One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (film)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman, based on the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. The film stars Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a mental institution, and features a supporting cast of Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in his film debut.
Filming began in January 1975 and lasted three months, taking place on location in Salem, Oregon, and the surrounding area, as well as on the Oregon coast. The producers decided to shoot the film in the Oregon State Hospital, an actual mental hospital, as this was also the setting of the novel.
Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is No. 33 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies list. The film was the second to win all five major Academy Awards following It Happened One Night in 1934, an accomplishment not repeated until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It also won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards. In 1993, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
PlotIn 1963 Oregon, recidivist malefactor Randle Patrick McMurphy is moved to a mental institution after serving a short sentence on a prison farm for several charges of assault, and statutory rape of a 15-year-old. Though not actually mentally ill, McMurphy hopes to avoid hard labor and serve the rest of his sentence in a relaxed environment. Upon arriving at the hospital, he finds the ward run by nurse Mildred Ratched, a cold, passive-aggressive tyrant who uses her rules and authority to intimidate her charges into a restrictive, joyless existence.
The other patients include anxious, stuttering Billy Bibbit; Charlie Cheswick, who is prone to childish tantrums; delusional and innocent Martini; the well-educated, paranoid Dale Harding; belligerent and profane Max Taber; epileptics Jim Sefelt and Bruce Fredrickson, the former of whom gives his medicine to the latter; quiet but violent-minded Scanlon, "Chief" Bromden, a very tall Native American deaf-mute, and several others with more chronic conditions. Ratched soon sees McMurphy's lively, rebellious presence as a threat to her authority, and she confiscates the patients' cigarettes and rations them, and suspends their card-playing privileges. During his time in the ward, McMurphy gets into a battle of wills with Ratched. He steals a hospital bus, escaping with several patients to go on a fishing trip, encouraging his friends to discover their own abilities and find self-confidence.
After learning that the judge's time sentence doesn't apply to the hospital, and he could remain there indefinitely, McMurphy makes plans to escape, encouraging Chief to throw a hydrotherapy console through a window. It is also revealed that McMurphy, Chief, and Taber are the only non-chronic patients sentenced to staying at the institution, as the rest are self-committed and could voluntarily check-out at any time, but are too afraid to do so. McMurphy, Chief, and Cheswick get into a fight with the orderlies after the latter becomes agitated over his confiscated cigarettes. Ratched sends them to the "shock shop", where McMurphy discovers Chief can actually speak and hear, having feigned his deaf-muteness to avoid engaging with anyone. After being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, McMurphy returns to the ward pretending to have brain damage, although he reveals the treatment has made him even more determined. McMurphy and Chief make plans to escape, but decide to throw a secret Christmas party for their friends after Ratched leaves for the night.
McMurphy sneaks two women, Candy and Rose, into the ward, bringing bottles of alcohol, and bribes the night guard. After a night of partying, McMurphy and Chief prepare to escape, inviting Billy to come with them. Not ready to leave the hospital, he refuses. Billy asks for a “date” with Candy and McMurphy arranges for him to have sex with her. Ratched arrives in the morning to find the ward in disarray and most of the patients passed out drunk. She discovers Billy and Candy together, and aims to embarrass Billy in front of everyone. Billy manages to overcome his stutter and stands up to Ratched. When she threatens to tell his mother, Billy cracks under the pressure and is relegated to his stuttering self. Ratched has him placed in the doctor’s office to wait for the doctor to arrive. Moments later when McMurphy is trying to escape, Billy commits suicide by slitting his throat with broken glass. McMurphy flies into a rage and pins Ratched to the floor, choking her with both hands until Washington knocks him out.
Some time later, Ratched comes back with a neck brace and a weak voice, losing her most important weapon in intimidating patients, and Harding now leads the now-unsuspended card-playing. Rumors spread that McMurphy has escaped in order to avoid being taken "upstairs". Later that night, Chief sees McMurphy being returned to his bed. When McMurphy is utterly unresponsive and physically limp, Chief discovers lobotomy scars on his forehead. In an act of mercy, Chief smothers McMurphy to death with a pillow. He then finally is able to lift the hydrotherapy foundation out of the floor, throws it through the window, and escapes into the night, cheered on by Taber.
ProductionActor Kirk Douglas—who had originated the role of McMurphy in the 1963–64 Broadway stage version of the Ken Kesey novel—had purchased the film rights to the story, and tried for a decade to bring it to the big screen, but was unable to find a studio willing to make it with him. Eventually, he sold the rights to his son Michael Douglas, who succeeded in getting the film produced—but the elder Douglas, by then nearly 60, was considered too old for the McMurphy role, which ultimately went to 38-year-old Jack Nicholson. Douglas brought in Saul Zaentz as co-producer.
The film's first screenwriter, Lawrence Hauben, introduced Douglas to the work of Miloš Forman, whose 1967 Czechoslovak film The Firemen's Ball had certain qualities that mirrored the goals of the present script. Forman flew to California and discussed the script page by page, outlining what he would do, in contrast with other directors who had been approached who were less than forthcoming. Forman wrote in 2012: "To me, was not just literature, but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not".
