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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
1975 - R - 133 Mins.
Director: Milos Forman
Producer: Michael Douglas
Written By: Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, Scatman Crothers, Michael Berryman, Will Sampson
Review by: John Ulmer
   
Milos Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) is arguably the most poignant cinematic social satire to ever come from a major Hollywood studio – a tragic drama with streaks of bittersweet comedy lined throughout. The film uses a remote mental institute as a metaphor for society, and its odd inhabitants are likewise supposed to represent those of us who allow ourselves to be pacified by bureaucratic oppressors. If we all rebelled like Randle P. McMurphy, would the world be a different place? And every time a free spirit like Randle is tamed, do we lose a fragment of our own freedom?

Released during a time when the nation's stability was a prescient issue and Americans were confused by their own surroundings, Forman manages to channel a built-up rage that he releases through the Jack Nicholson character. "Well I tried, didn't I? At least I did that," Randle (Nicholson) tells his fellow hospital inmates after attempting to lift a heavy water outlet from the ground. He struggles, but is unable to lift the massive slab of cement, and faces the stark realization of failure, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Randle has been sentenced to a mental rehabilitation center after being convicted of assault and statutory rape of a minor. Fearing jail, he begins to act insane and is transferred to the institute, where the employees are convinced that he is faking mental illness.

Randle arrives for a six-week visit at the institute dressed in the clothes of a grimy everyman, complete with a beanie cap and a smug grin on his face that reeks of self-confidence. Randle soon finds that life at the institute is not as pleasant as he assumed it might be – Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) takes an immediate disliking to Randle's rebellious nature, as he continually sparks uprisings amongst the crowd of typically indifferent patients, most of whom are startled by Randle's fearless attitude. He leads his troops into battle against Nurse Ratched, challenging the triviality of daily events, questioning everyday schedules and programs, escaping to go on boat trips, and throwing wild parties in the middle of the night.

Randle, through his irreverent approach to life, befriends Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), who is described early on as "dead and dumb." Of course, he isn't, and Randle's relationship with "Chief" eventually defines the essence of the film. By the finale, we realize that the story is really being told through Chief's perspective, and Randle is the link to the rest of the story.

Other inhabitants of the institute include the up-tight and eccentric Harding (William Redfield), the stuttering Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif), the innocently child-like Martini (Danny DeVito), and Taber (Christopher Lloyd), all of whom find themselves strangely drawn to the infectious wild nature of McMurphy, who opens their eyes to the joy of life. In the defining moment of the film, McMurphy explains that they've been convinced they're crazy, and are no less ordinary than the wackos who roam the streets outside their nest. The film is not a critique of modern psychiatric treatment. Instead, Forman aims higher at a monumental allegory about society, and in doing so creates a masterpiece of comedy and drama.

Forman, a Czech director infamous for his satirical sense of humor, lends a simplicity to the story that gives it a sharper edge. Instead of using artsy camera shots or influential effects, Forman (who has gained a reputable career over the years and is responsible for a number of motion picture masterpieces) lets the camera take on the perspective of another patient in the hospital. We attend the daily seminars, escape for a boat trip, have an all-night party and get caught by the bitter Nurse Ratched, who witnesses the suicide of a patient towards the end of the movie and immediately insists that everyone continue on with their daily routines. McMurphy is outraged by her ignorance and schedules, and his proceeding actions eventually seal his own fate.

The film owes most of its success to Nicholson with a career-defining performance that has never been surpassed – he isn't just playing McMurphy, he is McMurphy. With the beanie cap and the faded jeans and the general cynical edge of a man abandoned by society, Nicholson portrays McMurphy flawlessly. He was one of the big screen's first anti-heroe characters (followed a year later by Robert De Niro's equally iconic Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver'
).

The film was originally a stage show in the 1960s, when Kirk Douglas played the role of McMurphy. He had planned on portraying him in a big screen adaptation, but the project was delayed for many years. Eventually, after he grew too old to play McMurphy, Douglas passed the film project to his son, Michael, who, as producer, played a major role in getting the film made (he had starred in the television show "The Streets of San Francisco" by then, but had never starred in any major productions).

The movie took home all five primary Oscars in '75, making it the first film since "It Happened One Night" (1934) to make a clean sweep of Best Director, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Picture. Needless to say, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" deserved them all and is still an amazing motion picture, even 29 years later.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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