Chief Bromden: “My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That’s why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father, he was blind in the cedars from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don’t suck out of it, it sucks out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.”
McMurphy: “Killed him, huh?”
Chief Bromden: “I’m not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they’re working on you.”
Since I was 12 years old and saw “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), two lyrical scenes in the film, taken together, have always made me wonder. Yes, the movie works as one big metaphor, but there’s something so mysterious about those two passages that are open to your interpretation. The first is right at the beginning. We see mountains in a wide shot – and we hear the sound of birds above. Obviously, it represents the outdoors and freedom. The second comes about an hour and a half into the story, R.P. McMurphy is by an open window – and the camera stays on his face for a long while. We start hearing a train whistle in the distance, the bird sounds from outside recalling the earlier scene, also a sound of a car driving by. The camera continues to stay on his face. McMurphy does not escape – although he had the opportunity.
It’s been 45 years since its release, and it hasn’t lost any of its impact. It remains one of the greatest movies ever made. I’d argue it’s only gotten richer. When I first saw it, the sympathy went overwhelmingly towards McMurphy – the aggressively free-spirited rebel who wants to buck the system as he stands up to Nurse Ratched and her soul-draining sense of control. It is McMurphy’s undisciplined behavior that has a transfixing influence on the other patients – waking them up out of their submission. He has infected them, and Nurse Ratched has to contain the spread of individualism. His disruption is a direct assault to the status quo. On a recent revisit, it stood out how she’s the lone woman – in a primarily male environment – who finds herself battling with a forceful outlier patient who has committed at least five assaults, has been found guilty of statutory rape and is unrepentant about it. Undeniably, she rules with an iron fist and is abusive both physically and mentally -especially in the last reel. She’s a Captain Ahab ready to harpoon McMurphy. The first time we see her she’s a solitary figure walking down this long corridor in the secured facility in her starched uniform and arched hairdo. Chief Bromden is still the indisputable heart of the story. His pretending to be a deaf mute is the most powerful sign of revolt – and he’s the one that is able to literally lift the control board and break free. Despite where your sympathies may lie, the mental institution still resonates as an allegory of our larger society. I couldn’t help think about the current fog that we find ourselves in – and all the repression we’ve been feeling.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” joins the small club that includes “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “The Silence of the Lambs” in winning all five of the top Academy Awards, for best picture, actor (Jack Nicholson), actress (Louise Fletcher), director (Milos Forman) and screenplay (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman). It was based on counterculture icon Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, and a theatrical adaptation was done on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the lead. He bought the film rights – and unable to get it launched as a film, he sold them to his son Michael who produced it and hired Czech director Miloš Forman.
Forman shot the film in the actual Oregon State Hospital that the book was based on. Like in his earlier films in Czechoslovakia, he uses non-actors – including real mental patients as extras, and he cast the actual superintendent, Dr. Dean R. Brooks in that role. His scenes with Jack Nicholson are electrifying – bringing an unsettling ambiguity and naturalness. “Do you think there’s anything wrong with your mind really?” he probes. The movie is funny until it is not. Humor and laughter which are introduced by McMurphy come across as a sign of insurgency. The first thing that he does when he’s brought in is cackle. Working with cinematographers Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler (Wexler was dismissed by Forman – although he claims there’s “only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn’t shoot”), they create an eerie atmosphere. There’s a green glow coming from the mostly white walls. This is particularly noticeable in the first glimpses of the facilities. The camera circles the group therapy sessions – eventually moving in on the matriarch. The color palette is recessive which makes the introduction of red in the climactic scene dramatic. The acting from the entire ensemble is superb. This was SBIFF’s friend Christopher Lloyd’s debut. The exchanges between Fletcher and Nicholson crackle and pop.
Randle Patrick McMurphy: “What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin’? Well you’re not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walkin’ around on the streets and that’s it.”
Available to stream on Netflix and to rent on Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, FandangoNOW, Redbox, DIRECTV and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Miloš Forman
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd.
