One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Review by Pauline Kael

Pauline Kael finds One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest powerful and engaging, with standout performances by Nicholson and Fletcher, though lacking in visual excitement.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Pauline Kael’s review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest praises the film as a powerful and emotionally stirring adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel. While not considering it a great movie, she acknowledges its effectiveness in engaging audiences and its potential to become a part of pop-mythology, akin to films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. Kael highlights the film’s successful shift from the book’s poetic-paranoid system to a more realistic portrayal, making the patients’ mental conditions ambiguous and relatable. She appreciates Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy, noting his ability to balance charisma and vulnerability, and commends Louise Fletcher’s performance as Nurse Ratched for its nuanced humanity. However, Kael criticizes director Milos Forman for a certain detachment and occasional insensitivity in his humor, which prevents full immersion. Despite these critiques, she concludes that the film is a significant achievement, driven by its compelling story and strong performances, though it falls short of the visual and stylistic excitement found in the works of other directors like Scorsese.

* * *

The Bull Goose Loony

by Pauline Kael

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful, smashingly effective movie—not a great movie but one that will probably stir audiences’ emotions and join the ranks of such pop-mythology films as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, and Easy Rider. Ken Kesey’s novel about a gargantuan rebel-outcast, McMurphy, locked up in a hospital for the insane, was a lyric jag, and the book became a nonconformists’ bible. Written in 1960 and 1961, and published early in 1962, the novel preceded the university turmoil, Vietnam, drugs, the counterculture. Yet it con­tained the prophetic essence of that whole period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic, and much of what it said (and it really said it; the book intentionally laid out its meaning like a comic strip) has entered the consciousness of many—possibly most—Americans. For young dissidents, the book was the first—the original—hallucinatory trip. Chief Broom, the schizophrenic who narrates the story, has had two hundred rounds of electroshock; his white mother emasculated his Indian-chief father—made him “too little to fight”—and since from childhood people have treated him as if he were deaf and dumb, he’s so depressed he acts the part. In his account of life in the ward of an Oregon hospital for the insane, Big Nurse—Nurse Ratched—runs the place for the Combine, the secret power center that controls society. The Combine sends society’s nonconformists to the hospital, and Big Nurse forces them into submission—if necessary , by turning them into vegetables. Chief Broom’s view is a psychotic metaphor for a society awaiting revelation, and the revelation comes in the person of the red-headed gambler-logger McMurphy. He is presented in the rhapsodic mode that Steinbeck, in The Grapes of Wrath, reserved for the poor. McMurphy, who hasn’t “let the Combine mill him into fitting where they wanted him to fit,” McMurphy, with his “free and loud” laugh, his “broad white devilish grin,” and “the man-smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work,” is a jock Christ. By standing up to Big Nurse, he proves that the soul-crushing machine can be beaten; he enables the men in his ward to liberate themselves from their fears, and to understand that they’re sane. They are freed, but he is trapped.

Milos Forman, who directed the movie version, with Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, has understood how crude the poetic-paranoid system of the book would look on the screen now that the sixties’ paranoia has lost its nightmarish buoyancy, and he and the scenarists Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman have done a very intelligent job of loosening Kesey’s schema­tism. It had to be done. As a postgraduate student in the writing program at Stanford, Kesey was in on some early LSD experiments at a veterans’ hospital, and Chief Broom’s subjective vision is full of dislocations and transformations, but Kesey is systematic in fusing Christian mythology with the American myth of the white man and the noble red man fighting against the encroachment of civilization, represented by women. Though in modern society women are as much subject to the processes of mechanized conformity as men (some say more), the inmates of this symbolic hospital are all male, and McMurphy calls them “victims of a matriarchy.” There’s a long literary tradition behind this man’s-man view of women as the castrater-lobotomizers; Kesey updated it, on the theory that comic-strip heroes are the true American mythic heroes, and in terms of public response to the book and to the stage productions of it he proved his point. The novel is comic-book Freud: the man who achieves his manhood (keeping women under him, happy whores in bed) is the free man—he’s the buckaroo with the power of laughter. Leslie Fiedler described Kesey’s novel as “the dream once dreamed in the woods, and now redreamed on pot and acid.” Kesey’s concept of male and female is not so very remote from that in Mailer’s writing, though Kesey celebrates keeping the relationships at a mythic comic-strip level, while Mailer, in his foolhardy greatness, delves into his own comic-strip macho.

