|Scene from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest|
For an actor like Jack Nicholson, there's an embarrassment of riches to be found in his filmography for "best performance." Who could argue with The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Shining, or even later in The Departed? It's tough to narrow it down. However, to understand what made him an essential icon, one doesn't have to look further than "The World Series scene" of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to understand what has kept him an indelible part of pop culture. It's by no means a scene that forwards the story, yet reflect the dovetailing effect of the late Milos Forman's ability to direct a scene with nothing more than a hand raise. It's one of Nicholson's finest scenes, and evidence of the magic that came from a director who took a psych ward and turned it into a grander metaphor for society. When Nicholson's scream breaks the sound barrier, it unleashes the purest joy of cinema, and it's all so simple.
The story centers around Randall Patrick "R.P." McMurphy (Nicholson), who becomes a character defining "moral ambiguity." He enters the psych ward with a manipulative streak. He's got a shady past, but he seems to be cunning in his ability to work his way through any situation. It's a disconcerting event then to see him surrounded by mentally impaired men, all being treated by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) during therapy sessions. She gives them medical treatment, and overall treats them not like patients, but like prisoners. It's yet another grey area, as she slowly comes across as a woman doing her job - becoming a tragic villain who has no choice but to "follow orders." Seeing as she's the metaphorical embodiment of society/"Big Brother," many have taken her to be vindictive, but as The World Series scene would suggest, it's difficult to paint either McMurphy or Ratched as being totally familiar in their performances.
The gist of the scene is simple: McMurphy wants to watch the World Series baseball game on the TV, which is considered a privilege often restricted to the patients. McMurphy's rise throughout the film reveals that he has some control over these men, even managing to break them out of the psych ward to go on a haphazard fishing trip with some loose women. It's unclear if McMurphy is insane, but he's impulsive and knows how to break out of the system when he needs to. That is, except for when he wants to watch the TV within the confines. He pleads with Ratched to watch the game, but is told that he needs a majority vote. The other patients, all of whom have formed a fondness for McMurphy, agree. But there's more than them in this building. He needs an illustrious final vote to change the score.
A more sympathetic Ratched would take what follows as a chance to let the patients experience some life. She wouldn't be tapping her foot and counting down the few minutes left, hoping that she doesn't have to listen to the men cheer in the corner as a ball is swung out of the park. Instead, it's a scene that more reflects her inability to break schedule, creating an obsessive compulsive disorder to stick to a schedule, no matter what. She warns McMurphy that the therapy session is adjourned, which he doesn't take well. He's too busy trying to find that final vote, desperately pushing against order. In its own way, it symbolizes a struggle to follow a regiment, to be satisfied with what others are offering to him. The therapy is doing nothing, and not watching the game could make him go insane. Ratched is disconnected from their enjoyment, in part because this is the only connection she has with them. The rest of her days are spent behind glass with other nurses, trying to maintain order that McMurphy rudely disrupts.
So is Ratched really a villain? It's revealed later that she participates in modern examples of unethical medicine. But for this scene, she gains one of the few examples of sympathy. She believes that the session is over. She recites the line multiple times, yet must wander around McMurphy, doing his best to find that vote. She is unsure how to control this man, who from her vantage point is obnoxious. If he's sane, he's causing major trouble. If he's insane, then he has other conflicts to worry about. So which is it? Is McMurphy insane? The answer remains likely somewhere in the middle, probably reflecting an antagonistic relationship with authority straying back to his youth. He needs this validation, and Ratched's inability to control him is his biggest reward. That is, except for the TV.
Why is this game so important to McMurphy? It's likely a way to feel normal, and to connect with the other patients who pass the time miserably with card games in droll hallways and gated windows. There's no life, no humanity to be found in this place. Watching a ballgame would give them some hope. But what about those that didn't vote to watch the game? Are they just people who prefer basketball or football? Maybe, but Forman paints the scene as a certain kind of depletion. The people that McMurphy interacts with all have a downtrodden vibe, unable to feel any enthusiasm for this simple request. In theory, they don't even have to watch the game. They just have to give someone else a sense of life.