Producer Michael Douglas on Bringing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to the Screen“
“My father, Kirk, had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s novel in the early 1960s and developed it into a Broadway play, with him playing the lead character, RP McMurphy. He tried for years to turn it into a film, but it never got any momentum. Meanwhile, I was at university in Santa Barbara and was very politically active, what with the Vietnam war going on. I loved the book: it was a brilliantly conceived story of one man against the system. I had never thought about producing, but told my dad: “Let me run with this.” Our first screenwriter, Lawrence Hauben, introduced me to the work of Miloš Forman. His 1967 film ‘The Firemen’s Ball’ had the sort of qualities we were looking for: it took place in one enclosed situation, with a plethora of unique characters he had the ability to juggle. At the time, Miloš was living in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. He had apparently had a breakdown and never left the building – rumours were he would confide in a Czech friend while lying in bed, and then the friend would go out and see a psychiatrist on his behalf. But he flew to California to see us. Unlike the other directors we saw, who kept their cards close to their chest, he went through the script page by page and told us what he would do. My producing partner, Saul Zaentz – the owner of Fantasy Records and a voracious reader – felt an affinity with Kesey. After Larry and I made a first attempt, Saul asked Kesey to write a screenplay and promised him a piece of the action. But like a lot of novelists trying to adapt their own material, it didn’t work out. We fell out with him after that. It was our only longstanding, painful issue. We got in to a financial dispute – it was silly, but maybe it was his way of defending his ego. Hal Ashby, who had been in the early running for director, suggested Jack Nicholson for McMurphy. It was difficult to see at first, because he’d never played anyone like that before. We were delayed for about six months because of Jack’s schedule, but that turned out to be a great blessing: it gave us the chance to get the ensemble right.” (theguardian.com)
The Making of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
In January 1975, the cast and crew of Cuckoo‘s Nest headed to the Oregon State Hospital in Salem for the 11-week shoot. Once there, they added a few other faces to the cast. “The head of the hospital said he thought it would be therapy for some of his patients to be in the film,” says Forman. “It humbled everybody to see the lives of these poor souls.” Nicholson is still haunted by one particular late-night encounter at the hospital. “I’ll never forget being in the maximum-security ward upstairs watching shock treatments at four in the morning,” he says. “They gave three of them that morning, and I watched them all because I wanted to get it right. That atmosphere does sink in on you.” In addition to the production’s bleak subject matter, there was something else casting a dark cloud over Cuckoo‘s Nest–its disgruntled creator, Kesey. On the first day of shooting, the filmmakers were quickly slapped back into reality by an interview Kesey gave to the local news. According to Goldman,”The interviewer asked Kesey if he went down to the set and Kesey answered, ‘Does a mother preside over her own abortion?’” Goldman believes Kesey’s beef was mainly author’s pride and anger that his own script wasn’t used. Kesey filed a lawsuit against the filmmakers (which was later settled). But, jokes Goldman, “he had no problem getting his hand out to endorse the checks for his points.” (ew.com)
Actor Louise Fletcher on Playing Nurse Ratched
“I had an 11-year layoff from acting, having a wonderful time being a mother and housewife. But I ended up in Thieves Like Us, a Robert Altman film. When Miloš watched it to assess Shelley Duvall for a role in Cuckoo’s Nest, he asked who I was. It took four or five meetings, over a year, to convince him to let me play Nurse Ratched. I learned later they had offered it to other movie stars who turned them down. So, on 4 January 1975, I turned up in Oregon for a week’s rehearsal, which was invaluable. We watched the patients in their daily routine and went to group therapy. Jack and I watched electroconvulsive shock therapy one morning at 6am – that was heavy. Making Ratched a human being was no small feat. You know nothing about her history, unlike McMurphy. I didn’t want to make her a monster – I wanted to make her believable as a real person in those circumstances. I drew on the misuse of power, a prominent issue in those times with Nixon having been forced to resign. I saw very clearly how people can believe that they’re doing good and they know best.I had no makeup – just Vaseline on my lips and this crazy hairdo. I had to work within certain confines, but did a lot of improvising. And things would just happen organically. The great thing was that there were three cameras for the group therapy scenes, which was an unusual set-up. Normally they’d do a shot, then a reverse shot, but Miloš did them all at once, and it made a huge difference. Whenever Jack or another patient did something unexpected, like a blush, it was captured. Jack asked me early on what Ratched’s first name was. I told him Mildred, which is what I’d made up. A few weeks later, we were filming McMurphy coming back from electroconvulsive shock therapy and pretending to be a zombie. Then he looks at me and says: “Hello, Mildred.” I was so shocked that my face turned red. It’s my favourite moment.” (theguardian.com)
About Cinematographer Haskell Wexler
