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One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

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Jesse J. Johnson

Professor Casselton

History of Film

27 Nov 2007

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Many important films of the twentieth century have been influenced by, or represented, the time in which they were released. Or perhaps they reflected upon a period of time in the past. Both statements can be attributed to the classic 1975 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is based on the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, which was originally released in 1962. It was very well received in that time, but the Broadway adaptation that came in 1963 only lasted eleven weeks. The film, however, was a success, considering it took thirteen years to bring it to the big screen.

The original novel, being released in the early 1960s, was really a great metaphor for that decade. Actually, it could be said that the story was a few years ahead of its time. The main underlying element of the plot, which will be explored later, is basically rebellion against authority. The decade known as “the sixties”, is synonymous with social and political change. Much of this is due to the American civil rights movement, along with the rise of feminism and gay rights. A whole counterculture arose, with much more radical and liberal beliefs and ideals. Many label this group as the “hippie movement”, which is also widely associated with drug experimentation and sexual exploration. Another major factor to this “revolution” was the doomed war in Vietnam. There was a huge anti-war movement that rose from the previously mentioned counterculture. Numerous protests and rallies were held, resulting in many run-ins with police. Most of these were peaceful, which would be hoped, considering that the whole movement was based on the concepts of peace and love (“1960s”).

Let us fast forward to 1975, declared International Women’s Year by the United Nations. Gerald Ford is President, and the United States is coming off the recently uncovered Watergate scandal, and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Oil prices are rising, and the Cold War is still in full swing. Some notable celebrity births include Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie, and Kate Winslet. On November 19th, director Milos Forman’s film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest hit the big screen. It came during a year of some serious cinematic competition. Steven Spielberg’s thriller Jaws, Al Pacino’s riveting performance in Dog Day Afternoon, the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the classic Rocky Horror Picture Show were all released during the same year (“1975”).

Yet somehow, Foreman’s film managed to come away with all five major Academy Awards, a feat not accomplished since It Happened One Night in 1934, and not done again until The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. The movie earned Best Picture, Best Director went to Foreman, Best Actor went to Jack Nicholson, Best Actress went to Louise Fletcher, and Best Screenplay went to Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman for their screen adaptation. It also won most of the Golden Globes of the same nature. And those are just the American awards. It won even more from overseas (“One”). Wow. It must be some film to earn all that in a year with such stellar competition.

Well, it is. Produced by Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas and released by United Artists, other cast members include William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, even Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito. The movie was filmed at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon. It cost roughly $4,400,000 to make, and raked in about $112,000,000 in gross revenue (“One”). The story centers on Randall Patrick McMurphy, played ingeniously by Jack Nicholson. McMurphy is a criminal serving time on a prison work farm for statutory rape, and is sent to a mental institution for evaluation because of his increasingly strange and violent behavior. Upon arrival, he meets a doctor who explains the situation to him, and McMurphy seems to think that he has found a loophole in the system, hoping to serve the rest of his sentence in a much easier, work-free environment. The ward is run by the ever calm but extremely condescending and dictator-like Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. She seems to have all of her patients under her spell, and also half sedated by their daily dose of medication. McMurphy initially appears to play the game, but soon starts his own little gambling racket as a way of getting his kicks. At first he has little respect for his fellow patients, which he soon learns that most of them are there by their own free will and that he is one of few who are actually committed. He also discovers that he is there not for a set amount of time, but however long Nurse Ratched deems necessary. His rebellious spirit starts to take over as a result, and he begins testing Nurse Ratched, who, instead of passively putting up with him or having him transferred, sees his behavior as a personal challenge to her authority and becomes intent on beating him at this game.

McMurphy gradually develops a bond with his fellow patients, including an enormous and muscular Native American, who he jokingly refers to as “Chief”. Initially, McMurphy pokes fun at Chief, who everybody in the ward believes to be a deaf mute. He eventually uses Chief’s size for his own gain, such as in basketball, and a later fight against the ward staff. Later, before an episode of shock therapy, Chief reveals his ability to both speak and hear to McMurphy, who thinks his acting was ingenious, and begins hatching a plan for the both of them to escape. Then one night, McMurphy is able to call a girlfriend and tells her to bring liquor to the ward. He bribes the night watchman, eventually getting his keys after he passes out from drinking. He soon realizes that his ward mate Billy likes his girl and convinces her to sleep with him. Eventually they all pass out drunk before anyone can escape. Nurse Ratched arrives in the morning and confronts everyone, including Billy, which results in his suicide. In a fit of rage, McMurphy nearly strangles Nurse Ratched to death, but is detained and given a lobotomy, rendering him mentally disabled. The Chief, unable to see his friend in this condition, suffocates him with a pillow as a favor. He then follows McMurphy’s original plan for escape and hurls a huge fountain through the window. The end.

Having not read the original novel, it is hard to say whether or not the film does it justice. Most likely probably



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