One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the first movie I ever saw on HBO. These were the very early days of the cable network. It was before the dawn of any real home video. It was at my Aunt Shirley’s house that several members of the extended family gathered in dining room chairs around a 19-inch television to watch a movie uncut and without commercial interruption for the first time in our lives. A lot has changed since that 1970’s afternoon at my aunt’s house. Today we have hundreds of such choices on our television dials. I’ve seen a huge wave of home video technologies since that day that have included CED video discs, VHS/Beta, laserdisc, DVD, and now high-definition Blu-ray and movies on demand. The entire game has changed since that gathering 35 or so years ago. One thing has not changed a bit. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was a dynamic and compelling film that day. It remains so today.
R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) is a repeat criminal who has caused more than his share of trouble in the system. He is sent to the Oregon State Hospital to have his sanity evaluated. There the head psychiatrist Dr. Spivey (Brooks) doesn’t really think he’s crazy. But McMurphy is held over for observation. He’s placed inside a general population ward where he comes into contact with the resident “crazies” of the hospital. He takes a particular liking to Billy (Dourif) who is a sexually repressed teenager who stutters and lacks any kind of self-confidence. In a big way, he is the opposite of McMurphy himself, who is quite the extrovert and borders on manic most of the time. There is an Indian man who is about as big as a mountain who the staff and inmates simply call Chief (Sampson). At first Chief is the subject of mockery from McMurphy, but the allegedly deaf and dumb Indian soon earns McMurphy’s respect, something we quickly understand is a rarity for McMurphy. Other patients include the childish Cheswick (Lassick), the shy and naive Martini (DeVito), the borderline psychotic Taber (Lloyd), and Harding (Redfield) who was pretty much the crew’s unofficial leader before McMurphy came along. In charge of the ward is the indominable Nurse Ratched (Fletcher). A battle of wills soon develops between McMurphy and the cold nurse. What McMurphy doesn’t know is that she has the power to keep him even after his original jail sentence has expired.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest has about as storied a history as any film made in the last 50 years. The book was written in 1961 by Ken Kesey. It was immediately controversial. It didn’t help that the author himself was a self-admitted drug addict who was high while he wrote a good deal of the book. But that didn’t mean that the story wasn’t a powerful one. It shone a light on the mental-care industry from a man who had worked in the field himself. One of the early admirers of the book was Kirk Douglas, who got a copy of the manuscript while it was still in galleys. He quickly obtained the rights and turned it into a Broadway play where he played the part of McMurphy. The play only lasted three weeks but had stirred up quite a buzz. That was fine with Douglas, because he had always intended it to be a film anyway. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find financial backing, and there wasn’t a studio out there willing to touch the property. After 10 years of trying, he gave up on the whole idea.
Enter his son Michael, who was just starting his own acting career on television with the popular Streets Of San Francisco. Michael was also very intrigued with the story and asked his father to let him have a crack at getting the thing made. He decided to go with private financing and partnered with Saul Zaentz to produce the picture. They hired Kesey to write a screen adaptation of the book. But Kesey was still very much in his drug days and created a film that showed the Chief having weird hallucinations throughout the film. I guess we all know which character the author identified most with. The author had a rather messy split with the producers, who went in a more conventional direction.
Once there was a script, the film had to be cast. Both Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando turned down the part of McMurphy. It was then that the producers and director Milos Forman came up with the idea that they wanted a known name, but maybe not so much of a big star. That was much of the concern of studios and investors when Kirk wanted to do the lead role. At the time Jack Nicholson had established himself as a solid actor and was just ready to break out into another level of stardom. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest would become that break-out role for the eccentric actor. Danny DeVito came about his supporting role because he had been a long-time friend of Michael Douglas. The two are still the best of buddies today. The final piece of the cast puzzle was The Chief. Apparently large Indians are not so easy to come by. Will Sampson was a criminal who had just gotten out of jail for “borrowing” a horse that didn’t belong to him when he was discovered by a car salesman hired by Douglas to locate a large Indian.
Still, it’s Nicholson’s incredible performance here that makes the cast what it is. Many have admitted that it was easy to just react to Nicolson’s antics and methods as their characters would to McMurphy. It took the actor out of his laid-back reputation and made him one of the most animated actors of our time. You wouldn’t be quite so surprised at his turn as The Joker after watching him play McMurphy. He doesn’t get near enough credit, because he makes it look so easy and natural. One falls into the trap that he isn’t acting, the performance is so seamless.