Zaentz, a voracious reader, felt an affinity with Kesey, and so after Hauben's first attempt he asked Kesey to write the screenplay, and promised him a piece of the action, but it did not work out and ended in a financial dispute.
Hal Ashby, who had been an early consideration for director, suggested Jack Nicholson for the role of McMurphy. Nicholson had never played this type of role before. Production was delayed for about six months because of Nicholson's schedule. Douglas later stated in an interview that "that turned out to be a great blessing: it gave us the chance to get the ensemble right".
Casting, Douglas's oldest friend, was the first to be cast – having played one of the patients, Martini, in the 1971 off-Broadway production. Chief Bromden, played by Will Sampson, was found through the referral of a used car dealer Douglas met on an airplane flight when Douglas told him they wanted a "big guy" to play the part. The dealer's father often sold cars to Native American customers and six months later called Douglas to say: "the biggest sonofabitch Indian came in the other day!"
Miloš Forman had considered Shelley Duvall for the role of Candy. While screening Thieves Like Us to see if she was right for the role, he became interested in Louise Fletcher, who had a supporting role, for the role of Nurse Ratched. A mutual acquaintance, the casting director Fred Roos, had already mentioned Fletcher's name as a possibility. Even so, it took four or five meetings, over a year, for Fletcher to secure the role of Nurse Ratched. Her final audition was late in 1974, with Forman, Zaentz, and Douglas. The day after Christmas, her agent called to say she was expected at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem on January 4 to begin rehearsals.
RehearsalsPrior to commencement of filming, a week of rehearsals started on January 4, 1975, in Oregon, during which the actors watched the patients in their daily routine and at group therapy. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher also witnessed electroconvulsive therapy being performed on a patient.
FilmingWith the exception of Nicholson, the rest of the cast worked for scale, or a little above that. Fletcher worked for 11 weeks, earning $10,000 before taxes.
Filming began in January 1975, and concluded approximately three months later, and was shot on location in Salem, Oregon, and the surrounding area, as well as on the Oregon coast.
The producers decided to shoot the film in the Oregon State Hospital, an actual mental hospital, as this was also the setting of the novel. The hospital’s director, Dean Brooks, was supportive of the filming and eventually ended up playing the character of Dr. John Spivey in the film. Brooks identified a patient for each of the actors to shadow, and some of the cast even slept on the wards at night. He also wanted to incorporate his patients into the crew, to which the producers agreed. Douglas recalls that it was not until later that he found out that many of them were criminally insane.
As Forman did not allow the actors to see the day's filming, this led to the cast losing confidence in him, while Nicholson also began to wonder about his performance. Douglas convinced Forman to show Nicholson something, which he did, and restored the actor's confidence.
Haskell Wexler was fired as cinematographer and replaced by Bill Butler. Wexler believed his dismissal was due to his concurrent work on the documentary Underground, in which the radical terrorist group The Weather Underground were being interviewed while hiding from the law. However, Forman said he had terminated Wexler's services over artistic differences. Both Wexler and Butler received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, though Wexler said there was "only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn't shoot".
According to Butler, Nicholson refused to speak to Forman: "... never talked to Miloš at all, he only talked to me".
The production went over the initial budget of $2 million and over-schedule, but Zaentz, who was personally financing the movie, was able to come up with the difference by borrowing against his company, Fantasy Records. The total production budget came to $4.4 million.
Critical receptionThe film was met with heavy critical acclaim. Roger Ebert said: Ebert would later put the film on his "Great Movies" list. A.D. Murphy of Variety wrote a mixed review as well, as did Vincent Canby: Writing in The New York Times:
The film opened with original music by composer Jack Nitzsche, featuring an eerie bowed saw and wine glasses. On the score, reviewer Steven McDonald:
The film went on to win the "Big Five" Academy Awards at the 48th Oscar ceremony. These include the Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, Best Actress for Louise Fletcher, Best Direction for Forman, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. The film currently has a 93% "Certified Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from 75 critics and with an average rating of 9.05/10. Its consensus states:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has been regarded as one of the greatest American films. Ken Kesey participated in the early stages of script development, but withdrew after creative differences with the producers over casting and narrative point of view; ultimately he filed suit against the production and won a settlement. Kesey himself claimed never to have seen the movie, but said he disliked what he knew of it, a fact confirmed by Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote, "The first time I heard this story, it was through the movie starring Jack Nicholson. A movie that Kesey once told me he disliked."
In 1993, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.
ReleaseThe film premiered at the Sutton and Paramount Theatres in New York City on November 19, 1975. It was the second-highest-grossing film released in 1975 in the United States and Canada with a gross of $109 million, one of the seventh-highest-grossing films of all-time at the time. As it was released toward the end of the year, most of its gross was in 1976 and was the highest-grosser for calendar year 1976 with rentals of $56.5 million.
Worldwide, the film grossed $163,250,000, being UA's biggest hit.
Awards and nominationsAmerican Film Institute
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #20
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains:
- * Nurse Ratched – #5 Villain
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers – #17
- AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #33