One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest: for the mental patient in all of us

Last night on Paul’s History of Cinema Festival Kimmie and I watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in November 1975 and winner of the 1976 Academy Award for Best Picture, among other honors.

Directed by Milos Forman, the film was based on a 1962 novel by Ken Kesey and written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman (and again, the separation of their names by the word and rather than by an ampersand suggests that they worked separately, not as a team). The name of Dale Wasserman also appears in the writing credits as the adapter of the novel to the stage in 1963, but according to Wikipedia the movie was based only on the novel, not on the play. On stage the main character, McMurphy, was played by Kirk Douglas, who secured the movie rights to the property but never succeeded in getting it financed. He gave the rights to his son Michael, who eventually did succeed. Apparently Ken Kesey was involved in the early stages of adapting his novel to the screen, but fell out with the producers and wound up suing them (successfully). Kesey, who died in 2001, was on record as never having seen the film, but as not liking what he’d heard of it. Of course, having already fought with the producers in court, what else could he say?

So much for showbiz.

On the movie’s release reviews were mixed, with Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby saying that it had serious deficiencies. As of today, it stands in position #10 of IMDb’s top-rated movies of all time, based on the ratings of 322,000 viewers (including me), suggesting that audiences in general don’t share those critics’ opinions.

I rated the movie 9 out of 10, putting it on my select list of the best movies I’ve seen. There are only 32 movies on this list so far (going back to 1916) of the hundreds I’ve now watched with Kimmie. I haven’t read Kesey’s novel or seen the play, but for that very reason I think I can be relatively objective about the movie. And whether or not the result was true to the vision of Kesey’s novel, the filmmakers came up with a movie that is vastly better than the great majority of other productions.

The film has many high-quality features, from the uniformly excellent performances (check out an early and uncharacteristic role for Danny de Vito as Mr. Martini) to the somber and overcast West Coast atmosphere of the Oregon State Hospital where the film was shot, but what makes it stand out for me is its treatment of theme. For the mental hospital, which is the world of the story, is by extension our own world, and it invites us to reflect on who’s running the place, and how.

Nurse Ratched, played unforgettably by Louise Fletcher, is the soft-spoken tyrant of the men’s ward. McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson (here was one difference between Kesey and the producers: Kesey wanted Gene Hackman as McMurphy; but Nicholson did a superb job), is a convict serving time for assault and statutory rape who has gotten himself transferred here on the idea that serving time in hospital will be preferable to serving it in the pen. He didn’t realize that for some people, at least, this—unlike the pen with its finite sentences—is a Roach Motel: they check in—they don’t check out.

The spine of the story is the contest of wills between McMurphy and Ratched. Along the way, many interesting questions arise. There are surprises such as McMurphy’s discovery that most of his fellow inmates are “voluntaries”—men who are there by choice and who therefore are free to go if they want. Mystifyingly to McMurphy, they don’t want. How much of our own oppression is voluntary in this sense? And an important sequence involves the democratic institution of the vote, as McMurphy campaigns to have the TV-viewing rules changed so that the men can watch the World Series. I was reminded of a comparable scene in Deliverance in which the men, confronted with bestiality and crime in the wilderness, also resort to “democracy” in ambivalent and thought-provoking circumstances. For elections are one of the favorite decorations of tyranny, are they not?

The deep issue is power, and how it is plumbed into institutions. (One of the key images in the film is of a plumbing fixture in the common bathing-room.) Nurse Ratched wields institutional power, even as she disavows this by apparently deferring to the doctors above her and to the rule-book that supposedly governs them all, and even as her iron fist seldom slips from the velvet glove of her mild expression and her soft, reasonable voice. McMurphy, for his part, represents the wayward individual, the square peg for whom no one has ever made or ever will make a suitable hole. He is able to light a vital flame in his fellow inmates, to remind them that they, whether sane or not, have desires and passions, as well as the power to act on them if they wish, whether that’s convenient for Nurse Ratched or no.

Ken Kesey worked as an orderly at a mental hospital in Menlo Park, California, and it was his experience there that provided the inspiration for this story. For my part I worked as a janitor at Vancouver General Hospital off and on between 1976 and 1981, and even while there I saw it as a metaphor of the world. For most of us are born into it and die out of it, and our condition on Earth is one of illness if you look at it from a spiritual perspective, impaired as we are by original sin. The image of the mental hospital skews this a bit further, placing the locus of illness in our minds. But who is in a position to call us crazy? Is the mental health of Nurse Ratched so much better than that of the men over whose lives she exercises such power? What about the doctors who commit you and administer the electroshock therapy? Are they so different from Stalin, sending his supposed enemies into psychiatric hospitals—those enemies, anyway, that he didn’t dislike too too much? Just as history is written by the victors, sanity is judged—or perhaps bestowed is the better term—by those in power.

Such questions bubble continuously under this story. Even if Ken Kesey never could bring himself to watch it, this movie is well worth 134 minutes of our time.

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