Picking this up after still yet another long break, this is the twelfth in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here. I've been at it for almost two years ... maybe I'll finish in 2021.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael wrote of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:
Smashingly effective version of Ken Kesey's novel about a rebel outcast, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is locked in a hospital for the insane. The book was a lyric jag, and it became a nonconformists' bible. Published in 1962, it contained the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics going psychedelic. Miloš Forman, who directed the movie version, must have understood how crude the poetic-paranoid vision of the book would look on the screen after the 60s paranoia had lost its nightmarish buoyancy, and he and the scenarists--Lawrence Hauben, and then Bo Goldman--did an intelligent job of loosening Kesey's schematism. Set in 1963, the movie retains most of Kesey's ideas but doesn't diagram them the way the book does. Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance as Nurse Ratched--she's the company woman incarnate. And Will Sampson, a towering full-blooded Creek, is very impressive as Chief Broom, the resurrected catatonic. Forman's tentative, literal-minded direction lacks the excitement of movie art and there's a callousness running through his work; he gets laughs by pretending that mental disturbance is the same as ineptitude. But the story and the acting make the film emotionally powerful. And Nicholson, looking punchy, tired, and baffled--and not on top of his character (as he often is)--lets you see into him, rather than controlling what he lets you see. With William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Scatman Crothers, Danny De Vito, Vincent Schiavelli, Sydney Lassick, Louisa Moritz, Marya Small, and Christopher Lloyd; cinematography by Haskell Wexler.
Not being privy to the selection committee for the original Quad Cinema festival, I can only guess at why they chose certain movies. On the one hand, Kael praised Cuckoo's Nest with her usual extravagance, but far as I can tell, it isn't featured in either of the anthologies of her work, including the one where she chose the reviews. As she often did with films based on novels, her take on the book is as insightful as what she has to say about the movie, and in comparing the two, she illuminates them both. She is able to take a more distanced approach than I do, though ... though I was only nine when the book came out, it, and Kesey in general, was a touchstone for me in the 60s ... I am one of those people Kael comments on as jumping right into the novel's world view.
Kesey refused to see the movie, which he felt ruined his book. And indeed, a few of the changes from book to movie are crucial. The film almost completely lacks the psychedelic feel of the novel. Kesey has Chief Broom narrate ... as Kael describes him, the Chief is catatonic, which the other inmates and staff take to mean he is deaf and dumb. He is a diagnosed schizophrenic, and his first-person narrative is largely where Kesey instills psychedelia in the novel. Kesey was pissed that in the movie, McMurphy is the central character, with the Chief pushed to the side for much of the film. Whatever else he is, McMurphy is not schizophrenic ... his perspective is far from psychedelic. So the film version has an entirely different feel from the book, and if you read and loved the book for it's paranoid vision of "The Combine", you'll notice something is missing. I think Kesey missed out, if he really didn't see the film, because Will Sampson as the Chief is magnificent. I used to think it was Sampson who saved Kesey's vision, but watching it now, I think I was wrong. Sampson/Chief is an important character, but his psychedelic narration is gone.
The film famously won all of the top Oscars (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Actress), which hadn't happened in more than 40 years. Jack Nicholson is at his most iconic ... it's safe to say that if you like Jack, you'll love him in this movie. Louise Fletcher's performance as Nurse Ratched is much more subtle than you might think. Her competition for Best Actress was a mixed bag: two-time winner Glenda Jackson, the odd choice of Ann-Margret in Tommy, Carol Kane wonderful in the little-seen Hester Street, and Isabelle Adjani, to my mind Fletcher's equal in The Story of Adele H. Fletcher's Oscar was deserved.
But then there's the problem with women in the story. Nurse Ratched represents the most oppressive aspects of the establishment ... Kesey (and the film) doesn't really contest this notion of Mom as Evil. The other women in the film are a couple of prostitutes, and a few of Ratched's underlings. I'm sure I didn't notice this when I was a kid, and I probably was still clueless in 1975. In 2021, it's impossible to miss.
Forman's treatment of the inmates is also odd in ways that aren't always positive. Writing about Forman's work in general, Kael wrote, "I experience a streak of low, buffoonish peasant callousness running through his work. He locks people into their physical properties." Back in 1975, I thought maybe Forman hired some actual inmates and exploited them, they seemed so exaggeratedly real ... like "crazy people" might look. (The movie was filmed at an actual state hospital.) Now, what I see are a lot of actors who were unknown to me at the time ... Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Michael "Hills Have Eyes" Berryman, Brad Dourif (in essentially his screen debut). There is some good acting here, especially from Dourif. But Forman does have Lloyd walking around bug-eyed, Berryman looks like Berryman ... so does Vincent Schiavelli, who has a part, as well. Danny De Vito isn't any shorter than usual, but it feels like a more defining feature of his character. Forman's use of these actors equates looking odd with having mental/emotional problems, as if we can spot the crazies because they look different from the rest of us. The acting overcomes most of this, but never completely.
So, is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest still great? Does it, as they say, hold up? I'd say yes to both questions. There are problems that need to be confronted, but as Kael wrote, it's smashingly effective, and a lot of these people did their best work on this film.