In the history of The Academy Awards, only three films belong in the "Big Five Club." The five major awards in this "Big Five" are Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. The first to take this was the 1934 comedy It Happened One Night starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. In 1991, the most surprising winner of the Big Five was Jonathan Demme's masterpiece, The Silence of the Lambs, which grabbed all five in a tidal wave of momentum. In between these two there was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's anti-establishment novel about a mental institution. Cuckoo's Nest was a sensation on Oscar night, but it also served as a turning point there in the mid seventies. It is the signal of a powerful shift that had been developing early in the decade. This was the film to change the face of the final five years of the 70s. But let's not get ahead of ourselves before taking a look as the brilliance of Forman's film.
Cuckoo's Nest stars Jack Nicholson in one of his handful of iconic roles. Here, he is Randall Patrick McMurphy, a scoundrel with great energy and wit and sarcasm and a slight hint of a violent past. The doctor reading his charges cites laziness, attitude, and speaking out of turn as reasons for his recent commitment to the institute. Reasons for a man to be insane? Hardly, but the long list of assault charges might do the trick. McMurphy is being observed in the hospital to see if he does in fact have a mental illness, or if he is pulling one over on the prison guards (his previous stop) in order to get out of work.
The mental hospital is a wonderful canvas for a picture, but also one riddled with landmines of cliche, insensitivity, mockery and emotional sappiness. Those things are avoided in this institute as rules and duties are set early on. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is in control, and there is very little debate. Ratched feels that he mental superiority over the truly insane embers of the hospital , and she uses her sense of prowess to control the inmates fully. Her hair is not accidentally shaped with horns, matching her devious eyebrows. She preaches routine, playing classical music a little louder than necessary to ensure dominance. As dangerous as McMurphy seems on the outside it is Ratched's entire presence that is the true threat to the patients and, if we are to stretch the meanings beyond the camera, to society. She represents the establishment, and is nothing more than evil at her core.
The true looneys in the bin include young Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, and an entire collection of eccentrics whose humor is handled with enough honesty to avoid mockery. Ratched can handle these men, but this is where McMurphy poses a problem to her domineering control over the group. He sees through her, and Ratched gets a read on him very early on, and the stage is basically set for the rest of the narrative. When the first group meeting in the film unravels and patients are taken away kicking and screaming, McMurphy and Ratched stare at each other, a challenge from her to him. It was Ratched who allowed the group to deteriorate "See if you think you can get these patients out of the palm of my hand," she thinks with a smug glint in her eye. "Because you can't." Oh but he does, he usurps his own meeting along the way which shows how much of a threat he may actually be to Ratched's control.
McMurphy also befriends, gradually and with great determination, a Native American who has been locked up for no other reason than he is a mute, and his large stature must be threatening to the "normal" folks in society. I am convinced that McMurphy sees the Indian, Big Chief, for who he is, a normal person. He knows inside the giant man is not a crazy man but a quiet man whose never been allowed to wake up his soul. McMurphy takes his energy and his charm to all the members of his new family of mental patients and, in one of the more bombastic moves of the film, manages to get everyone out of the hospital and on a sailboat. His antics increase, tensions arise, until we see, alas, that Nurse Ratched gets her way. The state of the inmates grows dour at times, and darkness takes over. Some of the final events of the film may state that the system won, but when you consider the plight of the Indian "Cheif," then perhaps the film tells us of one man finding freedom from societal controls.
Ken Kesey, the father of LSD, had clear intentions when he wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and those intentions translate to the screen. In Kesey's mind and in his writing the patients are not the insane ones and they are fighting against the system which disagreed with mind alteration. The only reason they are insane, in Kesey's mind, is because they stand up against the system. This makes Nurse Ratchet the very embodiment of "the system," which explains her unflinching determination to stay the course. Ratchet is government control personified within the walls of a mad house. Even the daily medication could represent the drugs for the patients to escape their oppression.
Cuckoo's Nest is a snapshot of a decade in turmoil, where Vietnam was sour on everyone's lips and a great deal of governmental distrust permeated everyday life. With its win, the new film momvement of the seventies has arrived, and the win created a landfall over the rest of the decade. Rocky would beat the odds, Annie Hall's unconventional narrative overtook even Star Wars, and The Deer Hunter told a story of the Vietnam war in shocking and unusual ways regarding structure. I point to Cuckoo's Nest as the film to blow the doors wide open on the 70s new wave movement.