Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
In the late 1950s, author Ken Kesey was in his mid-twenties and working as a night aide in a Veteran’s Hospital in Menlo Park, California. As opposed to being detached from the patients, Kesey spoke with them frequently, and became sympathetic to their plight. He watched how they were being treated, and how the system set up to handle their care operated.
He was also something of a patient himself there, participating in government funded experiments on the effects of psychedelic drugs on the human mind, including psilocybin, mescaline, cocaine, AMT, DMT and LSD.
The combination of these experiences would inspire him to write the 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
Time Magazine would eventually name it one of the 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923-2005 (since the magazine began publication). Kesey himself would go on to additional fame as one of the figureheads of the late 1960s counter-culture movement, leading the “Merry Pranksters” around the country on a bus tour, and hosting “acid tests” in San Francisco.
The movie rights to the novel were optioned by legendary film star Kirk Douglas, who initially intended to star in the film version himself. He actually created and starred in a short-lived Broadway production of it shortly after purchasing the rights in the 1960s. However, he was unable to get the film made… every major studio had declined to make the film with him attached as star. Eventually he grew too old for the role, and finally gave the project to his son Michael to produce. To give you some context, Michael Douglas was starring in “The Streets of San Francisco” at the time.
Kirk Douglas had met director Miloš Forman in Europe ten years earlier. Foreman’s parents had been killed in Nazi concentration camps, leaving him orphaned at a young age – and giving Forman a painful and personal insight into institutionalized evil. He would later study film at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. Douglas was so impressed with Forman and his work, he discussed having him direct the project. Upon returning to the States, he sent Forman a copy of “Cuckoo’s Nest” to evaluate. The book, however, was intercepted by customs without either of them knowing. For nearly a decade, each thought the other had blown the possible project off. Thankfully, neither held it against the other when Michael eventually got involved and once again approached Foreman.
When production began, the lead role in the film was offered to Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, and James Caan. Miloš Foreman wanted Burt Reynolds.
Thankfully, none of them worked out.
Jack Nicholson began his acting career in the late 1950s, in his early twenties, and struggled throughout the 1960s to “break out”. He appeared in four Roger Corman films. He had two appearances on “The Andy Griffith Show”. He made westerns that couldn’t find US distribution. His first ten years of acting were full of bit parts, small films and misfires.
But in 1967, Nicholson wrote the screenplay for a movie about an acid trip.
“The Trip” was directed by Corman, and starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Nicholson had written a role in the movie for himself, but as a testament to his low profile at the time, Corman didn’t give him the part. He did, however, get to work with Fonda and Hopper, as the three all dropped acid together in order to help the other two “prepare for their roles”. Early the next year, Fonda and Hopper were in pre-production on “Easy Rider” (which they co-wrote with Terry Southern, and Hopper directed), when actor Rip Torn and Hopper almost got into a fistfight. Apparently Torn, a Texan, took offence to Hopper referring to southerners as “Rednecks”, and the two nearly threw down. The decision was made to replace Torn… with Nicholson.
The role (as an ACLU lawyer with a penchant for partying) was the big break that Jack had been waiting for. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the part. In fact, the role kicked off a string of Oscar noms for Nicholson that bordered on being an annual event. Following his nod in 1970 for “Easy Rider”, Nicholson would be nominated in 1971 for “Five Easy Pieces”, 1974 for “The Last Detail”, and 1975 for “Chinatown”. All for leading roles.
But it wouldnt be until he played Randle Patrick McMurphy in “Cuckoo’s Nest” that he would take home a statue.
McMurphy was the perfect role for Nicholson.
Sent to jail for statutory rape, McMurphy was transferred to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation after getting into a string of fights and various other misbehavior. It’s suggested that he may have been feigning being crazy in order to get out of work detail.
From his very first moments in the ward, he’s disrupting things, whooping and hollering, and then breaking up a card game by distracting one of the players. Unaware that unlike jail, he’ll be kept in the asylum until the staff deems him sane and agrees to release him, McMurphy begins challenging the rules and regulations, causing chaos and intentionally getting under the skin of the head nurse, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
Ratched believes in strict order and adherence to the rules in order to maintain control in the ward. When McMurphy asks to watch the World Series, Nurse Ratched objects to the change in the scheduling. Ratched offers to put it to a vote, then grins smugly as the patients reject his call to challenge her authority. When it’s put to a vote again the next day, Ratched rejects the unanimous vote of the group therapy circle, claiming that they need to obtain a majority amongst all the patients on the floor… which includes several catatonics. In spite of which, McMurphy gains the requisite number of votes… only to have Ratched unilaterally end the therapy session and claim he didn’t obtain the votes in time.
