Welcome to the first of hopefully many, in a new series I am calling ‘Cheat Sheets’. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means a concise set of notes which enables the reader to become familiar with the subject without having to read through various textbooks, or in this case watch particular films. So, each week I shall be writing a Cheat Sheet for classic films, there won’t be any rhyme or reason for choosing each film, other than simply popping into my head. Oh, and of course, there will be spoilers.
We begin with the 1975, Milos Forman directed film, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Based on the novel by Ken Kesey which was released in 1962. An interesting period of time which encompassed the Civil Rights Movement, and explored the methods in which psychology and psychiatry were being conducted and approached in America. Deinstitutionalisation was coming into effect during this time as a result of these radical new treatments for patients. Denationalisation is the process of replacing long-stay psychiatric hospitals with community mental health services. Meaning psychiatric hospitals became less isolating and more communal for the patients. This sense of community is key to the film, as expressed by the core group of patients examined, as well as key to McMurphy’s character development.
The Cast: Jack Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, nicknamed Mac. The lead protagonist, McMurphy is placed in the mental hospital after being transferred from prison. He was convicted of the rape of a 15 year old girl. He and Nurse Ratched are in constant conflict owing to the manner in which Ratched runs the establishment and treats the patients. Throughout the film McMurphy is driven by the strong desire to break this submissive mind-set Nurse Ratched has placed over the patients.
Louise Fletcher plays Nurse Ratched. Head Administrative Nurse at the hospital, she runs a strict and tight regime. She has all the patients under her control through a combination of drugs, and the fear that what little luxury do they do have could be removed if they misbehave. Once McMurphy arrives, rebellion ensues.
Brad Dourif plays Billy Bibbit. Billy suffers from a stutter, and is seen by McMurphy as a younger brother figure. Billy is one of the more coherent and rational patients.
Will Sampson plays Chief Bromden. Chief is native American and a great mountain of a man. Chief is acting as a deaf and mute character to avoid harassment and attention, and stays in character for most of the film, confiding only in McMurphy. He bonds with McMurphy, as McMurphy continually idealises the premise of escaping the hospital for good. Chief is the only one to escape, with the last shot of the film showing him running into the distance as a free man.
The rest of the cast feature a number of recognisable names, and whilst some have more of a presence and greater character in the film than others, they make up McMurphy’s band of rebels in his effort to undermine Nurse Ratched. Danny DeVito as Martini. Christopher Lloyd as Taber. Scatman Crothers as Turkle. Mews Small as Candy. William Redfield as Harding and Sydney Lassick as Cheswick.
Plot: The film focuses on the conflict between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. McMurphy bands together a group of misfits from the patients, by playing cards with them and trying to create a democratic voting society in order to try and instil some sense of normality into this room isolated from society.
McMurphy continually makes references to his escape, suggesting he will just go downtown and watch the ball game in a bar. The gang do escape the hospital once, orchestrated by McMurphy’s climbing the fence and stealing the school bus used to transport the patients. He takes them on a road trip, picking up Cherry the prostitute on route, and the group spends the day fishing whilst McMurphy and Cherry sneak inside the lower confinements of the boat to have sex, leaving one of the patients to drive the boat.
McMurphy escapist comments continue, becoming increasingly more elaborate. One method involving an attempt to pick up a large drinking fountain, with intention of throwing it through the window and running to freedom. Though he does attempts this feat, he is unsuccessful, but the idea serves as Chief’s escape method at the end of the film, presumably as a metaphor for both characters escaping.
By the third act McMurphy has had enough, deciding to leave and take the Chief with him. He throws a party as one last source of entertainment for the patients before he disappears. He arranges for Cherry and one of her co-workers to come to the hospital at night, and a member of staff joins the festivities once he has been bribed with money, alcohol and sex. The supervisor makes an unexpected visit during the party and the gang is forced to hide in the main office. Once the supervisor has left, the drunk staff member comes to his senses, becoming depressed and passing out, at which point McMurphy steals the keys.
As McMurphy, Chief and the girls are about to leave however, Billy suddenly becomes quiet and removed. Evidence of the bond between McMurphy and Billy. McMurphy has Cherry take Billy into one of the rooms to have sex with him. The rest of the gang waits for Cherry but subsequently passes out from the heavy drinking. McMurphy and Chief passing out next to the open window.
When Nurse Ratched arrives in the morning to find the aftermath of the party. The patients stand in an orderly line whilst the staff locate Billy, discovering him and Cherry still in bed together in one of the rooms. Ratched proceeds to shame Billy and threaten to tell his mother, she has him dragged off to a side-room to await his punishment, Billy commits suicide. McMurphy, who is once again about to leave through the window, hears a scream from the nurse who has discovered the body, McMurphy cannot commit himself until he knows what has happened to Billy. Upon seeing the body, he turns his rage to Nurse Ratched and strangles her until several staff members eventually stop him and a fight ensues. McMurphy is punished and subjected to electric shock therapy under the advice of Nurse Ratchet.
In the third act, McMurphy has not been seen since the fight and two rumours are circulating. One says he escaped some time ago, whilst the other claims McMurphy to be on one of the upper floors of the hospital. During the night McMurphy is brought back to his bed. He is now in a vegetable state. Chief performs a mercy killing by suffocating McMurphy with a pillow, he displays a feat of strength fueled by anger by throwing the drinking fountain out of the window, and running to freedom whilst the rest of the patients scream in triumph.
Awards: 5 Oscars, 35 wins & 13 nominations.
Oscars: 1976 for Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actresses, Best Director, Best Writing Adapted Screenplay.