session she leads with the patients of the ward, Ratched shows extreme restraint and respect for those in her charge. When asked questions by multiple people, she answers each in turn with an earnest politeness. Discussing with a large group a man’s mental illness and the reasons he believes his wife is having an affair seems like a mistake, but I suppose that ideas about how to treat mental illness have varied greatly between 1963 and present day. For instance, I believe that there are far fewer treatments which require the electrocution of the patient than there were half a century ago. Aside from her questionable round-table therapy sessions, the woman seems perfectly reasonable. It is McMurphy who creates havoc in the ward, yelling and overturning chairs and sneaking in alcohol whenever possible. Ratched, in turn, grows increasingly bitter and begins to sneer at McMurphy; by the film’s climax, she can coolly cut down a man verbally while the rest of the group watches in shocked silence. It seems overly simplistic to turn her into a “villain” and make McMurphy the unquestioned “hero”, but the film doesn’t really have a lot more to offer than this grim simplicity.
McMurphy is the hero because he is played by Jack Nicholson and because he rebels against authority. Never mind that he has no creed to speak of that drives this rebelliousness, aimless flailing is always morally justified. Even after we hear a story of a man who comes from a long history of alcohol and no doubt physical abuse – a serious affliction which needs correction – still the film wants us to root for the brash McMurphy, the kind of man who will open a locked window for no reason other than because he can. He doesn’t take the state of mind of his fellow patients seriously, and neither does the film. They aren’t real people with real problems, they are characters with various neuroses who serve as a backdrop for McMurphy’s hilarious shenanigans. Yet at the film’s climax, it wants to pretend that the group have bonded somehow and have a sincere affection for one another. Why would they? Because the movie doesn’t treat its characters as real human beings, it doesn’t earn the right to try for any sort of emotional pay-out. Thus, this is a film where a central character can be found dead and the event is not approached with any sensitivity or even so much as a clinical perspective. Instead, the camera cuts away quickly so that we can keep our focus on the movie star.
In Roger Ebert’s review of the film upon its initial release, he points to a famed fishing scene as one of the movie’s low points. His feeling is that it disrupts the flow of the film and limits the impact of any later attempts as “escape”. I’d point to this scene as a low point for the film as well, but for different reasons. It may be unnecessary, but more than that it is one moment where the seams really show and the viewer can witness how slapdash the characterization truly is. The mentally ill man who has been captaining the boat leaves his post, causing the ship to speed in circles, the group of men creating a din as they topple over one another, Nicholson meanwhile charmingly attending to each of them while simultaneously attempting to return to a half-clothed girl in the ship’s cabin. I guess it’s supposed to be a comedic moment, but it’s really just a microcosm of the movie as a whole, with McMurphy cycling through faux-friendships pretending to have found nirvana in his deliberate disorder.
It’s true that the bulk of my criticism is in the story itself because I see McMurphy as more treacherous than Ratched. At the least, the movie could have taken the time to allow the man to build a real relationship with his newfound friends that we could believe. The closest we get is a bond that the child molester (you didn’t forget, did you?) shares with a gigantic Native American man. But what is their relationship forged on? A mutual love of Juicy Fruit, mainly. I’m joking to a degree, but the shared stick of gum does appear to be the basis of their connection. Beyond that, there’s little else. I didn’t say much about the film’s direction, by Milos Forman, because it’s hardly noteworthy. Hence, my preoccupation with the plotting and character development. How can this be a ‘Best Picture’ if nothing that happens holds any significance whatsoever?
The fates of Randall McMurphy and those around him are meaningless. The final actions of Chief, the Native American man, are supposed to be heady and metaphorical, but there’s no sense of closure or of revelation. In the end, I can see why One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… there’s nothing worth stopping for.