Thursday, November 19, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)

Scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Release Date: November 19, 1975
Director: Milos Forman
Written By: Laurence Hauben & Bo Goldman (Screenplay), Ken Kesey (Novel), Dale Wasserman (Play)
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 133 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Jack Nicholson)
-Best Actress (Louise Fletcher)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif)
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Barry Lyndon
-Dog Day Afternoon

And the winner is...

Among all of the Best Picture winners, there are very few that have as high of a reputation as that of director Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. From the iconic, career-defining performance by Jack Nicholson to the inimitable villainous role by Nurse Ratched, it was a film that embodied a change in society. Without directly addressing it, it became a political film about the oppressive nature of government as well as a cryptic look into the sanity of its central character. What is left is a pesudo-comic drama for the ages, based on a book by an author who disowned the adaptation, and adored by the general public who seek complexity in their cinema. There are very few films like it, even within Nicholson's stoic and overpowering career. You may be able to escape the cuckoo's nest, but you'll never forget your time watching it.

Ken Kesey published "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in 1962. As a forefather of the hippie literature movement, he participated in what Tom Wolfe called "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." While the novel is allegedly based off of his time working at a psych ward, reports beg to differ - as he was notoriously accustomed to being high on LSD. By 1963, Kirk Douglas had the rights and made a stage version of the novel. He eventually passed it onto his son, Michael Douglas - who was more intent on making a film version of it. Kesey would contribute a script, but insisted on having it from the perspective of Chief Bromden: a mute Indian who serves as the narrator of his book. It would be rejected. Likewise, studios rejected the project because of how long it had been in production. 20th Century Fox contemplated making it, but only if the ending became happy. As a result, 20th Century Fox was rejected by the makers. Michael Douglas initially wanted to play the role, but was considered too old by the time that filming finally started over a decade after the book and play's release.

Douglas personally sought out Czech director Milos Forman for the part. Considering that the director was more akin to "cinema verite" (or realism), he found it appealing. The other request was that the film would be shot with a big name in the lead with a supporting cast of unknowns, as to create a sense of leadership for one character. When Douglas sent Forman the book, the Czech government initially confiscated the book, believing that it was Anti-Communist. Thankfully, Forman would receive it and soon the production was underway. Even if protagonist R.P. McMurphy was an Irish redhead, they still went with Nicholson. While Fletcher took some more convincing and claimed to not quite be a perfect fit during auditions, Forman kept calling her back, believing that she provided an intensity to the role. In coincidence, she was scheduled to be in Nashville and Lily Tomlin was schedule to be Nurse Ratched. Things would eventually flip, though both would be competing for Best Picture the following year. Chief Bromden would be played by Will Sampson. The role was almost axed until they discovered that there was a Oregon national park ranger who fit their need, thus giving Sampson the role by default. The film also featured acting from former Oregon mayor (of where it was filmed) Tom McCall.

Forman embraced cinema verite, often having performers simply reacting to situations. Speaking as large portions of shooting were done without the actors' awareness, many reaction shots were actually actors interacting with the director or crew members. Nicholson improvised many scenes with the cast and crew giving genuine responses. Many of the cast and crew were actual mental patients with many of the actors living in the Oregon mental asylum that they filmed at. On one day, a patient accidentally fell out of a window and injured himself, leading to the headline in the newspapers of "One Flew Out of the Cuckoo's Nest." Fletcher altered her character, believing that it would be more intimidating to not be aware of her evilness. Unlike her co-stars, who were often allowed to have fun, she became intimidated by being seen as unlikable. This resulted in her, during near the end of the production, stripping down to her panties just to prove how fun she was. While the film is largely shot sequentially, the boating scenes were shot last. This was a relief, as everyone in the cast except Nicholson would get seasick during the 10 days of shooting. Danny DeVito claims to still have nightmares thinking about it.

The film was a general success upon release, becoming the seventh highest grossing film of all time up to that point. As everyone received acclaim for the work, it did have one strong dissenter: Kesey himself. Besides Douglas rejecting his script, he was bitter over the film losing its purpose. He hated that Chief Bromden's perspective (as it was in the book) was altered to McMurphy's. He felt that he had a verbal contract with them that they wouldn't make flagrant changes. He boycotted the movie, even suing the studio believing that they did him wrong. As a result, he has never claimed interest of wanting to see it. It makes sense, since the changes turned a book written by an LSD addict full of occasionally surreal imagery into documentary-like cinema does seem inappropriate if you like LSD-inspired imagery. 

The film was also a phenomenon at the Oscars that year. The film would become the second film in history to win "The Big Five." This is: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted/Original Screenplay. Douglas made note of this during the Best Picture acceptance speech, citing It Happened One Night as the only other one. There would be a third one with The Silence of the Lambs. The other thing that these three films share is that those are the only wins that they would receive. During her acceptance speech, Fletcher finished with a personal message to her parents done in sign language, telling them that she was following her dream. This was the first Oscar win and fifth nomination for Nicholson, of whom would win three Oscars and 12 nominations total - a record high for male actors (Meryl Streep leads overall with three wins and 19 nominations). 

The film's reputation has been very lucrative. It has constantly ranked among the best films of all time with Nicholson and Fletcher's performances often being cited as the pinnacle of American acting. It was one of the first successful American films to incorporate cinema verite into the narrative format. While conflict rises between the major differences between the book and film, most have come to accept the film as a noteworthy commentary on the political climate of the late 60's and 70's. Beyond the many parodies that followed, it raised awareness of mental health issues in the United States. In more recent years, the character of Nurse Ratched has become a regular character on the ABC fairy tale series Once Upon a Time where she has appeared in four of the five current seasons.

Whether seen as an allegory for the political climate or mental health issues, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a film that immediately strikes a chord with the viewer. It's an immersive experience, mixing charisma and shocking revelations into a narrative that continues to speak to modern audiences. With career defining performances by Nicholson and Fletcher, it's impossible to deny the impact that the film has. Even if it's way different from its initial intent, the final results are nonetheless exciting and fresh, showing realism in not only cinematography, but in flawed characters. Is R.P. McMurphy insane? It's the ambiguous twist of the 70's, arguing for and against it. Thankfully, audiences will never know and it doesn't matter. The film's too good to ruin the fun of it all.

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