Forty Five years ago this month, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” soared into theaters. It became the second-highest grossing movie of the year (behind only “Jaws”), and swept the Academy Awards, winning trophies for its directors, writer, stars, and one for Best Picture. In the most recent poll by British film journal Sight and Sound, it was rated by critics as the 48th best film ever made. With its memorable performances and shocking depiction of state mental institutions, it made an enormous impact on an entire generation of Americans. Five decades later, we are still unpacking its meaning.
Based on a best-selling 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, the film tells of Randall Patrick McMurphy, an angry, young man who arrives at a mental hospital after faking insanity to get out of prison work duty. His plan to serve out his sentence in more comfortable conditions hits a snag when he clashes with the callous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who, unbeknownst to McMurphy, has the power to extend his stay indefinitely. McMurphy rages against the injustice of his predicament, inspiring the other inmates to rebel along with him.
Director Milos Forman won his first Oscar for “Cuckoo’s Nest” (his second came in 1985 fo “Amadeus”), but he mostly deserves credit for getting out of the way and letting his stellar cast take control of the frame. Fletcher creates one of the most memorable villains in film history, even as her character reveals shades of moral ambiguity, and Brad Dourif steals the show as a young, impressionable patient who McMurphy takes under his wing. Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd, who would team up on TV’s “Taxi” a few years later, also show up as inmates. But it’s Nicholson’s show, and his performance remains the film’s most fascinating element, even five decades later.
McMurphy is a classic Nicholson character from this era, embodying the subversive, anti-conformist ethos that defined the decade of New Hollywood. In “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Last Detail,” he played a similar type: angry, young, and thirsty. His performance in “Cuckoo’s Nest” resonated most deeply with his disillusioned audience because it gave him something tangible to rebel against. He was literally a prisoner, with his captor standing right in front of him in a nurse’s outfit and with an icy stare. This dynamic brought out the best of Nicholson – or at least the most of him – and we never saw him quite in that mode again. His performances in later years vacillated between the recessive or the cartoonishly broad.
But the legacy of McMurphy stayed strong. In the years after the film, young men would often dress up like him for Halloween. Shirts that read “What Would Randle Patrick McMurphy Do?” became popular. Young Americans reeling from the dual disillusionments of the Vietnam War and Watergate saw in McMurphy a totem for their anti-authoritarian fury, but they failed to realize what “Cuckoo’s Nest” and, for that matter, most of Nicholson’s work from this period was really about.
The Nicholson persona – let’s just call him “Jack” – defines himself by what he’s against, not what he’s for. In these films, he rages against the unfairness of the system, but his complaints lack specificity. In the end, we never quite know who he is mad at. His bosses? His father? His girlfriend? Nurse Ratched? Himself? It’s a kitchen-sink approach to personal rebellion, and it never works out. In “Five Easy Pieces,” he ends up alone, likely for life. “The Last Detail” and “Chinatown” end with nothing gained. “Cuckoo’s Nest” leaves him with his soul surgically removed from his body. This is what happens when you go up against the state without a plan.
But Nicholson makes these characters so charming that it’s easy to miss the message. In an early scene in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” he dazzles two of his fellow patients with a deck of cards stamped with photos of naked women on them. He waves them in their faces and leads them away from their poker game like a perverted Pied Piper. It’s the same trick he pulled on the rest of us, dazzling us with his smile, his charm, and the sense that if you just join his team, we could really win this time. It didn’t work out for McMurphy. It might never work out for us.