Sunday, September 2, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST"



ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)
 
Director: Milos Forman
Screenplay: Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben based on the novel by Ken Kesey
 
  

I have written on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in two different film classes, watched it about twelve or fifteen times, and even read the book. Yet, I keep going back-and-forth on whether or not I actually like this film, personally. I can see it's flaws, and yet, after watching it, I often find myself crying at the end of it. This movie is one of three movies to win the Big 5 Oscars of Best Picture, Actor (Jack Nicholson), Actress (Louise Fletcher), Screenplay, and Director. (“The Silence of the Lambs,” and “It Happened One Night,” are the others) Although it’s marked as a milestone film of social realism, in reality, many aspects of the film in regards to comparing to an actual mental hospital, even at that time seem false. Many of the “crazy” patients are crazy in the Hollywood sense and don’t exactly come across as actually mentally ill. Although some may argue that since most of the patients are voluntary patients, maybe that makes more sense. Either way, what's strange with the film is how the movie is given such weight for it's symbolic greatness, the patients are the way they are, and so is everything else in the movie, because it makes it easier for Jack Nicholson, in what is widely considered his best role, to play off of them. 
     
Nicholson play R.P. McMurphy, a free-spirited fighter who is acting crazy so he can get out of being in a prison work farm, figuring an insane asylum can’t be worst than prison. Nicholson's performance is a fascinating study. It's a masterful piece of method acting, and yet, it never gets mentioned that it's a comedic performance. Looking back on it, I think an interesting comparison performance might be Robin Williams's in "Good Morning, Vietnam". Both are about people, who are dropped into a situation, hell-bent on enjoying themselves and making the status quo adapt to them, and are continually fought at every turn, until, despite every intention of having the situation  leave an emotional imprint on them, it ends up happening anyway.

Nicholson relied heavily on improvisation for many of the scenes. Probably most famously, a scene after a group therapy session where it seems the group has unanimously voted to watch the World Series on television. Then Nurse Ratched (Fletcher) announces that the vote is 9-9 counting the votes of nine patients who are unaware that there’s a meeting going on. Eventually, Nicholson too late gets a tenth vote, and instead of sitting down and taking it, stares at a blank television and announces the ballgame himself as the inmates cheer and celebrate. Other famous scenes involve a basketball game between the inmates and the guards, as well as an impromptu fishing trip with a hooker friend of McMurphy. She shows up later as he tries to escape after holding an after hours party/orgy at the asylum. The movie is surprisingly episodic. It's one of those strange films where the parts, are more memorable then the whole, and yet, the movie's ending works so well, you can't go back and think that a single scene, or even shot is unnecessary.
 
The events of that party lead to McMurphy’s demise. I will not disclose the events, but it involves Nurse. Ratched's worst manipulation of the patients, involving Billy (Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif), a maybe 20-year-old stutterer who’s a son of a friend of hers. Many interpretation can be made from R.P.’s actions, and whole movie itself. It takes multiple viewings sometimes for Ratched’s passive-aggressive authoritarianism is clear, and she gets what she deserves, and should’ve gotten worse (She does in the book). Fletcher’s performance makes her one of the worst villains in film history, not because she’s outwardly evil, but precisely because she isn’t. You have to observe her actions carefully and then realize what she says and does don’t add up to realize it. She has the same kind of non-reaction to the patients that McMurphy does, but her rigidness is subtle, but startling.
 
The metaphor of conformism is representative of a lot of things, mostly political. Director Milos Forman grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia and makes his best movies rebels. His best films other than "...Cuckoo's Nest" include subjects like Mozart ("Amadeus"), Andy Kaufman ("Man in the Moon") and Larry Flynt ("The People vs. Larry Flynt") He also directed "Hair", and his best Czechoslovakian film is "The Fireman's Ball," a satire about a bumbling attempt of fireman to have an extravagant ball, where everything that can go wrong, go wrong, and then gets worse. That film was partially banned as being anti-Communism propaganda for awhile.
 
The final scene of the movie which involves a character I have purposely not mentioned, is one of the greatest in film history, and is filled with both ultimate tragedy and triumphant perseverance. If nothing else, "One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest" has screwed up anybody who ever wants to do another film in a mental institution, 'cause it's gonna get compared to it every time, and even the occasion good one, isn't gonna compare to it. Especially emotionally. I don't think a lot of viewers really see a lot of themselves in McMurphy, but somehow, everybody is emotionally invested in what happens to him. 
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