This is an odd film. In some ways it reflects a period of national tension not entirely unlike our own. In other ways, it feels like an artifact from a time capsule.
The movie takes its title and plot from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel. The story is driven by one R.H. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson,) who has cleverly arranged to get himself transferred from prison to an insane asylum.
When he arrives, the lead doctor tells McMurphy he is there to be evaluated. “The people who sent you here think you’ve been faking it to get out of your work detail,” he says.
This is true, of course, but McMurphy tells the doctor “I’ll cooperate with you 100 percent!”
Well, haha with that. Murphy is a recidivist known for fighting and, most recently, for a tryst with a girl of 15. “She told me she was 18!” is his story.
McMurphy joins a ward with 17 other patients, some unresponsive but many who are not noticeably wacky and who are also unusually compliant.
He sets out immediately to upset the quiet order of the place. First he refuses to swallow his morning pill, presumably a downer, as the others do.
Then he challenges the cold, controlling head of the ward, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher,) pushing for the ward television to be turned on for his group to watch the first game of the 1963 World Series. He’s clever about it, but she prevails and the series goes unwatched.
Next McMurphy coaxes the tall, silent Native American, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson) into a basketball game that provokes great glee. Then he liberates an asylum bus to take his group on an unauthorized fishing expedition and just keeps upping the ante with booze and hookers, which we all know are the true cures for psychosis. Or maybe it was a 1970s thing.
Over time, the asylum administrators consider sending McMurphy back to the big house, but Nurse Ratched demurs. “I think we can help him,” she says, persuading the others.
You wouldn’t guess it from the pacing, but this is a pivot point with consequences that cause McMurphy to change his mind. Good actors relish is sharing the moments when their thinking changes — and it’s missing here. That missing piece, taken with several smaller false steps, renders the movie’s resolution much less satisfying than it could have been.
Still, Nicholson’s energetic portrayal of McMurphy is great, and the gradual unveiling of Bromden’s story is moving. The other inmates are mostly along for decoration around the edges, but they do their best. (Two of the minor ones are Martini, the pre-Taxi Danny Devito, and Taber, played by Christopher Lloyd before his Back to the Future appearances; I thought those guys looked familiar.)
Cuckoo’s Nest did strike a chord when it was released in 1975, however. It debuted six months after the U.S. pulled its last troops out of Vietnam, capping a period of abiding anger, protest and mistrust of authority. At the next year’s Academy Awards, Cuckoo’s Nest won the five “big” Oscars — best picture, best actor (Nicholson), best actress (Fletcher,) best director and best screenplay.
One indicator of its declining appeal over the years may be its ranking in the American Film Institute’s listing of the Best 100 American Movies. The list was first released in 1998, when Cuckoo’s Nest came in at No. 20. When the list was updated in 2007, it had dropped to No. 33, and not because there were 13 more significant films during the intervening years. (There has been no third iteration of the list.)
Some of the enthusiasm for the film in its day must have been sparked by familiarity with Ken Kesey. He wrote the novel while he was studying at Stanford, working at an insane asylum and presenting himself as a subject for the now-famous early testing of LSD and perhaps other psychedelic pharmaceuticals.
After the release of his second book (the more critically acclaimed Sometimes a Great Notion) in 1964, Kesey pulled together a busload of similarly minded Merry Pranksters who toured the country over years, including the first Summer of Love and until the end of the turbulent 1960s. This 1999 documentary by Zane Kesey, the author’s son, presents the story with contemporaneous film and commentary from people who were there.