The movie (set in 1963) retains most of Kesey’s ideas but doesn’t diagram them; we’re not cued at every step, and the end isn’t so predictable. (On the shock table, McMurphy doesn’t ask, “Do I get a crown of thorns?”—as he did in the book.) Milos Forman appears to have recognized the strong realistic material within Kesey’s conception. We all fear being locked up among the insane, helpless to prove our sanity, perhaps being driven mad; this fear is almost as basic as that of being buried alive. And we can’t formulate a clear-cut difference between sane and insane. So Forman replaces the novel’s trippy subjectivity with a more realistic view of the patients which leaves their mental condition ambigu­ous. They seem not much more insane than the nurses, the doctors, the attendants. They’re cowards, terrified of Big Nurse (Louise Fletcher), but then the staff is intimidated by her, too.

What has disappeared from the film version is the Combine (to be known a little while after the book came out as the Establishment). Forman could have exploited the Watergate hangover and retained the paranoid simplicities that helped make hits of Easy Rider and Joe, but instead he (with, it appears, the support of his producers, Saul Zaentz, of Fantasy Records, and Michael Douglas) has taken a less romantic, more suggestive approach. McMurphy’s sanity isn’t so clear-cut, and he doesn’t give his buddies the courage to go back out into the world; the ward isn’t emptied, as it is in the book. (Now only the Indian walks out.) Cut off from the concept of the Combine, the ward symbolizes the pressures and ambiguities of society as we know it, and the movie comes at a time when we’re all prepared to accept a loony bin as the right metaphor for the human condition. But this leaves a problem that isn’t completely solved: Big Nurse. Instead of the giant-breasted terror of the novel, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched resembles Shirley Temple Black. She’s the smiling, well-organized institutional type—the dean of women who was disappointed in you, the phone-company supervisor who tells you why she has to interrupt your service for nonpayment. Nurse Ratched’s soft, controlled voice and girlishly antiseptic manner always put you in the wrong; you can’t cut through the crap in her—it goes too deep. And she’s too smart for you; she’s got all the protocol in the world on her side. In Thieves Like Us, Louise Fletcher played Mattie, the strong, no-nonsense betrayer. Flere, thinner and almost baby-faced, she’s a middle-aged woman wearing her hair in a forties wartime style and still seeing herself as an ingenue. Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance. Changes in her flesh tone tell us what Nurse Ratched feels. We can see the virginal expectancy—the purity—that has turned into puffy-eyed self-righteous­ness. She thinks she’s doing good for people, and she’s hurt—she feels abused—if her authority is questioned; her mouth gives way and the lower part of her face sags. She’s not the big white mother that she is in the book; that part of the symbolism has been stripped away. She’s the company woman incarnate; the only way to reach her is to go for her throat—though neither the novel nor the film perceives that women, too, would want to strangle her. Forman isn’t a manhood-and-size obsessive like Kesey, but the film’s plot structure derives from Kesey’s male-female symbolism, and when that is somewhat demythified, the plot goes a little out of kilter, into melodrama. Those who know the book will probably feel that Nurse Ratched is now more human, but those who haven’t read it may be appalled at her inhumanity. The melodramatics are flagrant in the episode involving Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), the stuttering, mother-fixated virgin of the ward. McMurphv fixes him up with his own hooker girl­friend Candy (Marya Small), and the next morning Billy is cured of his stutter—until Nurse Ratched tells him that she is going to inform his mother of what he’s done. Then the stutter comes back. Brad Dourif gives the role a fey spark, but without Kesey’s giddy pop view this crybaby-juvenile bit is a bummer—psychiatric dramaturgy circa Lon McCallister and, before him, Eric Linden.

