Tuesday, 11 December 2012
The IMDB Top 50 #13 One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest
While Robert De Niro and Al Pacino have become parodies themselves in recent years, many would argue that Jack Nicholson’s decline set in much earlier. Since his manic turn as Jack Torrance in The Shining, Nicholson has rarely displayed the subtlety and nuance which characterised his performances in movies like Chinatown, instead favouring over-the-top turns as cartoon villains or embittered curmudgeons. Perhaps the closet he ever came to assimilating the two facets of his character was Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel, the film documents the tragic demise of Randal P McMurphy (Nicholson), a career criminal who would rather spend his jail-time on a psychiatric ward than behind bars. Faking his way into the asylum is easy. But escaping proves infinitely more difficult.
McMurphy’s determination to improve the lives of the downtrodden inmates sees him gain instant popularity with an ensemble of oddballs – played superbly by the likes of Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd and Danny De Vito. He encourages them to stand up for themselves, break the rules and demand to see the World Series on TV – much to the chagrin of vindictive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
It’s a relationship which is central to the film: McMurphy’s rule-breaking rebel versus the stiff and staid Ratched – and there’s only ever going to be one winner.
It’s obvious to all concerned that Ratched’s policies and procedures are prohibitive and prescriptive – and harming everyone associated with the ward. Painful group counselling sessions induce genuine cringes in an audience and her cruel indifference to the group’s needs only accentuates it.
McMurphy’s determination to cause chaos is not merely borne out of a desire to harm. He is a good man, despite his misdemeanours, and achieves some form of redemption through freeing the hearts and minds of his fellow inmates. The warmth and humanity he shows them – not least in a wonderful scene involving a prison bust and a fishing trip – marks him out as the movie’s most rounded and believable character. Sadly, this makes his tragic fate all the more upsetting.
There are so many moral issues tied up in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest it’s impossible to know where to start: good vs evil; the value of imprisonment; redemption; the crushing of rebellion. Ultimately, the film can only ever end one way – although its power remains undiminished despite its predictability.
Adapted from a classic novel, this is a classic film of great depth and emotion, featuring two central performances of huge power and wonderfully accomplished direction from Milos Forman. It’s little wonder that Nicholson, Fletcher and Forman all scooped Oscars for their contribution – in an era when an Academy Award actually meant something, too.