A familiar refrain: this is a movie I’ve wanted to see for a while. I was especially intrigued as it’s one of only three to ever sweep the “big” Oscars (actor, actress, screenplay, director, and picture). And now the equally familiar second part of the refrain: I was slightly disappointed.
Not by Jack Nicholson, as he’s incredible. It’s sometimes hard watching early Nicholson performances without projecting the caricature he is today onto the role. So while some might see him in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and write it off as mugging, at the time I think it was just solid method work. (It’s unfortunate that a lot of his grounded, realistic, and character-based hyperactivity in this film forms the basis of most terrible Nicholson impressions.) And he had just finished Chinatown two years before, which was a very different performance from this – unlike today where it’s hard to differentiate between his characters in Anger Management, The Bucket List, and As Good as It Gets. In other words, he deserved the Oscar.
His foil, Nurse Ratched, is equally well played by Louise Fletcher. In less talented hands, she would have come across as a corrupt authority figure, or someone with a twisted worldview imposing her will sadistically. Instead, she genuinely seems to be trying to help, albeit in her own way, and merely at odds with McMurphy rather than “the bad guy.” If only a later scene where she shames an inmate into killing himself by threatening to tell his mother about his misbehavior were cut, or at least written with more nuance, she would have remained a complex character rather than simply another abusive authority figure.
This scene speaks to one of my two issues with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: too many big moments are just too broad. Early in the film, McMurphy steals a bus, drives the inmates to the harbor, then hijacks a boat; after this, he’s established firmly as their hero as well as their leader. But compared with the smaller scenes, such as his world series watching rebellion and his antics on the basketball court, it feels like something from another film. (Don’t take my word for it – Roger Ebert felt the same.) Likewise, what was a film about a petty criminal’s petty rebellion suddenly has the stakes raised when Billy commits suicide, McMurpy attacks Nurse Ratched in retribution – the only believable part in the last 15 minutes of the film – and then McMurphy is lobotomized. These scenes are just too heavy-handed when compared to the rest of the film, or to the theme overall.
And that theme is the second issue. I’ve always heard that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a powerful anti-authority statement. I think it is or, more accurately, it was in 1975. But that statement was such a product of its time that it was lost in my “modern” viewing of the film. I didn’t see the same nobility in being anti-authority that contemporary viewers did. And without that personal connection to the theme, the scenes that probably spoke to anti-authoritarian viewers fell flat with me. In that sense, I don’t feel that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, despite its pedigree, as timeless Casablanca or Citizen Kane – it is very much a product of its time. I’m not sure if it would sweep the Oscars today, or even if it would have in 1970 or 1980.
I’d like to also add that, like Citizen Kane before it, this movie was completely ruined by its Simpons parody.