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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Cuckoo's Nest's moments of brilliance
Ever since its first release in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been one of my favorite films--well up in my top ten. It's hard to classify Milos Forman's first American hit. It's dramatic (to say the least) but it's far more than a drama. It's funny, though it's not a comedy, or if it is, it's certainly a dark comedy. Though it may sound like an overstatement to say, it would probably best be called a masterpiece in the art of filmmaking. Starting with a masterfully written novel by Ken Kesey, brought to life by the expertly crafted screenplay of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, the highly intelligent direction of Forman, and the Academy Award winning performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the movie seems literally bursting with the best and worst emotional power human nature has to offer.

Kesey had a role in the early development of the screenplay but quit
over creative differences as to casting and narrative point of view.
Not to give away the plot, but to familiarize those who have not seen it, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a loose cannon who arrives at the local psychiatric hospital and the battle of wills involving the head nurse. Jack Nicholson plays a convicted criminal who fakes insanity so that he will be given a lenient sentence to a mental institution in order to escape a harsh jail term. His excitable and erratic behavior wins over the fellow patients as he leads a rebellion against the system and its head nurse, played by Louise Fletcher. In the end, his often hilarious ploy comes at a price.

Emotionally, two exact opposites locked in mortal combat.

Kirk Douglas had long owned the rights to an earlier stage version of the novel and tried desperately to get the movie made. But by the time he succeeded, he was too old to take it on. He therefore passed it on to his son, Michael, who co-produced and won the Oscar for it. Filming began in January 1975 and concluded approximately three months later. It was shot almost entirely on location in Salem, Oregon, and the surrounding area, as well as on the Oregon coast. It was also shot at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, which was also the setting of the novel. Late in the filming, Haskell Wexler was fired as cinematographer and replaced by Bill Butler. Forman said he and Wexler had "artistic differences." Both Wexler and Butler received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, though Wexler said there was only about a minute or two of film he didn't shoot.

Most of the movie was shot on location in and around
Salem, Oregon, and it's State Hospital.
As with any film so laden with desperate human interaction, the success or failure of the movie rested entirely on three elements, the script, the direction, and the acting. Only Nicholson bore a box office name and face. Fletcher was a highly competent actress with some fifteen years in Hollywood before landing the role of Nurse Ratched. She not only won an Oscar for her performance, but went on to post quite an impressive filmography during the next forty years. Although Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, and Will Sampson all turned in impressive portrayals of various troubled patients, only DeVito, Lloyd, and Dourif went on to become familiar names to later moviegoers.

The characters. Can you add the actors' names?
As with any favorite movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is laden with so many favorite scenes it's hard to choose one or even two or three as standing apart from the others. The clip I've chosen (below) comes relatively early in the film, shortly after McMurphy arrives in the ward. Watch his facial expressions as he realizes that mental disorders come with many different ages and personalities. Here too, we see him awakening to the ominous presence of the single force imposing order in their search for sanity.


The film went on to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards at the 48th Oscar ceremony. These include the Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, Best Actress for Louise Fletcher, Best Direction for Forman, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman. Critics have noted that the onscreen battle between Nicholson and Fletcher serves as a personal microcosm of the culture wars of the 1970s. It's an impressive testament to the director's vision that the film retains its power more than forty years later.
Best Picture winners Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz (One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest) flank Best Director Milos Foreman, Best Actress Louise Fletcher, and Best Actor Jack Nicholson at the 48th Academy Awards Presentation.
Bragging rights!

The most startling line in the movie.

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