McMurphy has been successfully modified, however. As Jack Nichol­son plays him, he’s no longer the Laingian Paul Bunyan of the ward, but he’s still the charismatic misfit-guerrilla. Nicholson is an actor who knows how to play to an audience; he knows how to get us to share in a character. In The Last Detail, his sweet-sadistic alternating current kept us watching him, and we followed his lowlifer’s spoor through Chinatown. Nicholson is no flower-child nice guy; he’s got that half smile—the calculated insult that alerts audiences to how close to the surface his hostility is. He’s the people’s freak of the new stars. His specialty is divided characters— vulgarians, such as J. J. Gittes, with his Racing Form, his dumb jokes, and his flashy clothes, who are vulnerable. Nicholson shows the romanticism inside street shrewdness. As the frizzy-haired, half-bald clown, he provid­ed the few funny moments in The Fortune; when this lecher for larceny gave himself over to the hysterical joy of confession to the cops, Nicholson demonstrated that he could get his own high going and lift himself single-handed into slapstick, like a demented Laurel & Hardy in one. But that isn’t really what people go to see Jack Nicholson for. He stretched himself right out of the public’s range of interest in The Fortune; and in The Passenger Antonioni, who seemed to have no idea what kind of actor Nicholson was, wiped him out.

Since Nicholson doesn’t score when he plays unmagnetic characters— and he must know it by now—the danger in Cuckoo’s Nest is that he’ll take over: that he’ll use his boyish shark’s grin, the familiar preening, brutal one-upmanship. He’s won the audience with his cocky freaks, and this is the big one—the bull goose loony. Nicholson can be too knowing about the audience, and the part he plays here is pure temptation. Before Kesey went to Stanford to study writing, he’d gone to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming an actor, and role-playing is built into McMurphy’s character: he’s swept up by the men’s desire for him to be their savior. Except for the red-haired-giant externals, the authority-hating hero of the book is so much of a Nicholson role that the actor may not seem to be getting a chance to do much new in it. But Nicholson doesn’t use the glinting, funny-malign eyes this time; he has a different look—McMurphy’s eyes are farther away, muggy, veiled even from himself. You’re not sure what’s going on behind them. The role-playing is still there, in the grandstanding that McMurphy does when he returns to the ward after shock treatment; it has to be there, or there’s no way of accounting for why he’s sacrificed. But Nicholson tones it down. As McMurphy, he doesn’t keep a piece of himself out of the character, guarding it and making the audience aware that he’s got his control center and can turn on the juice. He actually looks relaxed at times, punchy, almost helpless—you can forget it’s Nicholson. NlcMurphy is a tired, baffled man. and with his character more unresolved he gains depth. Forman hasn’t let the McMurphy character run away with the picture, and it’s Nicholson’s best performance.

The movie is much less theatrical than the romantic, strong-arming book, yet it keeps you attentive, stimulated, up. Those who got a terrific charge from the book and the play may be disappointed by the more realistic approach, but even when there are clashes between Kesey’s archetypes and Forman’s efforts at realism there’s still an emotional charge built into the material. It’s not as programmed a mythic trip, yet Will Sampson, the towering full-blooded Creek who plays Chief Broom, brings so much charm, irony, and physical dignity to the role of the resurrected catatonic that this movie achieves Kesey’s mythic goal. The film has its climactic Indian-white love-death, and at the end Kesey’s reversal of the American legend (now the white man is sacrificed for the Indian) is satisfying on the deepest pop-myth level. When a movie has this much working for it, it doesn’t have to be all of a piece to give an audience pleasure.

