One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic that needs little introduction for most people. This 1975 movie was the second film ever to win five Academy Awards for best actor, actress, director, picture and screenplay – and had at the time, been the first in 41 years to do so.
The film was adapted from the novel of the same name (by Ken Kesey), and directed by the Czech-born Milos Forman (Man on the Moon, Amadeus). Forman’s parents died in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz – and though he was young at the time, he probably knew a thing or two about cruel confinement and intellectual oppression.
“When the Nazis and Communists first came to Czechoslovakia, they declared war on pornographers and perverts. Everyone applauded: who wants perverts running through the streets? But then, suddenly, Jesus Christ was a pervert, Shakespeare was a pervert, Hemingway was a pervert. It always starts with pornographers to open the door a little, but then the door is opened wide for all kinds of persecution.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about another kind of oppressor. The movie is about patients in a psychiatric hospital in Oregon. An unruly new patient named RP McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) arrives at the hospital and learns that it is not quite what he imagined it would be. McMurphy is a criminal who has managed to prove his insanity in court and be transferred to a mental institution. He wanted to avoid prison in favour of what he thought would be the relative comfort of a mental facility. But when he finds out how inhumanely the patients are being treated there, he is shocked and begins to stir things up.
The novel was originally inspired by Ken Kesey's own experience of working as an orderly at a mental health facility of Menlo Park, California. Here, he interacted with the patients and learned about their conditions, as well as their treatment by the staff. During his time there, Kesey also voluntarily participated in the CIA’s notorious “Project MKUltra” where arrays of psychoactive drugs were tested on human subjects for their effects and also for potential uses in controlling the mind, memory and actions of others. Kesey’s book doesn’t just tell the story of a hospital but also attempts to reflect on the more subtle forms of control in society that make people behave in ways that may not serve their own best interests.
Though Kesey himself was very unhappy with changes made in the screenplay of the film (he resultantly vowed never to watch it), it is still widely accepted as an excellent adaptation and is a huge success in its own right. The major change made was that the film’s main protagonist was McMurphy, while in the book, a huge, silent American Indian patient called “Chief” was the main narrator.
The film’s main antagonist was Nurse Ratched, played brilliantly by Louise Fletcher (who won best actress for her role). The head Nurse’s cold, calculating control of the patients and psychological domination was brilliantly portrayed by Fletcher, who didn’t just act the part, but also looked it: “When you see those dish blue eyes of a murderer… in that sweet woman’s face,” said Nicholson while reminiscing about the movie, “that was it, she’s in the picture.”
McMurphy befriends the patients at the hospital, among them is “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson) mentioned earlier, and Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a stuttering nervous wreck, who is particularly dominated by the Nurse.
The cast of the film is full of unknown actors – Forman’s idea was to cast a star in the lead, and then use unknown actors to support him which would naturally help them adopt him as their leader. The casting was done wisely, and Nicholson’s reaction when he first saw them arriving together for the shooting, is a testament to that “I thought Milos has… gone into some modern day Bedlam and gotten a bunch of nuts to be in the picture!”
These actors didn’t remain unknown however; Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito for instance got their major career breaks from this film and went on to make many other successful movies. Most actors in this film were using the Method and would stay in character even when the camera was not rolling. Their close interactions with the extras were even more conducive to this environment because many of them were actual mental patients. In her Oscar acceptance speech, Fletcher called it “a cast of actors whose… capacity for getting into roles made being in a mental institution, like being in a mental institution.”
With this fantastic cast, we as the audience are thrown into the environment ourselves, and McMurphy’s battle becomes our battle. He gradually discovers the stifling environment that the administration of the hospital has created and begins to wage war against it, while trying to rouse the patients as well. This leads to counter measures from the staff and things turn heated, which only serves to make McMurphy more determined.
In this portrayal Nicholson manages to communicate an ingenious paradoxical duality: a character who seems to be the only sane member of the mental hospital has a determination to rebel that can only have been fueled by madness. This is one of the essential messages that McMurphy (and the film) wishes to convey: Who are you to decide who is crazy and who isn’t?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film that is timeless not just because of its ingenious artistry (in all regards from direction to acting and screenplay) but also because of the relevance of its message: There are still mentally unwell people being treated with neglect, but in the bigger picture there are also regular people all over the world who are being controlled and manipulated “in their best interest” by those who would rather see them sedated and passive, than free and defiant.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.