Haskell Wexler began his feature filmmaking career as a cinematographer in the late 1950s, having previously shot educational and industrial films. The Chicago native had traveled to California to attend Berkeley, but dropped out after one year. He served as a merchant seaman during WWII and then returned to Illinois. Wexler and his father purchased and refurbished an armory in Des Plaines, turning it into a film studio. The venture was unsuccessful and Wexler set out to learn about film production, beginning as a cameraman and eventually working up to cinematographer. “Stakeout on Dope Street” (1958) marked his first (although uncredited) work as a cinematographer. He went on to shoot several features, many, like “The Hoodlum Priest” (1961), noted for their social themes. Wexler has stated that Elia Kazan’s “America, America” (1963) marked the turning point in his Hollywood career and includes “some of the best photography” that he shot. He went on to shoot the intense, claustrophobic black and white images of Mike Nichols’ “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), which earned him an Oscar, as well as providing memorable and distinctive looks to Norman Jewison’s “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), George Lucas’ “American Graffiti” (1973) and Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). His beautiful rendering of the muted tones of the American Dust Bowl (including several storms) in Hal Ashby’s “Bound for Glory” (1976) earned him a second Oscar for Best Cinematography. Wexler also lensed Ashby’s Vietnam-era “Coming Home” (1978), John Sayles’ union-busting tale “Matewan” (1987), the urban gang drama “Colors” (1988), the biopic “Blaze” (1989) and “The Babe” (1992), Sayles’ Irish fable “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) and the period crime drama “Mulholland Falls” (1996).
Wexler has produced, written, directed and/or photographed a number of documentary films in his long career. Among the highlights are “The Bus” (1965) and its sequel, “Bus II” (1983), the Oscar-winning short “Interviews With My Lai Veterans” (1970), “Brazil: A Report on Torture” (1971), “Introduction to the Enemy” (1974), co-directed with Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden and Bill Yahrans, “CIA: Case Officer” (1978) and “At the Max” (1991), which recorded the 1990 European tour of the Rolling Stones. Wexler was also one of several directors of photography interviewed for the superlative “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography” (1992). A passionate liberal, Wexler produced, directed, wrote and photographed one of the most devastating and technically sophisticated anti-establishment films ever made, “Medium Cool” (1969)…Wexler also helmed “Latino” (1985), a taut drama about an Hispanic Vietnam veteran (Robert Beltran) assisting in the training of the US-backed Contras in Nicaragua…For TV, Wexler shot footage of the Special Olympics included in the Beau Bridges- directed longform “The Kid From Nowhere” (NBC, 1982), worked with renowned cinematographer Robert Richardson on the second unit work of the thirty-minute film “To The Moon, Alice” (Showtime, 1990) and was primary director of photography for the Japan tour sequences of the documentary “Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs” (A&E, 1992). (haskellwexler.com) A few of Wexler’s other films include “In the Name of Democracy: America’s Conscience, a Soldier’s Sacrifice” (2009), “Something’s Gonna Live” (2010), “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up?” (2010), “Bringing King to China” (2011), “Occupy Los Angeles” (2012), “Eagles: Live at the Capital Centre” (2013), “Four Days in Chicago” (2013), “To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine” (2015) and most recently “From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter’s Journey” (2019).
About Director Miloš Forman
Miloš Forman was born in 1932 into a teacher’s family in the small town of Caslav (Central Bohemian region). He was the youngest of three brothers. His father was a member of a resistance group against the Nazi occupation, and was arrested by the Gestapo when Miloš was eight years old. Shortly afterwards, Forman’s mother was also arrested. This came about when a local grocery store owner named Havranek was arrested for not informing German officials about anti-Nazi leaflets that appeared in his store. When Havranek was interrogated he mentioned the names of twelve women (including Mrs. Formanova). All of these women were arrested. For part of the war, Miloš lived with his aunt Anna and uncle Boleslav in Nachod. Later he was taken in by the family of the director of the local gas company in Caslav named Mr. Hluchy. After the war, Forman attended a boarding school for war orphans in Podebrady…At school Forman received the best possible education and met his lifelong friends Ivan Passer (who would go on to become a filmmaker) and Vaclav Havel (who would later become President of the Czech Republic)…The theatre has fascinated Forman since childhood. The first time he experienced the world of theatre was during the war. His older brother Pavel worked as a painter in a barnstormer’s group called The East Bohemian Light Opera Company. Forman describes his first encounter with the world of show business: “The backstage of the operetta company smelled nicely of a mixture of voluptuous femininity, cheap scents, violets, sweating bodies, roses, make-up, stiff laces being ironed, moth balls, alcoholic drinks, cookies, ballet shoes with sweaty tights and little skirts with a light scent of urine – and I immediately decided that this is the world I belong to.” During his second year of college, Miloš Forman took part in an open competition to be the host of a film and filmmaking talk show for the newly established Czechoslovak Television. “I had the idea that such a job might be a good start for the career of a sports commentator, which seemed to me as the best job ever – being a sports commentator you only had to go to soccer and ice-hockey matches, were paid for it and you could even travel to the West!”
