Oscar Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

The film that swept the major categories at the 48th Academy Awards (5 of its 9 nominations) is also AFI’s 20th greatest film and launched the careers of actors from Danny DeVito to Christopher Lloyd. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a funny and tragic look at life in a mental ward run by a psychotic head nurse and the “patient” that disturbs the status quo.

When R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is admitted to a mental institution in an attempt to avoid continued physical labor at a prison work camp. He pretends to act wild and out of control thinking it will make freedom come to him more quickly. Thinking it would be smooth sailing, McMurphy isn’t prepared when he meets the icy Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) – the #5 movie villain of all time.

To keep himself occupied when not in group therapy, McMurphy befriends the other patients, organizes a “field trip” to go fishing, and reaches out to a deaf/mute that no one else pays much attention to.

In her attempts to maintain order and provide counseling to the patients, we come to see Nurse Ratched’s darker side. She leads group discussions to point out, and even further, the patient’s psychoses. She plays eerily relaxing music, plays to everyone’s weaknesses and lays on guilt, and enjoys quelling the hopes of everyone around her. But worse than that, much more devious and evil, is the way she punishes McMurphy for his behavior. By forcing him to submit to electric shock treatment and medicating him she turns a sane man insane.
*****
I’ve thouroughly enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest each time I’ve seen it. Wonderfully written and acted by the entire cast, this film garnered Oscars for Best Picture (Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas), Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher), Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was the first film to take home all the top honors since It Happened One Night, which held the honor for 40 years. The only other film to do so The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.

It’s a dark movie once you get beneath the entertaining performance of Nicholson’s McMurphy. Haunting in the examination of how soberly controled Nurse Ratched wields her power and how coolly she attacks the already fragile minds of the other patients. It’s just a great movie.

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