Milos Foreman specializes in films about misfits struggling against the system. They were on display in best work, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon, films that about oddballs who aren’t always lovable. Foreman was born in Czechoslovakia and had been working in Europe for a dozen years before Coo Coo’s Nest brought him success here in America. He knew a thing or two about being repressed as an artist.
Based on the satirical 1963 novel by Ken Kesey (which I have read), it tells the story of the struggle of Randal P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), an asylum inmate, to break the grip that the head nurse Mildrid Ratched holds over her patients. The film was right for the times, a decade when authority was seen as mechanical and corrupt and the outlaw took on a heroic status. It is a moving film but I find that some of the book’s irony is lost in translation (the story was narrated by The Chief, a character who hardly speaks).
The cast is uniformly fine. I loved Jack Nicholson in the lead role, a performance that got him his first Oscar, but I wonder about the characters who occupy the film behind him. There is a gallery of great actors who occupy the sides of the frame, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli but as I watch the film I wonder about their characters. Some of men in the ward have significant moments but many do not. This is a film stuffed with memorable faces but that’s all they are.
But it hardly matters, the draw is always Jack Nicholson, and it may interest you to know that Kirk Douglas had designs on the role. Douglas tried and failed for years to get an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s book to the screen. In nineteen seventy-four, son Michael teamed up with Saul Zaentz and finally got the greenlight. Kirk was delighted and assumed that Michael would cast his old man in the lead, but it was thought that he was too old so the part (and the Oscar) went to the much younger Jack Nicholson. Based on that, I have a feeling that Thanksgiving that year at the Douglas house wasn’t much fun.
Nicholson had already established himself as one of the most popular actors of his generation. He had made a name for himself in his breakout role as George Hanson in Easy Rider and from there he would become popular as the rascally rebel with a sardonic smile, the sly voice and the ridiculous crazy man’s laugh. Between his breakout role in Easy Rider and his first Oscar for One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest, he would create arguably the best work of his career in Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger and The Fortune.
Watching Jack Nicholson is akin to watching the bad kid at school, he’s a rebel who has a gift for mischief and verbal heresy. He is one of those actors who is endlessly watchable. Some of his best gifts are on display in Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over the Coo Coo’s Nest, where he plays Randal P. McMurphy, a misfit who is sent to a mental institution and tries to rally the inmates against their clinical prison by encouraging them to do normal things. His encouragement is not met with favor by the ward’s unfeeling chief Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) whose clout pulls against McMurphy’s rebellion.
It is a great performance because we aren’t always sure what McMurphy is going to do nor what he’s thinking. Even when Ratched’s force of will begins to wear him down we can still see him fighting.