Jack is back! Just a week before his 80th birthday, one of Jack Nicholson’s most memorable roles returns to the big screen, 42 years after it first arrived. Randall P McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest won him the first of three acting Oscars and the film is re-released this week.
The multi-Oscar winner – it took five trophies – is adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 best-seller of the same name, set in the men’s ward of a mental hospital. R P McMurphy (Nicholson) arrives from prison, initially for observation and assessment as the jail doesn’t believe his claims that he’s mentally ill. And they’re right to be suspicious, because the free spirited Mac has been faking it to get an easier ride. He’s in prison for assault and statutory rape, which he admits to, and quite happily justifies as well. His presence upsets the dominance of the ward by the callous Nurse Ratched (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher) and he eventually leads a full scale rebellion – with devastating consequences.
Director Milos Forman delivers the story in a semi-documentary style, reinforcing the authenticity scenes in the mental ward. The film was shot in a genuine mental hospital and, apparently, many of the actors stayed in character even when they weren’t filming. They were mostly unknown at the time: Danny DeVito in his first major role, several years before TV’s Taxi: Brad Dourif was making his second on-screen appearance as the stuttering and tragic Billy: Christopher Lloyd was some years away from being Back To The Future’s Doc and man mountain Will Sampson as Chief Bromden went on to star with Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales. The others didn’t enjoy such high profiles but, together, as the story’s discordant chorus, they’re an exemplary instance of ensemble acting.
Nicholson, of course, is no man’s ensemble actor, nor his McMurphy a man to merge into the background. He’s an intelligent free spirit, who is also appalled at the way Ratched treats the men supposedly under her care. Her voice is calm and even – most of the time – and she always sounds eminently reasonable. But those eyes are cold – dead even – she’s soulless and totally without feeling or human compassion.
On one level, the film is a disturbing portrait of life in a mental hospital some 50 years ago. We witness McMurphy receiving ECT, easily one of the most distressing scenes in the movie. Today’s mental health professionals say that one moment has done huge damage to perceptions of how people with mental illnesses are treated and that, for some, ECT can be an effective method of controlling their symptoms. The fact that it’s lingered in the memory for decades says much for the emotional power of the scene, and the acting in particular.
And if you want to take it simply as an inside view of a mental hospital, you can. There is, however, more to it. The film is an extended metaphor about being different, rebellious even and how society can react to that. Ratched’s calm, apparently logical justification of everything she does and every role in the hospital, however remote and heartless, is reminiscent of the explanations we hear from politicians: the vaguely patronising tone, as if she’s talking to little children, the inference that she/they are acting in our best interests. McMurphy sees through all that.
He’s constantly playing cards with his fellow patients yet, when it comes to the crunch, the establishment holds all the aces. He incites a rebellion that leads to the suicide of one of the patients and his attack on Nurse Ratched, but afterwards he is given a lobotomy that takes away all his personality – and everything else. It’s heart breaking to see him reduced to that state. What follows is even more gut-wrenching.
Films with rebels who are heroes and win out are two a penny: here we have one with an anti-hero and who doesn’t win. Not on the face of it, anyway. But McMurphy’s legacy and spirit lives on in the shape of Chief Bromden, who escapes from the hospital in spectacular style, and in the memories of all the other patients. The men’s ward will never be the same again and, despite thinking she’s won, Ratched’s power has been forever damaged.
Put to one side how much younger the likes of Nicholson, Fletcher, DeVito and Lloyd look. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is still remarkably fresh, powerful and, for today’s audiences, relevant with mental illness a near constant in the news. It isn’t on the big screen very often so grab the opportunity to see it, whether you’ve not seen it for a long time or never seen it before. Either way, it’s unforgettable.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is re-released in cinemas on Friday 14th April.