In an act of spirit and defiance, McMurphy pretends to watch the game anyways, working the other patients up with an improvised, enthusiastic, imaginary play by-play.
McMurphy’s rebelliousness certainly doesn’t end there. One afternoon, he leaps the fence and commandeers a bus, spontaneously taking the patients out on a charter fishing trip. It’s a chaotic afternoon at sea. And though McMurphy and his band of crazies drive their boat in circles, they do wind up catching fish.
It’s obvious that McMurphy is becoming a leader for the other patients, and that his disregard for the rules has undermined Ratched’s ability to keep order. Slowly, the others begin challenging Ratched’s authority as well. Most of them are voluntarily committed, and they begin to question why Ratched has certain rules in place.
Eventually, McMurphy’s influence causes a full-out riot in the ward, and he himself breaks through the glass window of Ratched’s nurses station. A fight breaks out, and McMurphy is subdued by the guards. The incident results in electroshock therapy being imposed on three of the participants, McMurphy included.
The film is an obvious metaphor for the struggle of individualism versus society’s institutions. McMurphy’s challenges to Ratched’s authority represent the struggle of the individual against the system. Truly free will versus societal order.
Nurse Ratched hands out pills and leads calisthenics and holds group therapy sessions, playing classical music to maintain an aura of calm. She keeps the patients in line through a strict regiment of routine and medication. She dispassionately advocates the rules and regulations of the ward, ruling from behind the glass walls of her nurse’s station. Ratched is shown to be less interested in therapeutically advancing her patient’s care than she is in maintaining her control. She even rejects an opportunity to get McMurphy out of her hair by transferring him back to prison. She instead elects to keep him under her thumb. In fact, at one critical juncture, she shames a patient in order to re-establish her authority, damaging his psyche at a vulnerable moment, leading to tragic consequences.
McMurphy, on the other hand, stirs imaginations and helps the patients have new experiences. His rebellious spirit is infectious. Though the fishing expedition he briefly leads is an anarchistic riot, the patients experience more life than they ever have before. “Chief”, who never spoke or communicated prior to McMurphy’s arrival, smiles and plays basketball, eventually opens up to him, as well. Whenever McMurphy takes control, the world becomes chaotic, manic and unpredictable, but undeniably more fun.
The underlying message is that the powers that be are content to ignore the well-being and happiness of the individual, as long as order is maintained at all cost. Rules and regulations and routines are imposed, and the ways that they constrain the individual are often quietly unnoticed. “The system”, represented here by Ratched and the rest of the staff, fosters repression and constraint and failing that, resorts to outright oppression.
McMurphy’s subversive exuberance and blatant disregard for authority could never peacefully exist within “the system”. In the context of a structured environment, his brand of cavalier carpe diem could only end in tragedy, and indeed, for McMurphy, things do not end well. Of course, his example borders on a sacrifice, serving as an inspiration and example for others. While the full ramifications McMurphy’s philosophy of hedonistic anarchism are… less than fully explored to say the least, on a symbolic level, the character stands for the individual’s desire to explore life fully and embrace it. To focus on playing, without getting caught up in rules. The personification of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
While McMurphy’s ultimate fate might be interpreted by some as representing the futility of bucking the system, he never acquiesced to authority. He fought as hard as he possibly could against the injustices he perceived.
In the end, his defiant spirit literally winds up becoming a liberating example for others.
“Cuckoo’s Nest” was nominated for NINE Academy Awards in 1976, winning five: Best Picture, Best Director for Miloš Forman, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor and Best Actress for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, respectively. The four it did not win were Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Score. It was only the second film in history to win all five “Major” Oscars (the first being “It Happened One Night”).
The film has forged a legacy that’s lasted far beyond its year of release, as well.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was chosen as #20 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies and held strong at #33 on the Tenth Anniversary Edition. It’s #17 on their 100 Years… 100 Cheers, their list of the 100 most inspiring American films of the past 100 years, and Nurse Ratchet ranks in at a lofty #5 on the villain side of their 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains.
It’s currently #12 on the IMDb Top 250.
In 1993, the movie was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.
Bitter over certain changes from the novel, author Ken Kesey claimed never to have watched the film. He passed away in 2001.
For us, however, it’s a film that showcases the indominable power of the spirit.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”