Everyone has at least one hugely acclaimed movie that they simply do not like, for whatever reason. “It’s in black and white.” “It’s too boring.” “It’s got subtitles.” “It’s too violent.” “It’s got so-and-so I dislike in it.” “It’s too long or confusing or uninvolving.” Everyone has one, and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is mine. Based on Ken Kesey’s novel, this film is an excellent example of how a bottom-dweller can be a good film and still cause a personal distaste, at least for me.
First of all, I want to point out that this film is a great one in terms of strictly filmmaking. It deserved every one of its awards and probably more. Jack Nicholson as R. P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched won Best Actor and Actress, and the uniformly excellent cast is a who’s who of thespians known for looking rather unhinged or crazy, such as Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, and Vincent Schiavelli (the subway ghost in Ghost). Will Sampson as Chief, William Redfield as Harding, and Danny Devito as Martini are also marvelous, and Sydney Lassick as Cheswick is especially expressive with his psychosis and deserved a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nom that only Dourif received. Cuckoo’s Nest remains one of only three films to win the Big Five: Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director (Milos Forman), and Screenplay. My objections do not involve its acting or quality, but its characters and how its message is presented.
I suppose the most troubling aspect of the film is its chosen hero and villain. The film’s sentiments obviously lie with McMurphy because he’s got a personality and enjoys the World Series, and someone with a name like Mildred Ratched must be a wretched villain, right? Yet McMurphy is established as a crook and a rapist, lazy and belligerent, right from the beginning, and he’s clearly only there at the asylum to fake his way to an easy confinement (he thinks). He’s meant to represent bucking the system, a rebel to inspire the inmates to try, yet what does he ultimately inspire them to do: chug booze, have sex, cuss like sailors, lose control, euthanize the catatonic? That’s hardly what I would call heroic. In certain scenes, he seems to care about the patients more than the cold nurses, yet he doesn’t help them any more than the staff does, except to have a bit more enjoyment through debauchery.
On the other side of the conflict is Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who I consider an antagonist, not a villain. She’s certainly hard-nosed, manipulative, and prone to unwise remarks that make bad situations worse, but when you think about it, she’s simply doing her job as she knows how, even displaying a sense of responsibility to her patients. Her worst moment comes near the end, where she crushes Billy Bibbit’s budding individuality under a domineering thumb, yet she couldn’t know the tragic results of her words. Plus, Billy’s fate is as much McMurphy’s fault for putting him in a situation sure to cause embarrassment in the long run. With her little devil-horn hairdo and glacial demeanor, she’s meant to represent the evil system, but the unstable people she cares for are little more than big children, unable to handle the outside world, and, in my opinion, people in need of the system. I find it laughable that AFI placed her at #5 on their list of movie villains, above truly evil characters like the Joker, Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List, or the demon in The Exorcist. Even at her worst, she’s nothing compared with them.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film I can admire for its acting, but every time I think of it, the words “I don’t like it” come to mind. The painting of the irresponsible, foul-mouthed antihero as the good guy and the cold but overly demonized nurse as the bad guy makes it a distasteful experience overall. A much better example of McMurphy’s kind of “inspiring” character would be Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption. From the beginning, the audience knows (or at least assumes) that he is innocent, and his uplifting rebellion against authority is that of a wronged man yearning to be free rather than a guilty man yearning to play the system so he can continue his criminal life. Perhaps my complaints don’t matter to most. My VC agrees with most of my points, yet still finds much to enjoy, mainly in the performances. She may not classify it as such, but for me, this Oscar-winning classic is still a bottom-dweller.
Best line: (McMurphy, speaking of his shock treatments) “They was giving me ten thousand watts a day, you know, and I’m hot to trot! The next woman takes me on’s gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars!”Rank: Bottom-Dweller
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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