AFI #33: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.” — R. P. McMurphy (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)

They don’t get much better than this. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece of storytelling and a tour de force of acting led by Jack Nicholson in, for my money, his greatest role. Jack won the first of his three Oscars for playing R.P. McMurphy, who ends up getting a little more than he bargained for when he cons his way out of prison and into a mental hospital to escape the hard work in jail. McMurphy is not crazy, but maybe being surrounded by nut jobs rubs off on him. Or maybe trying to act rationally in a mental institution is impossible, because the more McMurphy tries to make things “normal” for his fellow inmates the harder things get inside.

The film is based on the award winning novel by Ken Kesey, and the title of the book and film comes from a children’s poem but essentially means to “transcend the absurdity of man’s earthly existence.” The story is a commentary on oppression and control, specifically control in terms of mental incarceration and what it truly means to be crazy. Of course, the title foreshadows the ending of the film in which (Spoiler Alert) Chief helps McMurphy transcend his earthly existence by killing him out of mercy after he is given a lobotomy. Heady stuff this.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest swept the big five Academy Awards in 1976, winning best actor, best actress for Louise Fletcher as the controlling Nurse Ratched, Best screenplay, best director for Milos Forman and of course Best Picture. Forman doesn’t get a lot of credit for being such a great director, but he also won a best director Oscar for Amadeus and directed some wonderful films including The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Ragtime and Man on the Moon. The film is also fun to watch because there are several actors in it who went on to become much more famous, including Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito.

I absolutely love One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and watching it again today was a treat. Jack is classic from the opening scene and that shit-eating grin is one in a million. There are also some very memorable scenes, especially the drunken party on the ward and the boat scene when McMurphy escapes with the gang and takes them on a fishing trip. Of course, there’s the famous line when McMurphy says “I want to watch the god damn World Series,” but like a lot of famous lines (Bogart never said “Play it Again, Sam”) — he never actually said it.

Next Up: The Godfather Part II

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