Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, Vincent Schiavelli, Scatman Crothers, Michael Berryman, Peter Brocco, Dean R. Brooks, Alonzo Brown, Mwako Cumbuka, William Duell, Josip Elic, Lan Fendors, Nathan George, Ken Kenny, Mel Lambert, Sydney Lassick, Kay Lee, Dwight Marfield, Ted Markland, Louisa Moritz, William Redfield, Phil Roth, Mimi Sarkisian, Mews Small, Delos V. Smith Jr., Tin Welch
Written by: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, based on a novel by Ken Kesey, and a play by Dale Wasserman
Directed by: Milos Forman
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 133
Date: 19/11/1975

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Going Cuckoo

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on video when I was in high school and have seen it many times since. I have always enjoyed it and would always recommend it, but in the past few years I have begun to wonder if it really deserves its reputation as a "great" film.

Certainly it has become clear that Milos Forman is not a particularly great director, though he has made many good films, including The Firemen's Ball and Amadeus. His overall filmography shows a highly varying quality (his last film was the dull Goya's Ghosts) and a distinct lack of personality. Seeing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest again, I think I have an idea as to just how Forman sold it; it's a subversive, rebellious story, but Forman has found a way to smooth and repackage it. Now it still seems as if it's subversive and rebellious, but it's really quite conventional and totally acceptable.

Nicholson stars as R.P. McMurphy -- you can never forget that name -- an arguably sane former convict who may have pretended to be crazy to get out of work detail. His offenses are so mild (some fights, sex with a young girl) that we can safely side with him. He storms into the loony bin, determined to take the place by storm, and we love watching him try. The institution is supposed to represent America, a twisted place ruled by strict morals and peopled by helpless idiots, and "Mac" is supposed to be the blast of fresh air, the threat of change and life. Of course, authority eventually wins out over freedom, and though it's a "downer" ending, order has also been restored and life can go on as usual. Basically "Mac" can act as crazy as he wants during the course of the film, and we'll have fun with him, but he never gets to win.

Some of Mac's antics are so clean and nice that they qualify as "stand up and cheer" moments. The famous baseball game sequence in which Mac imagines and announces a World Series game -- which makes me smile every time -- could have been part of Field of Dreams without too much trouble; it's not subversive at all. The same goes for the "field trip" sequence, which Forman probably added to the film to "open it up" and get it away from all those white walls for a little while. (I once saw a version of the stage play, and it actually works a bit better than the film.) Likewise, Forman could have used a little bit of the times and a little bit of Ken Kesey's novel and given the movie a crazy look, but instead he shoots it with a clean, sanitary professionalism, totally unlike the kind of movie Mac would have made. (Of course, this probably contributes to the movie's enduring, timeless popularity as well.)

It's mostly Nicholson that makes the film work, with his fun, but very intelligent, canny turn. It's a very inviting performance; he's not off-putting. He's surrounded by an amazing cast of fairly passive loonies, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, Will Sampson, and Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, none of whom are particularly threatening. Louise Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Nurse Ratched; she's stern and unflagging, of course, but she's also slightly soft around the eyes and mouth. She's not an inhuman monster. However, they're all practically immobile next to the animated Nicholson (who also won the first of his three Oscars). Incidentally, actor Michael Douglas became involved in producing the film, and he managed to collect an Oscar in the Best Picture category.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, but the other four nominees have come to look a great deal more artistically significant: Robert Altman's Nashville, Steven Spielberg's Jaws, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon and Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. In the Best Director category, Milos Forman somehow beat out Federico Fellini for Amarcord, as well as Altman, Kubrick and Lumet. Not to mention that another Jack Nicholson from 1975, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger, is far superior.

Regardless, this movie has plenty of fans and they will be interested to learn that Warner Home Video has released a spectacular new hi-def Blu-Ray package for 2010. It comes with a little hardcover book, a pack of cards, a copy of the original press book, some postcard reproductions of posters, and glossy photos of the cast. On the disc, we get an old commentary track by director Forman, producer Saul Zaentz, and producer Michael Douglas, plus some deleted scenes and a trailer. There's also a newly restored documentary, "Completely Cuckoo," and a new interview with Michael Douglas.

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