Why Now Is a Good Time to Revisit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
10/22/2020 • 4 min read
It’s been 45 years since ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST hit theaters and galvanized seemingly everyone who saw it. Adapted from the Ken Kesey novel of the same name by screenwriters Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben and director Milos Forman, the movie was an instant sensation. It spoke to the disaffected youth who had become jaded by the Watergate coverup and the seemingly endless war in Vietnam and was heralded as a nearly perfect example of its craft.
Now, 40 years later, with things oddly similar to how they were in 1975, it is a perfect time to revisit this impactful film. But why should you go back to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST now? Let's look at the movie and its amazing place in history.
It’s a Great Movie
If you haven’t watched CUCKOO'S NEST in a while (or ever), you might have forgotten what a terrific and very effective movie it is. Jack Nicholson plays RP, a repeat offender whose tryst with an underage girl lands him in a mental institution. He sees, through clearer eyes than some of his fellow inmates, just how broken the system is. RP befriends other inmates and tries to change things for the better, but, of course, that doesn’t wind up happening, leaving to one of the more tragic and harrowing endings in cinema history.
The cinematography, by Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler, is sparse but evocative, the screenplay by Goldman and Hauben note-perfect, and the direction by Forman, a fabled Czechoslovakian filmmaker who directed this as his second American movie, oscillates between the uncomfortably realistic and downright mythic.
Beyond Nicholson, the rest of the cast, too, is absolutely to die for, from William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, and Danny De Vito to Louise Fletcher as the immortal Nurse Ratched. (More on her in a minute.) While every good movie feels like a minor miracle, since so many things can easily go wrong, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST had everything come together at exactly the right time and with exactly the right people. The result is a stone-cold classic that still has immeasurable power today. It electrified those who saw it (pun intended), exposing the hardships of substandard mental health organizations and illuminating the systemic machinations that keep all of us in our own padded cells.
The Themes Are Perfect for 2020
Themes of social isolation and distrust of the system make ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST perfect for right now. We watch a character slowly going mad in a confined space, screaming to the heavens (or anyone that can hear him) about intuitional wrongdoings perpetrated by a barbaric system. Sound familiar? (Hopefully not too familiar.)
The same fear and sense of displacement that inspired the movie in 1975 are still present, perhaps even more so now. With so many people living in lockdown, with limited human contact, it's easy to feel as if we’re all in our own asylums. It goes to prove that specificity in the story you’re telling actually makes it more timeless and universal. And a movie set in 1963 and produced in 1975 can feel like it epitomizes 2020 better than just about anything. Incredible.
Nurse Ratched Is an Icon
Iconic villains don't get much more memorable than Nurse Ratched, the spiteful, vindictive nurse at the heart of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, played to perfection by Louise Fletcher. Just thinking about her makes our blood boil. A nurse should be a caregiver, but Ratched turns a blind eye to injustice and doles out the most extreme punishment herself. That makes the character so powerful, especially at a time when healthcare professionals are more on our minds than ever.
The character has been adapted into other projects a few times since the movie came out, and you can understand why other creators and formats would want their hand at her – she’s such a fascinating, deeply tortured, and utterly villainous delight.
It Won All the Awards
You might not realize how beloved ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST really was when the movie was originally released. It was only the second movie in Academy Awards history to sweep all five major awards, taking home Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. (IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT achieved that feat before CUCKOO, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was the next to do it after.)
Of course, Nicholson and Fletcher won for their performances, while director Forman and the two screenwriters were also awarded. It’s a pretty amazing accomplishment and very deserved. The film won numerous awards at the Golden Globes and BAFTAs and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Consider it further proof that its themes and craftsmanship are still resonating, all these decades later.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST returns to theatres on November 8 and 9!
All images courtesy of UA / Warner Bros. Pictures.