However, it has an element (which has nothing to do with Ken Kesey) that may go slightly against the grain of some people’s enjoyment. In 1966, I wrote a review of Milos Forman’s Czech-made Loves of a Blonde and then backed away, filed the sheets in a drawer, and wrote about something else; it is the only occasion on which I’ve done such a thing. Loves of a Blonde seemed to me too painful for the intentionally comic scenes to function as comedy, and when the camera got in close to unattractive people I wasn’t sure what for; we in the audience knew our advantages— not just economic but mental—over the desolate, hopelessly hopeful heroine, which hardly made her plight funny. There wasn’t any of the stylization that makes it possible to laugh at pitiable people in Chaplin’s comedies. Forman himself must have kind feelings for his characters— perhaps even love—and he must be trying to encompass a wider spectrum of ordinary people than most film directors do. His parents were sent to concentration camps (where they died) when he was a small child, and he could be said to be tough-minded and to have a dispassionate, unblinking eye. Neo-realism asked us to identify with ordinary people; he puts us in a neutral position, asking us to accept ordinary people as humorous without the melting gaze of identification. Yet in Loves of a Blonde what he must have thought he was doing was a considerable distance from what I experienced. (Diane Arbus’s photographs affect me similarly.) He might feel at one with his losers; maybe that explained his refusing to spare them from exposure. But what of the audience? The audience laughter at what I found painfully embarrassing—was that the right response, was that what he wanted? Did it really mean humane acceptance?

Forman’s effort in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is to make the situation “real”; he aims for individualized faces and gestures. Yet by American standards (at least by mine) there’s a stolid, impassive element in his humor; I experience a streak of low, buffoonish peasant callousness running through his work. He locks people into their physical properties; he likes faces that don’t take the light—thick features and muddled stares that bespeak a limited, closed-off emotional life. Forman may be drawn to the European myth that the real people are those close to the land. His characters often seem to be sleep-heavy, not yet emerged from clay. In this film, Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), the infantile, bleating middle-aged inmate, is the most glaring example, and perhaps Forman allows the character of the innocent Billy Bibbit to be overstated because he believes in that kind of innocence also. Maybe the reason the inmates remain unaffected when they see Billy lying in his blood—nobody flips out—is that in Forman’s view it is the innocent and the messianically possessed (McMurphy) who pay. He wants us to react to Billy’s body, but he assumes a peasant opacity in the other inmates—assumes that they’ll go back to playing cards.

It’s this opacity in Forman’s own approach, particularly to humor, that keeps me from yielding to his work. In his first American film, Taking Off, he dropped his ambiguous neutrality in the slapstick centerpiece—the meeting of the Society for the Parents of Fugitive Children, where the parents try to get closer to their runaways by receiving instruction from a hairy pothead on how to smoke a joint. He drops it again here when McMurphy takes the inmates on a fishing trip and we are shown the men’s stupefying comic clumsiness about baiting hooks. These inmates are Northwesterners, living in fishing country, and even if they’ve never fished before they’re not ignorant men. But Forman gets laughs by pretending that mental disturbance is the same as ineptitude. The fishing trip, like that pot party, is Forman’s own comic-strip side. (I think I prefer Kesey’s, even with his view of women.) The borderline insensitivity is only a minor aspect of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it relates to questions about Forman as an artist.

When a director like Sam Peckinpah puts a group like his Wild Bunch on the screen, the men are so alive that the last thing that would ever come into your head is that some of them are plug-uglies. When Forman introduces his characters, that’s the first thing you see, and in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest it takes a while for you to get beyond that introductory shocked response (often a laugh) and begin to know the people and, in some cases, to enjoy them. I’m not sure that we ever get as far with them as we do right smack from the start with Peckinpah. It’s doubtful if anyone else could have made as good a movie out of Kesey’s book, but I miss the sureness, the energy, and the visual style that, say, a Scorsese might have brought to it. Forman gets his effects here through closeups and cutting, and through such staging as the boat scene, when the men desert their posts to peek at what McMurphy is doing below with his girl. An American director would have carried through on this scene, would have made it pay off. Forman is an intelligent, tentative director— which is another way of saying that his virtues are largely negative. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one hell of a good film, but it works emotionally only because of its story and acting; it lacks the excitement of movie art.

The New Yorker, December 1, 1975


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