In the early 1960s, Forman bought his own movie camera in East Germany and began to shoot a documentary about the popular Prague theatre the Semafor with Ivan Passer and cameraman Miroslav Ondricek. While shooting the documentary, they came up with the idea for the film “Konkurs” (“The Audition”) (1963)…In 1967, Forman received permission to travel to the United States to make his first American film for Paramount Pictures. He had thousands of ideas (including a film adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika (America), however the communist film authorities rejected these ideas. Forman rented a house on Leroy Street in Greenwich Village, New York with Ivan Passer (who had decided to emigrate immediately after the occupation)…After the commercial failure of “Taking Off,” Forman had to start from scratch. He moved into the Chelsea Hotel; supposedly he had only one dollar a day to live on, which he spent on one can of chili con carne and one bottle of beer. Despite this, he never considered returning back to Czechoslovakia. When his agreement with Paramount Pictures ended he became an official émigré. Forman recalls,” I was waiting for an offer which could change my life but in the meantime I jumped for anything that promised at least a free lunch.” In 1974, Forman was given a second chance to make an “American” film. Actor Michael Douglas and independent producer Saul Zaentz sent him an offer to direct a film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Later, Forman learned that Michael’s father Kirk Douglas had already sent the same offer to him in the 1960’s. It was probably confiscated by the secret police, because it never got to Forman. Nonetheless, the film “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975) was a huge blockbuster and received Academy Awards in all the main categories.
Italian producer Dino Laurentis offered Forman a film version of E.L. Doctorow’s bestselling novel “Ragtime” (1981). Forman’s old friend Miroslav Ondricek worked as a cameraman on the film. They also worked together on Forman’s next picture “Amadeus” (1982). Filming Amadeus gave Forman the rare opportunity to return to his homeland. Although he was an American citizen, Forman was never able to receive official permission to visit Czechoslovakia. To solve this problem Forman called Jiri Purs, head of the Czechoslovak Film Institute and the “boss” of the whole Czechoslovak communist film industry. He explained to Purs how much money American filmmakers were willing to spend in Czechoslovakia, and quickly obtained all the necessary visas. Filming was heavily controlled by the secret police. The picture was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, and was awarded eight…Towards the end of the 1990s, Forman met his third wife Martina, a student at the Film Faculty of the Academy of Arts in Prague…In 1998 their twins Andrew and James were born and a year later Miloš and Martina were married. Forman’s next film “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996) received a scandalous reputation. The film was based on the life story of porn magnate Larry Flynt, and told an impressive story about freedom of speech and the First Amendment. Despite positive reviews the film was blemished by a negative campaign led by an American feminist group that was offended by Forman’s championing of Flynt. (milosforman.com) He also garnered praise for “Man on the Moon” (1999), in which Jim Carrey channeled the genius of the late comic Andy Kaufman. The fine supporting cast included Danny DeVito, Love, and Paul Giamatti. Less successful was “Goya’s Ghosts” (2006), a costume drama starring Natalie Portman as a model for the artist Francisco de Goya (Stellan Skarsgård) and Javier Bardem as a church official who rapes her after she is unjustly imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition. In 2009 Forman co-directed the musical “Dobre placená procházka” (“A Walk Worthwhile”). In addition to his directorial efforts, Forman occasionally acted in films, including “Heartburn” (1986), “Keeping the Faith” (2000), and “Les Bien-Aimés” (2011; “Beloved”). He also co-wrote (with Jan Novák) the memoir “Turnaround” (1994). (britannica.com)