I’ve been struggling on what to write about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for a long time. There’s just so much going on in the film that it’s hard to put it all into words. For being made in the 70s and based on a book from the 60s it hits a lot of topics like mental health, social pressure, and sexuality. All things that are still relevant today.
Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) may be in this mental institution, but don’t you dare think for a second that he is actually mentally ill. He’s just there because he was found guilty of battery, gambling, and statutory rape. But instead of being in prison, he’s trying to manipulate the mental healthcare system to his advantage and tries to serve the rest of his time incarcerated in “comfort and luxury” versus the prison work farm he was in.
Upon his arrival, all of the other patients were genuinely content with their daily routines. They watch their shows, play cards, and take their meds when they are told. That is until Mac comes in, riles them up and tries to liberate them from Nurse Ratched’s (Louise Fletcher) tightly grip. Her tightly run ship keeps everyone easily managed and in their place. She is the shepherd and they are her flock. Mac’s unique and outgoing personality disrupts the group and angers Nurse Ratched. But he also brings each member of the group out of their shell and allows them to show their own individuality. Ultimately, getting them to stand up to the rigid nurse who dominates the group. I know he thinks he’s doing all of this to help them, but he actually makes things worse in the long run. It really isn’t best to rock the boat in this kind of situation.
What was he thinking anyway?
Well, for one thing, as he befriends the group, he sees them as real people, not patients. He finds out that the Chief (Will Sampson) is not really mute, Billy (Brad Dourif) doesn’t always stutter, and he helps some of the others overcome their shyness and fears. He also believes that they will be cured not by pills and group therapy. Mac just wants them to be regular guys who watch the World Series on TV, go fishing, play basketball, get drunk and get laid. He just wants them to have fun.
Speaking of getting laid, sex, sexism, and sexuality are major aspects of the film. Part of Mac’s reason for being there is because he had sex with an underage girl. “She was fifteen years old, going on thirty-five, Doc, and she told me she was eighteen, she was very willing.” Not really the best excuse there, Mac. At least throughout the film, when he does try to get laid, he does so with hookers who are of age. The first attempt at this is when he sneaks the gang out of the hospital, pretends to be doctors and basically steals a boat to take them fishing while he sneaks off below deck to have some fun. The second time, he sneaks Candy (Marya Small) and Rose (Louisa Moritz) INTO the hospital and throws a party for everyone, including the night orderly Turkle (Scatman Crothers). Ultimately, this all-night orgy is supposed to be an escape plan for Mac and Chief; they even invite Billy to come with them. Billy refuses to go, but he is enamored with Candy and asks for a “date” with her. Billy loses his virginity, and the guys are proud of him when they find out. Unfortunately, Nurse Ratched and the orderlies all find them passed out, and she threatens to tell Billy’s mother. His reaction is so raw and emotional that you feel terrible for him. You feel even worse for him and Mac shortly after Billy’s body is found on the floor of the doctor’s office with blood everywhere.
The film has a power struggle among the sexes and features two types of women. First is Nurse Ratched; she is meant to be feared and disliked in every appearance. The aggressive matriarch has the final word in the hospital. She expects the men in the film to obey her without question. Mac disrupts that dynamic, so she has to be even more militant. And even though we never once see Billy’s mother, we know she is someone to be feared based on his reaction to Nurse Ratched’s threat of telling her how he’s behaved. He’s terrified. The second type is portrayed by the prostitutes Candy and Rose. Both are the polar opposite of Nurse Ratched. They are meant to be objectified and sexualized. They are there to please the men, nothing more.
Mac encourages the men to assert their masculinity. He wants them to break the rules enforced by the women controlling them. He believes that by doing such things, he is putting Nurse Ratched in her place. That she isn’t in control of them. But he is sorely wrong on all accounts. She has the final say. She ultimately has Mac lobotomized so that he is no longer a danger to her, the staff, or the other patients. It’s a downer for us, but a necessity in her eyes.
This film is equal parts depressing and uplifting. The moral struggle is a real one that we all face every day. Do we fall in line and do what we are told, or do we buck the system? It’s not always an easy choice, but I’m sure we all do our best to tow the line.
I absolutely love the film, but I remember why it’s been so long since I’ve seen it last. It is a hard movie to watch. Of course, you can be glad for Chief’s liberation, but it’s still a sad and lonely place for the rest of the gang. But no matter what, it is a truly excellent film.
What One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Means to Us
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest makes me laugh. It makes me cry. It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling, and it breaks my damn heart.
Still, watching McMurphy and his adopted family on their various adventures always manages to put a smile on my face. For such an oddball collection, there’s something loveable about every last one of them. On the other hand, the stone-faced master manipulator Nurse Ratched, will never fail to make my blood boil.
Jack Nicholson’s performance might not be his best, but it’s my favorite from his long and storied career. He manages to make Mac come across more akin to a bad child, rather than a hardened criminal. And his devilry is just so infectious. I’ve watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at various points throughout my life. First when I was a teenager, and most recently last week for a refresher. Each time it has affected me differently, but each time it has felt absolutely flawless.
There are some movies that I watch at just the right moment that is able to speak to me in a way that if I were to watch it at any other point in time, it would just be another random movie. This was one of those movies that I watched at a very weird time in my life. Working a dead-end job, a relationship that would end in disaster and not a whole lot to look forward to. I felt trapped, stuck, and unsure of which direction to head in next. So as I sat there, watching Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time, I couldn’t help but see my own life reflected within this mental institution. Randall Patrick McMurphy came in loud and dashing, urging and encouraging all of the other patents to rebel against the social order with Nurse Ratched trying so desperately to hold it all together, and there was little timid Billy Bibbit, wanting so much to lead his own life but too scared to take the initiative and ultimately falling in line taking orders like the good little follower that he is. I saw myself in all of these characters in one way or another; the rebel, the conformist and the obedient follower. Each one fighting for control. But there is so much more to this movie than some random person running amuck and causing havoc. With all of this chaos happening, it’s easy to overlook the one character who was ever present but was never participating. Invisible to his peers, blending into the crowd, watching from the shadows.
I always wondered what exactly was going on in Big Chief’s head. These right here, there are the types of characters that I’m drawn to. These are the types of characters who are able to take a step back, take a look at the bigger picture and form a type of awareness from the great beyond that makes them capable of seeing what exactly is really going on. Whereas McMurphy made his decisions based on impulsiveness, Big Chief waited for just the right moment to make his move. The rebel and the follower both destroyed themselves, with the conformist seemingly prevailing in the end, but all of them left broken or bereft. Big Chief was able to bear witness and instead of rebelling or conforming, he choose a third option: he learned from the self-destruction of others. These are the types of characters who inspire me to change my own life. Whenever I feel trapped in a situation and feel as if there is no way out, I choose to take my fate into my own hands and much like Big Chief, I escape into a beautiful fantasy. I like to believe that no matter what situation we find ourselves in, we can always choose to break free and I look to Big Chief for inspiration to take a leap of faith, no matter which window I choose to jump through next.
Are you a fan of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Do you have a fun fact, piece of trivia, or analysis about the 1975 film? Share it in the comments!