Perhaps I had overestimated how famous this movie is? Maybe everyone I met today was just weird. Who knows. As it is for everyone, it's one of my favorites, and Milos Forman is such a great director. I've watched a few of his other films for this project, and have really developed a whole new appreciation for him.
I'll indulge in some plot summary. The film is about R.P McMurphy, a criminal hoping to avoid doing hard labor for the rest of his prison sentence. He ends up being committed to a mental institution, which he thinks will be an easier environment. His ward is presided over by Nurse Ratched, who spends all of her time keeping patients on a strict schedule and humiliating them. She has no empathy for any of the patients in her ward, and treats them like they are sub-human. McMurphy, who doesn't deal too well with authority, stirs up a rebellion. He fantasizes about escaping, and as he works on a plan, he brings excitement into the lives of the patients.
I love this movie for more reasons than the fact that McMurphy is an interesting rebel. I like that he treats the patients like they are people, and though his expectations of them might be unrealistic, I like that he treats them like he would treat any of his friends. There is a scene where he tries to teach Chief how to play basketball. An orderly, watching, tells him it's useless, since Chief is deaf and mute. "It isn't hurting him, is it?" McMurphy asks. Of course it's not hurting him - so in the worst case, nothing changes, and in the best case, these actions are vaguely helpful to him. I don't know, maybe I'm naive, but I respect McMurphy for treating the patients as he does. I guess I can't see any situation where it is not a good thing to treat everyone as equally as possible.
I think there is an interesting question of whether viewers are laughing with or laughing at the patients. I would say I found myself laughing with them, personally. The difference is sort of thin, though. For example, the scene when McMurphy hijacks a hospital bus and takes them all fishing. When he introduces them as doctors, I wasn't smiling because clearly they were too insane to be doctors or have any idea what was going on. I was smiling because I felt their excitement for being outside the hospital, and for being around someone that they seemed to like. I was happy for the characters because they were no longer being controlled by Nurse Ratched and they were having fun. Just like when Billy has a bit of fun with Candy, and the next morning, he no longer stutters. I wasn't laughing because it was an unlikely or a strange situation, but because I was like, "You go, Billy!". I was happy for him, and that made me smile, and I found myself having that reaction to most of the scenes in the movie.
I really enjoyed how Milos Forman directed this movie. He gave a lot of time and attention to developing the characters, and it seemed like all of the characters in the ensemble were featured. I often felt like I was cheering for them, and was there smiling with them as they had different adventures. I loved that he was able to strike a good balance between humor and sadness during the film, as well. The movie, of course, is not all smiles and ponies. There are some difficult scenes at the end, but they are handled with some strange and perfect dose of positive feelings.
Spoilers follow, so stop reading if you haven't seen this movie. I think that Chief did what was right at the end of the film. I felt like he could sense the hope that McMurphy created in the patients, and if they had seen him defeated, it would have taken that away. More importantly, McMurphy would have not wanted to go on living as a broken, ruined shell of a person, and for me, Chief was merciful. The legend of McMurphy would still live on, and the excitement the patients felt would still exist, as well. Maybe that would help them heal, to have those memories and thoughts, to know that they didn't have to be oppressed or controlled. I have no idea if this is the right way to read the end of the film, but it's how I feel about it. I like that there are tragic elements mixed into this otherwise humorous film, and Forman somehow manages to make the overall tone still make so much sense.
A lot of this film sounds sort of contrived when you sum it up - a dashing rebel helps patients in a hospital! All they needed was some fishing and beers, not group therapy! Ebert wonders if the film is not great because of how manipulative it is, or if it is this skillful manipulation of our emotions that make it so great. I sort of found myself wondering that as well. I mean, I totally fall for this movie. I love McMurphy, and I love his rebellious nature. I love that he helps the patients, and I love seeing them change due to his influence. But I do see that Forman does a lot of things to manipulate our emotions. If I had to answer that question, I would say that the manipulation makes it masterful. It takes skill to manipulate people, and I think it says a lot about the power of the directing and acting. That's just me, though.
On a totally different note, Ebert brings up the performance of Louise Fletcher, who really doesn't get as much attention as Jack Nicholson does, although she got an Oscar for her performance. Ebert guesses that we don't acknowledge her because "...her Nurse Ratched is so thoroughly contemptible, and because she embodies so completely the qualities we all (men and women) have been taught to fear in a certain kind of female authority figure--a woman who has subsumed sexuality and humanity into duty and righteousness" (Great Movies II, 311 ). I thought this was an interesting observation - I know that I spent more time tonight talking with my family about how much I disliked the character that she plays that I never got around to complementing her performance. But what a sign of a great actress - that we so believe her awful character, that we don't even think about the actress behind it!
I really love this movie, and if it wasn't almost 2am, I'd keep writing about it. I pretty much know that I'm being manipulated, but I can't help but love it. It just works for me. I really fell in love with all the of the characters, and because I cared for them, I felt so happy to see them being treated well by McMurphy. He seemed to care for them, genuinely. He could have left them to struggle with the fish on their own on the boat, but he left Candy to help them. He could have left after the party he threw them, as well, but he cared too much for them to not stay and see what had just gone wrong. I liked how the camera really lingered on the actors and their reactions to things, and how intimately I felt like I knew the characters because of this. I just like so much about this movie, and I was really happy to watch it again today. If you haven't seen this movie, you must, and if it's been a while, this is such a great film to revisit.
Have any thoughts on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
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