Saturday, November 21, 2015

Flying Over the Cuckoo's Nest

"If Mr. McMurphy doesn't want to take his medication orally, I'm sure we can arrange that he can have it some other way."

Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher)

As Roger Ebert wrote, Miloš Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which premiered 40 years ago today, "is on every list of favorite films." There's no arguing with that, I guess. In almost every conversation I have had with people who are movie fans, it winds up on such a list — and deservedly so. The American Film Institute ranks it #33.

But, in all that time, I have found zero agreement on what the movie is. Just about as many people say it is a comedy as say it is a tragedy — and even within those two groups, there is little further agreement.

I suspect that, as it so often is, the truth is somewhere in between. As the commercial parody on Saturday Night Live used to say, "It's a floor wax and a dessert topping."

The arrival of R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a free–spirited repeat offender, in a mental institution caused ripples in the institutional framework that had been established by the dictatorial nurse in charge, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy was just trying to convince the authorities that he was suffering from mental illness, and he could do his time in a mental hospital instead of a prison, but he was interfering with Nurse Ratched's oppressive regime of degradation, drug therapy and a mind–crushing routine.

The stage was set for a battle of wills — and, for the first three–quarters of the movie, I suppose, McMurphy had the upper hand. That part of the movie was definitely comedic, with McMurphy increasingly getting the better of Nurse Ratched. That wasn't easy to do because Nurse Ratched seemed to know what each patient's vulnerable spot was, and she didn't hesitate to exploit it.

I have never read the book on which the movie was based so my next observation may be obvious, but I always felt, for example, that when Nurse Ratched advocated keeping McMurphy in the ward even though her colleagues favored sending him back to prison — and prevailed — that she was motivated by the desire to break McMurphy as a warning to the others. Don't mess with me.

Maybe the group therapy sessions she had with some of the patients gave her insights that she noted for future reference.

McMurphy seemed to outsmart her at every turn in the first three–quarters of the movie, and there are some parts that everyone remembers about "Cuckoo's Nest" — even if the viewer has only seen it once.

For example, everyone remembers the fishing trip on which McMurphy took his colleagues. He hijacked a bus, then introduced the group (truthfully) as being from the mental institution but then (untruthfully) called nearly all of them "doctor."

A part that I always remember is McMurphy's reaction upon learning that most of the patients in the ward were there voluntarily and could leave whenever they chose — but he was committed and could be kept there indefinitely. Few people seem to remember it unless it is mentioned to them.

"Jesus, I mean, you guys do nothing but complain about how you can't stand it in this place here," McMurphy said, "and you don't have the guts just to walk out? What do you think you are, for Christ's sake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not! You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets, and that's it."

I suppose, if you mention that to one–time viewers, many of them will then remember that scene — and perhaps some will also remember how it foretold what the Chief (Will Sampson) did at the end of the movie.

But, as I say, they remember the fishing trip.

Or they remember McMurphy's campaign to have the TV tuned to the World Series. That was the first significant confrontation with Nurse Ratched, and McMurphy won it by persuading the Chief, who was believed to be deaf and dumb, to vote for the World Series.

But Nurse Ratched, in her controlling way, closed the vote before the Chief could break the tie and give McMurphy his victory. So I guess it wound up being a draw.

If you haven't seen it, I won't say any more — except to observe that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" received nine Oscar nominations and won five — becoming the first movie in more than 40 years to sweep the five major categories — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best (Adapted) Screenplay. Only one movie has duplicated the feat in the 40 years since.

I don't know if it was their first movie appearances, but it was the first time I recall seeing Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito in anything. A few years later, though, they would both be cast in one of my favorite TV shows, Taxi.