THE Best Great Movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

By Christian DiMartino

Academy Award winner Louise Fletcher passed away on Friday, at the age of 88. She had a weird career- she won an Oscar in the 70’s, and she appeared in other stuff but nothing ever quite lived up to her Oscar. She was an incredible actress though, and her Academy Award winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one for the books. So in honor of her passing, I am doing a hybrid post, if the title wasn’t an indicator: this is a Great Movie, and it’s a Best Picture winner, so it is being classified as such.

The Oscars don’t always get it right. I could stand on my soap box for hours and bitch and moan (as I certainly did this year, if you didn’t hear). With Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest though, they were right on the money. Which is saying something, because do you know what else was nominated that year? Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon, and Nashville. It’s weird how some years we nominate stuff like Bohemian Rhapsody, and other years there’s actual competition.

The thing about Cuckoo’s Nest though is that it’s actually a very special case. This is one of only three films to win the “Big Five”: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (the other two being It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs). This is a film that would’ve lived on even if it didn’t rack those up, but that it did makes it all the more significant. It also is a reminder of why I invest myself in the Oscars in the first place.

I have absolutely no hesitation in saying that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is among the greatest movies ever made. It has to be. It is a film that I believe to be without flaws. Forman actually had a few of those under his belt (I also champion The People Vs. Larry Flynt and his other Best Picture winner, Amadeus). The thing about Forman is that, although I cannot speak for his early work the same (I’ve seen The Fireman’s Ball but have a distant memory of it), the bulk of his English-language features center on rebels, and this must be something that fascinated him. Whether it be RP McMurphy, Larry Flynt, Andy Kaufman, etc. Forman got a real kick out of the guys who went against the system, and his passion for these subjects were evident in his films. They were an object of fascination for him, and for us. He was one of our best, and you better believe that when he passed in 2018, my heart sank.

The thing about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that he gets us to root for a guy that we really shouldn’t be rooting for, and against a woman who, frankly, is just doing her job. The hero, of course, is Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, who has been committed to a mental institution, and is faking insanity to stay out of prison. Why was he in prison? For having sex with a minor. In the hands of maybe anyone else, this guy would be an off-putting creep. In Forman and Nicholson’s hands, he oozes with charisma. This is perhaps Nicholson’s masterpiece, and that’s a bold statement. This was Nicholson’s fifth Oscar nomination in 6 years. That’s wild, but I mean, he’s probably the best of all time. Damn, I’m really making some bold claims in this, but can’t fight how I feel guys. Nicholson’s performance in this is magnetic. From the second he enters the movie, we’re pulled into his orbit and we can’t take our eyes off of him. He’s funny, charming, and very winning. Who wouldn’t fall for him?

I’ll tell you who: the film’s villain, Nurse Ratched. Ratched, you may recall, had a rather foolish television origin series named Ratched, back in 2020 (love and respect to Sarah Paulson, but no). In Cuckoo’s Nest, she’s of course played by Fletcher, in the performance of a lifetime; this is her legacy. The thing about Ratched is she’s not exactly a bad person; she’s just a really cold one. She doesn’t really have bedside manner. She’s not evil, necessarily, but she shows up to work every day to do a job, and she has more passion for the job than the people involved. Also, because the film is designed for us to love McMurphy, we really can’t stand her, because he can’t. From the jump, these two despise each other. She follows protocols and does things the way they should be done. McMurphy gets really riled up when he wants to watch the World Series, and she ain’t having it. Things get worse when he gets the majority of the other patients to vote on it, and she closes the voting. She really does get your blood boiling. But again, is she really in the wrong? It’s all really in the design of the way the story is told, but we love McMurphy, though maybe we shouldn’t, and we hate Ratched, even though we shouldn’t. She just sucks. It’s fascinating.

Perhaps “fun” isn’t the term to use here, but a good amount of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is fun. There is fun in witnessing McMurphy’s rebellion, such as when he gets the patients to pretend they’re watching the baseball game, or when he breaks them out of the hospital to go fishing. It’s also fun to see familiar faces such as Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd, and Vincent Schiavelli as fellow patients. Even though there isn’t anything funny about mental health, the movie is also pretty humorous and pretty brilliantly written.

The film is ultimately really tragic and bizarrely moving, for reasons that are fascinating. Forman’s direction and storytelling is rather insidious in the way that he pulls us into the universe of these characters and we grow to care for them. There is a heart here, weirdly, in the way that McMurphy finds himself caring and liking these people (Ratched, of course, being the exception). The beating heart of the film though rests upon two performances: Will Sampson as Chief, and Brad Douriff (who would go on to creep us out in The Lord of the Rings and Child’s Play) as Billy Bibbitt. In the Ken Kesey novel, Chief was actually the narrator, so there wasn’t really a twist with him. But we grow to care for this person, as we do with Billy, whose fate in this film is really effective.

And that’s just it: every beat that Forman hits here is just really effective, even if you’re not sure why. McMurphy’s ultimate showdown with Ratched is frightening, but good lord is it satisfying; the final minutes of this film, with the events that are transpiring and the legendary Jack Nitzsche score, haunt you long after the film is over. I don’t know what it is about this movie, but I could watch it endlessly. It’s really just a bizarrely perfect movie, one that is not only richly entertaining, but masterfully crafted and acted. I think the performances here are what ultimately sell it. Nicholson and Fletcher give two of the greatest performances ever, in a Best Picture winner that ranks among the best. This is a film that has not only passed the test of time, but it will continue to persist.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: A+

(Note: Although I think they got this Oscar year pretty spot on, I have to point out something that I don’t think has ever been addressed. Steven Spielberg was not nominated for Best Director; his slot went to Federico Fellini for Amarcord. Admitted, I have never seen that movie, and I’m sure it’s great. I mention this though because Amarcord won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar the previous year. So it was nominated two years in a row. How is this fair, exactly? Oh well)

Best Picture

Did Win: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Should’ve Won: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Best Director

Did Win: Milos Forman- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Should’ve Won: Forman

Best Actor

Did Win: Jack Nicholson- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Should’ve Won: Nicholson

Best Actress

Did Win: Louise Fletcher- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Should’ve Won: Fletcher

Best Supporting Actor

Did Win: George Burns- The Sunshine Boys

Should’ve Won: Burns (love that he won for that)

Best Supporting Actress

Did Win: Lee Grant- Shampoo

Should’ve Won: Grant (gotta revisit that one)

Best Original Screenplay

Did Win: Dog Day Afternoon

Should’ve Won: Dog Day Afternoon

Best Adapted Screenplay

Did Win: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Should’ve Won: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One response to “THE Best Great Movies: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)”

  1. […] from the point that Brad Douriff, who ( One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest not withstanding) rivals Crispin Glover for the King of Creep, enters the movie, this will have […]

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