Nicholson is Committed in Mental Institution Drama
Over the years there have been a few movies which have been nominated for the "Big Five" Academy Awards, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and screenplay but only a few have won all Five. Milos Forman's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is one of the few and did so in a year which saw it go up against the likes of "Jaws", "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Sunshine Boys". It is an impressive feat for what is an impressive movie which whilst may now have certain elements which date it to the 70s as it covers the barbaric care and supposed treatment of patients in a mental institution, still is an incredible movie to watch. From the story to the direction and the brilliant acting from Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher there is little wrong with "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
Having been sentenced to yet another stretch in prison, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson - Easy Rider) pretends to be crazy so that he can have an easy run of it in the mental hospital. But life as a mental patient is not as easy as McMurphy thought especially as the ward is run by the strict yet soft spoken Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher - Breast Men) whose belief in what she does is right causes McMurphy to rebel especially as he sees the control she has over all his fellow patients.
There are essentially 3 layers to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as we watch McMurphy basically take on the authoritative Nurse Ratched who represents a controlling power which can't see that she does as much harm as good. And then there are the barbaric treatments dished out to the patients highlighting the care system back into the 70s where electroconvulsive treatment, permanent sedation and frontal lobotomy's were in place. These layers work perfectly together to deliver a wonderful movie which grows as it goes on bringing us into the battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched whilst shocking us with the treatment.
Split down into its layers it is the battle of wills between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched which is where "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is at it's best. From the moment McMurphy enters the institution and realises that thanks to Ratched's control everyone is nuttier than they probably are it kicks off. And so we grow to like McMurphy as he continually tries to wind her up, antagonise her and trying to win minor battles such as being allowed to watch the baseball game on TV. It does get a bit too crazy in his attempt to bring freedom to the wards especially during a scene which sees them all escape and go on a fishing trip but it works. And it works because the free willed spirit of McMurphy going up the starched Nurse Ratched makes for some great confrontations as each win minor battles.
But behind this layer there is a deeper meaning and in many ways these battles represent a bigger conflict between a power who is so self-righteous that they can't see that they do as much harm as they do good. As such there is almost a political slant to this theme as Nurse Ratched represents a government who does things their way with out really considering if it is helping the people or not. This double layer means that whilst "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is entertaining on the simplest level it is one of those movies which have areas which can be discussed, analysed and looked at for the deeper meaning.
There is of course the third layer, that of the barbaric treatment dished out to patients in a mental institution and this is the element which ends up dating "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as I hope this sort of treatment is no longer used or at least not as freely. Milos Forman does a brilliant job of showing us the reality of the treatment turning up the dial the longer the movie goes on, so whilst we maybe surprised by the daily medication routine to control the patients we become shocked when we witness electroconvulsive treatment being used and blown away when things go as far as frontal lobotomy. This rise in brutality is disgusting but not used purely for shock tactics as it builds on the storyline and in a touching way establishes how bigger effect McMurphy had on those he shared a ward with leading the way to a perfect ending.
All of this makes "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" a good movie and with good performances from the likes of Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Vincent Schiavelli as various patients it goes to another level. But it really is the performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher which turn this very good movie into a great one. Playing opposing characters Nicholson fills McMurphy with a sense of free will who as he witnesses the treatment of patients borders on becoming crazy, whilst Fletcher makes Nurse Ratched self-righteous and icy. It is their battles and the way they enjoy their minor victories over each other which makes it all so captivating especially from Fletcher whose icy stare says so much that a thousand words wouldn't get close to.
What this all boils down to is that "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is a great movie and despite having elements which are now thankfully dated is still amazing to watch. It's one of those movies which works simply as entertainment but then has another layer, a deeper context which reveals itself as the story progresses. And most of all it features two brilliant performances from Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher who between them turn this very good movie into a great movie.