Finally, the movie was ready to shoot. The location would be that last hard-fought piece to fall into place. Douglas had always intended that the film be made at the real Oregon State Hospital, but ran into considerable opposition. There was fear, not entirely unfounded, that the movie might make the institution look bad. Fortunately, the supervising doctor, Dr. Dean Brooks, would fight to have the film made there with some conditions that included the hiring of many of the inmates as extras and technical craftsmen on the film. Dr. Brooks himself would snag the role of Dr. Spivey in the film. His staff would also act as the other doctors on the film. So the cast and crew practically lived in a wing of the hospital. The dressing rooms were actual cells, and many of the cast members would sleep there rather than go home for the short respites between shoots. Nicholson became the manic leader of the actors and was found to be as vocal and protective of them as McMurphy was. Even Louise Fletcher was kept at an arm’s length from the boys to maintain that detached coldness in front of the cameras.
The movie is loaded with symbolism that survives the many drafts and incarnations from the original book. McMurphy was always intended to be a Christ figure. He comes to the ward to bring a kind of salvation to the patients and ends up dying for his trouble. He had the same anti-establishment credentials. Nicholson was made aware of the symbolism and attempted to bring it to life. It’s odd, but in my many conversations about the film, that analogy escapes most viewers. You should watch the movie with an eye to all of the symbolism. It’s loaded.
The film did begin a debate in the mental health industry that brought about many reforms and rights to patients that did not exist in most states before the film was made. It’s almost dated today because of how much the field and the hospitals have changed in the nearly 40 years since the movie was released.
Many of the supporting cast went on to pretty healthy careers. This was Brad Dourif’s first film, which would lead to his wonderful Chucky portrayals and voice work. He had a wonderful turn in The Lord Of The Rings. Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito would go on to star in Taxi together where they shared wonderful chemistry. Both have since had very illustrious careers. Lloyd, of course, peaked as Doc Brown in the Back To The Future Films. Scatman Crothers has a small but entertaining part in the film as well.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is a step up from the previous DVD release. The print is in much better condition with no artifacts of dirt or scratches to mar the image presentation. Colors are appropriately muted, and the grain of the original film remains intact. Black levels are only average, so there is slight compression artifact here to contend with. This is something I can only assume is missing from the Blu-ray presentation.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 reflects what the source material provided. The dialog is not always very easy to catch. There is some distortion, particularly with some of the harsher tones of the ward music. I had forgotten about the theremin in the score, and it really breaks through in this audio presentation. There isn’t an aggressive mix here, which is entirely appropriate to the source material.
There is an Audio Commentary that includes Michael Douglas along with Saul Zaentz and Milos Forman. There is more insight here than I typically find in these tracks. I found myself getting lost in the huge amount of information these guys have to offer. This is a must-listen for the film’s fans. Be warned. You won’t be concentrating on the film. So save this for an additional run of the film.
The two-disc set includes the following bonus features:
Deleted Scenes: (13:23) There are 8 in all with the handy play-all option.
Completely Cuckoo: (1:26:11) This is a very detailed feature that takes you all the way back to the story’s roots. All of the participants are quite candid and willing to contradict each other. It’s one of the most honest and least fluff pieces you’ll ever see. This is what more of these features should be. It was filmed in the early 1990’s.
52-page commemorative hardbound book
Reproduction of the original press book material
A deck of playing cards with cast pictures
4 lobby cards
Cast/character glossy stills
It’s about time that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest received the kind of clean-up that this release demonstrates. I’m not convinced that we’re getting a complete restoration here, but it is a step above anything we’ve gotten in the past. I’m a little disappointed that Warner did not see fit to offer the Blu-ray for review. This is the kind of film that might have really benefited from the high definition experience. Instead, we’re given the DVD which comes with a ton of swag instead of a 1080p image. I think I’d trade the swag in for the better picture every time. I’d love to recommend the Blu-ray, but can’t because I haven’t seen it. I’d love to recommend this release, but can’t because the image deserves so much more. I feel like I’ve just been reviewing Catch 22 instead of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Between the two, I’d likely tell you to take the chance on the Blu-ray. At least there’s a chance that you’ll have an opportunity to truly enjoy a living classic. “No man alive could resist that.”