On Nov. 19, 1975, United Artists unveiled its One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest adaptation in theaters. The film went on to win five Oscars at the 48th Academy Awards, including best actor for Jack Nicholson, best actress for Louise Fletcher, best director for Milos Forman and best picture. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
Chalk up Jack Nicholson as yet another strong contender for a Best Actor nomination in the 1975 Academy Award sweepstakes. After the lethargies of Passenger and the forced humor of Fortune, Nicholson illuminates the dark recesses of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the kind of tough, resilient, multi-layered performance that made Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail so memorable.
As novelist Ken Kesey’s R.P. McMurphy, a convict who has himself transferred to a state mental institution by feigning insanity, he draws a frighteningly persuasive portrait of a preeminently sane man being pushed to the outer limits of his sanity by the need to conform to hospital rules and regulations, as enunciated by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
In Kesey’s trenchant metaphor, which made his novel one of the bestsellers of the sixties, for the state hospital one can readily substitute the state, with its laws maddeningly devised to protect the individual. Let the individual test or protest these laws, however, and they can be turned into an instrument to crush him. But Kesey (and Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, who wrote the screenplay) was too much the artist and too much the realist to let it go at that. There are some men who want to be crushed, who need to be punished, who crave the limitations imposed upon them by the society in which they live. This is the borderline world of McMurphy; and it is both underlined and understated in the film’s most daring and sustained sequence. With an escape route at hand, McMurphy chooses to remain with his pals on the ward for a final carousal – and his ultimate destruction. With the window bars unlocked, and friends just a step away, why doesn’t McMurphy make good his dash for freedom?
The answer is supplied in the context of the film. Freedom may be precious, but friends are more so. On his ward, McMurphy becomes a leader, pushing the mentally and physically disabled to rediscover their potential, testing hospital regulations to their limits, finding ways — generally extralegal — to break through the shuffling apathy of his ward-mates. And always, these adventures bring him up against the rigid, humorless, enormously efficient Nurse Ratched.
Nurse Ratched is an inspiring creation. Smiling, patient, unruffled by any contingency, she is a stickler for the rules — and has learned how to make the rules work to her benefit. She enjoys not power itself, but the exercise of power, the ability to exert her will in the name of meaningless regulations. When some of the men, egged on by McMurphy, want to change the ward’s routine so that they can watch the World Series on television, she puts it to a vote. And insists on including in the vote men whose minds are too far gone to care one way or the other. It is the democratic process in a reductio ad absurdum.
Louise Fletcher, in her second screen role (she was seen last year in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us), makes this malignant character work like magic. There is something so impersonal, so cool, so detached in her manner that we find ourselves, almost reluctantly, forced to judge her not by her lights, but by ours. On the surface, she is the model nurse (and, extending Kesey’s metaphor, the model civil servant), using her authority with a skill and impartiality that make her, in the words of the head of the hospital, “the best nurse we have.” That she is also, in her daily encounter sessions, destroying the men on her ward is wholly beside the point. Fletcher gives a human dimension to this inhuman creature that makes the characterization frighteningly real and true.
The same might be said of the entire cast, a few of whom — notably Danny De Vito and Delos V. Smith Jr. — appeared in the Dale Wasserman play adaptation, back in 1962. But vying with these are the standout performances of Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Vincent Schiavelli, “Scatman” Crothers and, indeed, everyone wandering within range of Haskell Wexler’s energetic camera.
Which means that the overall concept, for camera as well as for characterization, had to come from the skilled Czech director, Milos Forman. In his native land, Forman was responsible for such neo-humanist masterpieces as The Loves of a Blond and The Firemen’s Ball. His only previous feature in this country was the saturnine Taking Off, an inspired glance at the impact of the youth culture on suburbia. With One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman takes his rightful place as one of our most creative young directors. His casting is inspired, his sense of milieu is assured, and he could probably wring Academy Award performances from a stone. Happily, neither Jack Nicholson nor Louise Fletcher is in the least bit stony, and it’s my guess that we’ll be hearing from both at Academy Award time next year. — Arthur Knight, originally published Nov. 14, 1975.