Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Twenty-One

21flew

#21 — One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)
I think it was an episode of one of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s various program derivations that I was watching in which one of the highly influential Chicago film critics offered a comment after the famous diner clip from Five Easy Pieces asserting that Jack Nicholson’s screen persona was eternally set at the moment he told the waitress to hold the chicken between her knees. That’s almost assuredly true, although the necessary addendum is that it took One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest five years later to take that screen persona, cast it in amber and then encase that in an impenetrable block of cement. Before playing the lead role in the film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel (and, perhaps more pertinently, Dale Wasserman’s stage play the following year), Nicholson was a generation’s go-to cocksure rebel. For better or worse, after playing Randle Patrick McMurphy, many directors apparently weren’t satisfied until the actor tapped into the deep well of crazy he had at his disposal.

Of course, the irony to this lasting thespian legacy is that McMurphy is faking his insanity. Incarcerated for statutory rape of a teenage girl, McMurphy seeks to escape the hard labor of his prison camp by bluffing his way into a mental institution, which he assumes will make for a cushy haul. He didn’t count on the crushing environment of enforced complacency that characterizes the organizational structure of his new gigs, a spiritually pummeling air personified by Nurse Ratched, played with imperious poise by Louise Fletcher. The film traces McMurphy’s increasingly reckless efforts in pushing back, often by trying to liberate his fellow patients from what he views as needless cloistering from the decadent temptations of the outside world, from cigarettes and alcohol to the simple pleasure of watching the World Series. It’s only by railing against the fences that hold these men in that McMurphy comes to realize that some carry an internal damage that is beyond his reckoning, that perhaps bucks against his very idea of how briskly spirits can fly.

Nicholson’s quicksilver performance gives the film a buoyancy and energy that prevents it from ever becoming didactic or slipping into the over-simplifications to which it could easily fall prone. It takes more than a star turn, though, and director Milos Forman knows exactly how to harness that energy of his lead actor and channel it into the drama. In his best films, Forman has a special touch for making the strident sharp and smooth. He knows how to take complexities and make them relatable while still preserving, even taking advantage of, their inner intellectual entanglements. In this film, that comes in part from a shrewd sense as to how to carefully, gradually share the stories of the patients in the ward. There are splendid performances all around, with special praise merited for Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, William Redfield and Will Sampson. For the film to truly be effective–for the different turning points to make sense–there has to be an underlying sense that McMurphy is somehow drawn to these people, mistaking them for fellow misfits rather than men suffering from illnesses. It is the intricacies of all of the performances and the care Forman takes in sharing them with the audience that truly accomplishes this.

It’s not hard to see why filmmakers kept wanting to draw Nicholson back to the urgency of McMurphy, a fiercely controlled performance that only seems to be driven by wild abandon. He’s wickedly entertaining in the role, providing an a deliriously hedonistic version of the antihero that typified the most daring aspects on nineteen-seventies American cinema. It earned Nicholson his fifth Oscar nomination and first win (Cuckoo’s Nest is notably one of only three films to win Best Picture and in the directing, screenplay and both lead acting categories, preceded in that feat by 1934’s It Happened One Night and followed by 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs), becoming as iconic as anything he ever did onscreen. If it then dogged him somewhat, it also freed him. It was the final ratification of something he’d been proving for the whole full first half of the decade: he was an actor who could be trusted to follow his instincts wherever they led, no matter how daunting the path.