It's the heart of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. McMurphy is fighting a metaphorical system. They don't care about their patients' regard. They would even give them shock treatment if they believed it would make a difference. But still, what is McMurphy but not a knowing rebel who wants to start a riot? It's a sentiment that carries over from the original novel by Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel in 1962 in response to the Civil Rights Movement. The radical need for change was an idea that could apply to mental patients, and it also could be applied to the Nixon era, where the Vietnam War divided citizens and Watergate altered how everyone saw the government in permanent ways. Kesey notoriously hated the adaptation of his work, though the film embodied that eternal struggle. Much like how the TV series M*A*S*H* was about the Korean War but came to symbolize the Vietnam War, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was deceptively simple, capturing a change in culture that was more subtle than the other counterpoints of Nicholson's career.
In a lot of ways, casting Nicholson in the lead alone symbolized one of the greatest metaphors in the entire film. Having gained attention for Easy Rider, he was an actor who played crazy characters who fought the system. The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces, and Chinatown all portrayed a flawed system in compelling, contemporary ways that reflected the actor's charisma. Still, it was his role as McMurphy that earned him an Oscar, and of which reflected his most complicated role yet. Here he was, grinning at everyone and forcing them to question the sanity of a society that had been lied to by Nixon. Would they want to put up with Ratched if she too took away their freedoms? The freedom was simply a baseball game, as inoffensive as it sounds. So why couldn't McMurphy get it?
There's the underlying sense that everyone has been warped to believe their inferiority. They didn't deserve luxuries. The few converted to McMurphy's way of thinking would become enlightened to the change. With the meeting over, McMurphy finally gets the vote from quiet janitor Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), who is reclusive and fits more into the background. He doesn't entirely fall for McMurphy's games, but finds his spirit to be encouraging. It's a lot clearer in Kesey's book how Chief feel about McMurphy, if just because he's the narrator. Still, he gives the vote, reflecting a changing heart. Sampson is underrated in the role, managing to bring a nuance to simple insecure posturing, and a slow hand wave that leads to one of the film's most powerful moments, literally and audibly.
It's McMurphy's scream. He has won the vote. Compared to everything that came before, the scream is jolting. It's one of elation, but it also tears through the soundscape in a way that captures repressed excitement. He has been desperate for this sort of approval. It's something that could be used against Ratched, who gains fear by the act of him winning everyone over. After all, there's more of them than there are of her. She doesn't have an army, nor anyone strong enough to take on this crowd. It's a metaphor for society, finally understanding the idea of "power in numbers." But to Ratched, it's a sign of greed. They get one right, they'll want more. Even if she manages to win by citing the strict scheduling, she hasn't broken their spirits. McMurphy proceeds to narrate a game he imagines, drawing everyone to cheer him on.
In theory, NOTHING has happened in this scene that forwards the plot in any meaningful way. However, it's what makes Forman such an important filmmaker who understands the material. By shooting at a real psych ward, he creates a form of cinema verite that feels grounded and familiar. There's a good chance that most audience members were never in a psych ward, but they know the feeling of oppression. A ballgame suddenly becomes a metaphor that can be applied to any personal struggle, capturing the timelessness of the themes at the center of the film. It's about a struggle between order and chaos, and sometimes order is a little too neat for people to have full satisfaction. Change needs to be made, and that includes the one time offer of watching a game. But what if it ruins the schedule? It's hard to say.
Likewise, this scene creates an understanding of the power struggle between McMurphy and Ratched. Nicholson gives one of his greatest performances here, and it comes down to his enthusiasm and ability to find hope where it is depleted. He has a desperation, even as he sounds like a salesman trying to sell a dream. Ratched is too judgmental, yet scared of things changing beyond her control. Maybe she just wants to keep her job. Maybe she really does hate McMurphy on a personal level for representing something she can't have. It's unclear, but to view Ratched's struggle in this scene as something more human makes the film far more fascinating than a simple villain role where her horns are replaced with a curved hairstyle.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a phenomenal movie that won Best Picture, as well as the Big 5. It's hard not to see why that is, especially given how much detail went into making a film that felt real and timeless, while also holding deeper themes of struggle the likes of which are more subtle than the Vietnam War dramas of the same time. It's a film indebted to change, but isn't defined by one form of change. If it wasn't for setting, the film wouldn't even fit into a specific era. It's one that explores sanity in all its forms, proving that there are those who are born insane, and those that become insane. But why do they become that way? In Forman's one moment of joy, it becomes clear that part of it is insecurity and fear of change. Let them stay insane. Don't put on the ballgame. It makes their job easier.