Revisiting a classic film

As much as I love looking back at movies I personally liked at the
time of their release or at least the time that I first saw them, there’s
nothing more irresistible than revisiting a so-called venerated “classic” that
you haven’t seen in years. More often than not, of course, they live up to your
initial impressions, or expectations of greatness. But occasionally, you discover
that time hasn’t been kind to them, whether it’s because the movie first
connected with audiences at a certain moment in the zeitgeist, or its
techniques were subsequently adopted or ripped off by too many other movies or,
in some cases, it really just wasn’t that good to begin with. But the great
virtue of double-dip releases on DVD and Blu-ray – if there is one – is that
we’re given a chance to check out films we once loved and see if they live on
as great artistic achievements.

Warner Home Video has re-released
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ in a new Blu-ray set that features a number
of feature-length documentaries as well as interviews with key members of the
cast and crew, and just for fun, a deck of playing cards, albeit not ones as
filthy as those McMurphy uses in the film. Having first seen it in college, I
was perhaps appropriately impressed by its iconic status, Jack Nicholson’s
historic performance and Milos Forman’s award-winning storytelling. But is the
movie as powerful and effective now as it was in 1975, when it was first released?


On Release

The Facts: Released November 19,
1975, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ became a huge hit and a major
award-winner to boot. Forman’s film earned more than $100 million against its
$4.4 million budget, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and won four,
including for Best Picture, Director, Actor (for Nicholson’s performance as
McMurphy) and Actress (for Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and Adapted
Screenplay (by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman).

The film received generally
positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert (who won a Pulitzer Prize later that
year) claimed that “Miloš Forman’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ is a film
so good in so many of its parts that there’s a temptation to forgive it when it
goes wrong. But it does go wrong, insisting on making larger points than its
story really should carry, so that at the end, the human qualities of the
characters get lost in the significance of it all. And yet there are those moments
of brilliance”. The film is considered to be one of the greatest American
films. Kesey himself claimed to have disliked the movie, a fact revealed by
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk in the foreword of the 2007 edition, “The
first time I heard this story, it was through the movie starring Jack
Nicholson. A movie that Kesey once told me he disliked”.[7]

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

The film was shown in Swedish
cinemas between 1975 and 1987 — twelve years, which is still a record. When
Miloš Forman learned that, he said, “I’m absolutely thrilled by that… It’s


What Still Works:

If you’re looking for a better
performance by Jack Nicholson, you aren’t likely to find many worthier candidates
than his turn in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest.’ With the disadvantage of a career of
iconoclast performances under his belt, Nicholson’s turn as the anarchic
McMurphy may seem more than slightly clichéd, but if you watch closely, he
offers a fairly remarkable array of subtle details and shades that make the
character multi-dimensional and sophisticated, even when he’s at his dumbest.
There are several shots of Nicholson reacting to situations in the ward that
shift in compelling, unusual and often harrowing ways to reveal the turmoil
bubbling beneath his supposedly transparently disruptive surface.

Further, Nicholson’s eccentricities
never seem like legitimate psychosis or mania as much as a certain kind of
sociopathy, an impulse to interrupt and destroy a semblance of order, albeit
more because of boredom or impatience than any sort of deeper psychological
disorder. But the film’s depiction of his “treatment” of his so-called
condition feels sadly authentic to both mental health facilities during the
time of the film’s release, and the sort of natural, perhaps tragic balance of
control and resistance found in any hierarchy where one party wields some
degree of absolute power.

In that capacity, Louise Fletcher
is almost terrifyingly unlikeable as Nurse Ratched, and sort of miraculously so
by maintaining an eerily calm demeanour when dealing with her charges. Her
behaviour becomes infuriating early on, but it’s defined in subtle measures
that undermine the confidence and rehabilitation of the patients, perhaps
unknowingly, while she maintains control (as we see it more clearly) in order
to reinforce her own self-worth and preserve her sense of authority.

While it’s arguable that the
dimensions of some of the other patients are slightly broad, the combination of
Forman’s direction and the performances of the ensemble (which includes Danny
DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif) make them equally compelling, complicated,
and sympathetic figures, even (or perhaps especially) when they succumb to the
extremes of their own internal disorders. We are deeply affected by what
happens to all of the characters, both in terms of what they do and how their
behaviour reflects the influence of McMurphy, and they congeal into a sort of
fractured family whom we care about, whether they’re suffering from personal
indignities or reacting to the containment of their would-be leader.


What Doesn’t Work:

While the film is beautifully-shot
and its story well-told, there’s a sort of indisputable sense in retrospect
that this film is similar in many, many respects to ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ which
obviously took place in a different setting. But both films seem representative
of the challenge to authority that was taking place in American culture during
the late 1960s and ‘70s, only this one has the veneer of being an expose on the
poor treatment and conditions patients received at mental health facilities.
That doesn’t make it sensationalistic, but its collective familiarity within
the annals of film history lessen its impact, and furthermore, its downer-upbeat
ending now seems like a sort of non-cliché cliché, whether or not such was the
case at the time of its release.


What’s The Verdict:

‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
is a great, moving film, but watching it some 35 years later, when it has been
held up in the context of other films before and after that were similar, it
feels like a significant artistic achievement but no longer a particularly
historic one. Certainly Nicholson’s performance would make this one of his
defining roles, and the film made director Forman’s name as well, but at this
point, ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ feels like the sort of movie that is mandatory viewing
for all aspiring cinephiles albeit to see where the sorts of iconoclast
characters in modern movies were not only started, but codified. As such, it’s
indisputably entertaining and emotionally affecting, but its place in cinema
history no longer seems as singular or sharply defined as it perhaps did when
it was first released.