Film Diary: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975)
Sunday, 16 November 2008
How do you think you’d fare if you went to Hollywood big shots these days for money to make a critique of the mental health service? You’d probably not be sectioned for it but you might be laughed out of town. Mind you, if it’s the more laid-back 1975 and you have Kirk Douglas and Son behind it, the project had a fair chance. It turned out to be not just a blockbuster but one one of the defining films of its time.
Although to call it a critique of the mental health services is to miss the point. It’s as much a mental hospital story as if… is a ripping boys’ school yarn. It’s a story of its time, and its time wasn’t morning-after-the-summer-of-love 1975, when the Yom Kippur war and the subsequent oil crisis shook everybody out of babyboomer idealism and planted tehir feet firmly in the mud. It’s a film ten years after its time and belongs to those heady days of revolutionary optimism in which Ken Kesey wrote the novel. It’s the tale of the rebel pitted against a calculating, controlling and oh-so-reasonable establishment that crushes the human spirit, and it might have been waiting for Jack Nicholson to come along. If that’s the case it’s certainly no worse for the wait.
It’s also, in a curious way, a love story. Nicholson’s character shouldn’t be in a mental hospital, but he’s an accomplished player of the system who wangles commitment as a way of easing the passage of his short prison sentence for the statutory rape of a girl “fifteen going on thirty-five”. One inside he meets his nemesis in the form of control freak Louise Fletcher who, he realised to late, has made a career out of bringing her charges under her complete control and has the power to detain indefinitely. Oh, how these two need each other! For Fletcher, the wild and wayward Nicholson is a challenge to be tamed and brought under her control. And Nicholson just has to break the ice-cool Fletcher; rumple the perfect hair and soil the crisp white uniform. It’s going to be a titanic struggle, and as with the titanic struggles of the day it’s always likely to end in mutual destruction.
The two leads play it to perfection. Jack Nicholson has been playing Randall McMurphy all his career, but the real tour de force is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched. Her buttoned down, oh-so-reasonable menace comes across with great subtlety. You want to find a heart of gold inside there, but of course there is none.
Was this the last of the truly great Hollywood films? Maybe not, but Hollywood won’t be making many more of this calibre.