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One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is perhaps the best-known antiauthority film in history. The film’s director, Milos Forman, was well acquainted with repressive authority, having experienced it firsthand for much of his life. Born outside of Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1932, Forman lost both his parents to the Nazi death camps of World War II. When he began making films in the mid-1960s, a brief flourish of Czech political and artistic freedom allowed him to explore daily life through satire, and he helped develop what the French call cinéma vérité (truthful cinema), an influential style based on realism and lacking traditional heroes. Forman’s Loves of a Blonde was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1966, and his Fireman’s Ball received the same recognition in 1967. However, communist authorities labeled Fireman’s Ball as a threat and banned the film. One year later, while Forman was visiting Paris, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Forman never returned to his homeland, but the image of Soviet tanks rolling into his country continued to haunt him and echoes throughout his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Based on the popular 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest initially was adapted as a Broadway play. Its star, Kirk Douglas, bought the film rights and tried unsuccessfully for twelve years to generate interest from Hollywood in making the movie. When he felt too old to play the role of the protagonist, McMurphy, Douglas assigned the rights to his son, Michael. After securing private financing, Michael Douglas coproduced the film with Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Records. They went on to earn Oscars as producers—a first for Michael Douglas—when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1975.

The producers chose Forman as director for his ability to capture the concerns of the times. His American film debut, Taking Off (1971), was a comedy about the lack of understanding between young people and their parents. The generation gap was a popular theme in the 1960s and 1970s, as the American people, especially young people, began questioning all manners of authority, old-fashioned institutions, and the social status quo. The civil rights movement and the anti–Vietnam War protests of the 1960s morphed into the campus demonstrations, violent antidraft protests, and women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. In a particularly transforming event of the times, National Guardsmen opened fire on student protesters at Kent State University in 1970, following a rock-throwing incident, and killed four students. A few years later, American faith in authority was further shaken by the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in its antiauthority stance, resonated strongly with these and other events of the 1970s. Pauline Kael, movie critic for The New Yorker, said that the film came along when the right metaphor for the human condition was a loony bin.

Nearly all the top U.S. film critics gave the film positive reviews, heaping particular praise on Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of McMurphy. Their reservations related to the film’s simplification of themes in Kesey’s novel. Kesey, for his part, never wanted to see the film. He was so upset by the film’s choice not to use another character, Chief Bromden, as narrator of the story that he sued the producers. Nonetheless, the film succeeded with the public at the box office: made with a budget of $3 million, Cuckoo’s Nest grossed $112 million after release. At the 1975 Academy Awards, the film won the five top honors—Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben). It was the first film to sweep the top five Oscars since 1934’s It Happened One Night.

Although Louise Fletcher’s portrayal of Nurse Ratched proved Oscar-worthy, many of Hollywood’s leading actresses, including Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunaway, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury, had turned down the role. The character of Nurse Ratched may have been unattractive because both Kesey’s novel and the Broadway play portrayed her as a castrating female determined to rob men of their masculinity—a stereotype to which the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s objected. However, when the film was being made, the screenwriters, producers, director, and actress together altered the portrayal of Nurse Ratched into a broader figure of institutional authority without such sexist overtones. When Fletcher, in her first starring role, earned an Oscar for her portrayal of Nurse Ratched, some of those who declined the role admitted they had made a career mistake. Fletcher furnished one of the award ceremony’s most memorable moments when she used sign language to thank her deaf parents.

Although Milos Forman’s work is filled with people injured by society, he often relies upon humor to portray the ordinary humanity of these damaged souls. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he presents the inmates of a mental hospital as quirky and funny in the midst of outrage. Forman’s characters are individual human beings capable of displaying great dignity. He relies upon techniques from his roots in cinéma vérité to create the look and feel of reality—an especially noteworthy approach in light of the fact that the novel is quite hallucinatory and the stage play used a surrealistic set design to underscore the madness. Forman set the story in a real mental institution in Oregon, cast the institution’s administrator as the doctor in the film, and used actual patients as extras. In the pivotal role of Chief Bromden, Forman cast a nonactor, a full-blooded member of the Creek tribe working as a park ranger near Salem. Through realism, humor and humanism, Forman transforms the story to better express the tenor of its time.

Following his success with Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman directed the film version of the popular counterculture musical Hair (1979), followed by Ragtime (1981), Amadeus (1984), Valmont (1989), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Man on the Moon (1999). Although Amadeus won eight Oscars in 1984, including Best Picture and another Best Director award for Forman, critics generally acknowledge One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to be his foremost work. In November 1977, the American Film Institute voted it into its Top Ten of America’s Best Films, along with Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Citizen Kane.

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