Try to imagine an actor other than Jack Nicholson starring in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Gene Hackman? Not randy enough. Paul Newman? Too good-natured. Robert DeNiro? Maybe – if the filmmakers had wanted to portray the wrongly institutionalised R. P. McMurphy as an actual psychopath. Nicholson’s McMurphy is indelible, difficult to separate from the actor’s own image. He’s one of those iconic characters, like Norman Bates or Travis Bickle, whom people seem to know even if they haven’t seen the movie he belongs to.

Published in 1962, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the first novel by Ken Kesey, a writer who can be considered a transitional figure between the Beat Generation and the hippies. Released in 1975, director Milos Forman’s film adaptation eliminates the hallucinatory narration by Chief Bromden, a mentally ill Native American, and discards the book’s 1950s-era view of conformity for a sadder, borderline-defeatist tone that owes more to memories of Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the Prague Spring (Forman is a Czechoslovak émigré). However, the screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman follows Kesey’s plot fairly closely. Most of the action is confined to an Oregon state hospital’s psychiatric ward where the autocratic head nurse, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), uses every insidious means at her disposal to keep the (mostly voluntary) patients in line: veiled threats, public shaming, even electro-shock therapy administered as punishment.

Randle Patrick McMurphy lands on this ward after proving too unruly for a prison work farm. (His crimes include fighting and statutory rape, which he tries to explain away by saying that the girl was really “15 going on 35”.) At first he thinks the hospital is a cushy place to ride out the rest of his sentence, but after riling up the other inmates and clashing with Nurse Ratched, McMurphy realises he’s been committed. His anti-authoritarian vitality marks him as the only sane man in a world driven mad by fear, repression, and blind adherence to arbitrary rules. In the book, he eventually sacrifices himself (after a fashion) so that the other inmates can summon the strength to liberate themselves. The movie’s conclusion isn’t quite so clear-cut.

Compared to the bawdy Christ-like figure of Kesey’s book, Nicholson’s McMurphy is far more complicated and interesting. Pushing 40 in 1975, Nicholson had become the definitive counter-culture movie star, whose defiant persona – not to mention his ballooning paychecks – served as a poke in the eye to the establishment. Not since Humphrey Bogart in the 1940s had an American actor so well personified his generation’s fantasy self, as well as its flaws. None of Nicholson’s contemporaries was quite so good at showing – in films such as Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) and The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973) – how rebellious exuberance can often be a cloak for lonely, even anti-social, feelings in middle-aged men.

Near the end of the movie, as McMurphy prepares to bust out of the hospital, a long, wordless close-up illustrates the depth Nicholson brings to this character. The novel’s closest equivalent occurs on the ride back from a rambunctious fishing trip, when Chief Bromden (played in the film by Will Sampson) notices in the glare of passing headlights just how tired McMurphy appears behind the wheel. On the page, this comes across mainly as a late attempt to flesh out McMurphy’s two-dimensional personality. Onscreen, however, we see a string of emotions play across Nicholson’s face (weariness, foreboding, being jazzed about sticking it to Nurse Ratched), and while McMurphy lets his guard down, the actor still keeps the viewer at a slight remove. The shot is simultaneously revealing and mysterious. We can guess what McMurphy, curiously hesitant to escape, may be thinking, but we don’t really know. As an actor, Nicholson thrives in this grey area between suggestion and certainty.

Another straddler, Kesey writes in a mode somewhere between allegory and comic-strip. In a sense, the novel is a sort of deflated Western, suggesting what the closing of the American frontier has done to the mythic figures of cowboy (McMurphy) and Indian (Chief Bromden). The shrewd decision to narrate One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the Chief’s voice gave the author access both to this racial/national theme – all but absent from the film – and to literary flights of paranoid hallucinations justified by the Chief’s mental illness. Kesey’s own experiments with psychotropic drugs, including those taken during shifts he worked as an orderly at a psychiatric hospital, surely played a part as well.

Forman’s film remains naturalistic, its concerns more grounded. To his credit, the director doesn’t have anything grand to say about American archetypes. He’s more interested in the sad laughter that gets caught in a viewer’s throat while watching scenes of grown men transformed into frightened boys by a strong woman’s unblinking stare. Casting the relatively unknown Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched plays intelligently on our identification with the star – who does this woman think she is trying to stifle Jack Nicholson? Nicholson is game, too: his sly grin occasionally drops into a slack-jawed expression, which betrays that McMurphy isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler drains the Pacific Northwest light of vibrancy but uses a surprisingly gentle touch to film the dingy hospital interiors. His attentive camera, coupled with fine supporting performances by Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbitt), Sidney Lassick (Cheswick), William Redfield (Harding), Danny DeVito (Martini), and Christopher Lloyd (Taber), renders the ensemble of patients as distinct individuals in a way the novel doesn’t. Kesey sees them mainly as neurotics who would be okay if they could just face up to their problems. It’s telling that the author’s sketches of “Characters on the Ward”, later published in Kesey’s Garage Sale (1973), basically all look the same. But the filmmakers create a cast of inmates who are more independent – and therefore more poignant – than just a bunch of meek guys in pajamas waiting for a hero to arrive. These men are troubled.

In the Chief’s telling, McMurphy and Nurse Ratched are constantly strategising, each one planning ahead and trying to anticipate the other’s moves in an ongoing grudge match. Nicholson and Forman instead endow McMurphy with a gift for improvisation, forcing him to react to the corners he paints himself into. Kesey aimed for larger-than-life but ended up with a comic-strip hero, memorable yet unbelievable. Nicholson keeps McMurphy sadly life-sized, crafty but ultimately overmatched. He’s the type to boast of some impossible thing he’s about to do, then fail and say, “But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamn it, at least I did that.” What’s more, you can’t help but agree with him.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975 USA 133 mins)

Prod Co: Fantasy Films Prod: Saul Zaentz, Michael Douglas Dir: Milos Forman Scr: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey Phot: Haskell Wexler Ed: Sheldon Kahn, Lynzee Klingman Prod Des: Paul Sylbert Mus: Jack Nitzsche

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Scatman Crothers, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson, Brad Dourif, Sidney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd

About The Author

Michael Healey holds an MA in Cinema Studies from New York University. His writing has also appeared in The Hitchcock Annual, The House Next Door, and PopMatters.com. He lives in New York with his wife and son and doesn’t see nearly as many movies these days as he’d like to.