April 19, 2011

#33: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

One flew east, one flew west...

Only three times in Academy Award history has a film won the Big Five (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay). We've already seen the other two here, and now the third: Milos Forman's 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I've read the book, but I've never seen the stage adaptation. From what I understand, this doesn't stray too far from that version, although Kesey was apparently pretty upset about Forman's decision to stray from the Chief as central narrator. I think the film works well without that detail, but ... I didn't write it.

Company: alone, on instant Netflix!

Cuisine: sugar-free vanilla latte from Bob's. All one needs.

It's 1963 and the film opens on a mountain range somewhere, presumably on the west coast, underscored by what sounds like a musical saw. It's eerie, weird and appropriate. Soon we move to the Oregon State Hospital, a mental institution where Randle Patrick McMurphy (Oscar winner Jack Nicholson), a criminal convicted of statutory rape serving his sentence on a prison farm, has been transferred for evaluation. He seems like a regular guy, and he's not crazy (just regular Jack Nicholson crazy), he's probably just trying to get out of hard labor. He makes a good pass at it, asking the audience what they define as "crazy." Is McMurphy just as crazy as any of the other patients?

Perhaps the craziest one of them all is the one who seems the sanest, and for that reason, is the most dangerous: the tyrannical and unflinching warden of the floor, Nurse Mildred Ratched (Oscar winner Louise Fletcher). She has a schedule, a plan, an unmoving dedication to crushing the spirits of the men she oversees with subtle humiliation, rationing and most of all that deadly stare. The men of the ward, varied in their mental states and afflictions, are too terrified of her to do much soul-searching or healing that would give them their freedom. When McMurphy sees this hierarchy with sane eyes, he plans to overthrow Ratched and free all his fellow bunkmates.

One great example is his act of defiance in watching the World Series that Nurse Ratched has refused to allow on a technicality. She will not turn the television on, but he sits in front of it anyway, and suddenly acts as though it's on. The men join him, much to Ratched's dismay, who provides the scene with her trademark icy glare.

Perhaps one of the masterstrokes of this film is Forman's simple direction, keeping everything nice and orderly, the way Ratched would like us to view the hospital, from simple, adequately lit angles. As McMurphy's hold over the ward increases, the filming of it becomes more antic. Brilliant. It doesn't hurt that every actor, especially the non-incapacitated men of Ratched's therapy group, is in top form, carving living, breathing characters from stutters, droopy eyes, limps, constant smiles, etc., and bringing them together to create the anguished landscape of this hellhole.

It's so much more rewarding, then, when by an amazing chance, McMurphy manages to steal the hospital bus and take the men on a fishing trip on a hijacked boat. The eight-minute fishing scene is truly the most relentlessly joyful of the film, and for a brief moment relieves us and reminds us that these are regular guys who for whatever reason are uncapable of functioning in regular society. They seem to do an okay job of it at sea.

The tables turn, however, when McMurphy has two major revelations: a) he is not, as he thought, guaranteed release, that he is at the mercy of Ratched and the psychiatrists of the ward who have the power to keep him incarcerated; and b) only some of the men in the ward share his fate. Many of the men actually have the power to leave at any time, but have chosen not to. I found this apathy to be one of the most culturally resonant themes in the film. How many of us are incapacitated, unable to fix something in our lives, but find it so much easier to live with it than to invite hookers with booze into our ward and have an all-nighter?

Whatever the larger social implications, Cuckoo's Nest really boils down to a fascinating dual-character study between McMurphy and Ratched. I'd say that Nicholson and Fletcher (both definitive in their roles and deserving of the accolades) won their Oscars just as much for themselves as they did for each other. Does that make any sense? What I mean is: their chemistry is so spot-on, their demented game of cat-and-mouse is so enticing that we can't help but watch. Even knowing the ending like I did, and having seen the film before, I found myself unable to stop watching either actor when they're onscreen. Luckily, they rarely appear in the same shot together, so the audience is hardly ever forced to choose which actor to watch. Nicholson has the simpler job (simple?!) in what is nearly a screwball comedy for its first half, but he provides McMurphy with such trademark dexterity and sexual energy that he entrances everyone onscreen.

For my money, I think Louise Fletcher has the much more difficult role, the one in which restraint and cold calculation are her main weapons. Fletcher masters this, never stooping to caricature or camp, but always keeping her cool. And my god -- that icy stare! Those arched eyebrows! Supposedly this role was offered to nearly a dozen other major actresses of the time, but for one reason or another they all turned it down. I think the film benefits from having a lesser known actress in the role, but poor Ms. Fletcher will now always be associated with this devilish bitch.

Is this what makes the film (and the story) so American? Devil's advocate warning: it's very clear that the good guys are the childlike men and the bad guys are the rule-enforcing women in charge. Is this just a tale of adolescent rebellion? That's maybe cynical, but a review for the most recent Broadway revival makes a fair point.

A battle to the death.

The final act, in which McMurphy hosts an all-night party for the patients with the aide of two booze-toting whores, only to fall into a drunken sleep before his planned escape and face the consequences in the morning, is mesmerizing and cathartic. I won't spoil it, since everyone should see this and be surprised, but it's a horrifying and wonderful ending to a great American film. "I feel as big as a damned mountain." AH!

Do I love the film? I don't know if I could say that. It's entertaining, certainly, and feels larger than itself, but because of the dreariness of the setting I'm not sure I could watch it very often. That's probably my one complaint, though I hardly think that was on anyone's mind while making it. Regardless of the misogynist undertones, it's a good story, well told. Isn't that what I always claim I want from a movie? Put it to bed.

Next up: the only sequel on the list! I'm not sure whether to watch The Godfather first before I watch The Godfather: Part II, even though the first film is #2 on the list. How big of a sequence-stickler do I have to be here? This might be the one exception I make, though I'll save the first film's entry until later.

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