It’s ironic that the image of Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — R.P. “Mac” McMurphy, in that black watch cap and grinning his devilish grin — has become a kind of visual shorthand for insanity. McMurphy isn’t insane. I’m not sure if very many of the characters surrounding him in this quietly shocking movie are, either.
Mac is a new patient at an unnamed mental institution, transferred from a nearby prison. He seems to have been committed not for mental illness but because he’s resistant to authority. In the past he’s been arrested for assault, fighting, statutory rape — he may be criminal, and he may deserve to be in jail, but he’s certainly not insane. He was just too much work for the prison guards, “’cause I don’t sit there like a goddamn vegetable,” he says.
He immediately goes to work stirring things up on the ward, trying to get the other patients — paranoids, failed suicides, guys who just don’t like to talk, many of them played by actors who’d go on to play other preternatural characters: Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Vincent Schiavelli — to wake up and start thinking for themselves. But they’re completely enthralled to the cool, calm, frighteningly obstinate Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Mac bets that he can rattle her inside of a week.
Mac seems doomed to fail, because One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a parable for how our society refuses to tolerate nonconformity. Most of Mac’s wardmates undeniably have problems, but many of the patients are voluntary — they can leave when they like. Which begs the question, are they crazy or just afraid to face the real world? Maybe they’re afraid of rejection from a “real world” that can’t deal with their strangeness? Even in the institution, the place where they’re supposedly getting some help, patients are electroshocked and drugged into submission.
Ring any bells? To me it sounds an awful lot like the current craze for Ritalin, Prozac, and other personality-altering drugs. Of course there are people who genuinely need these medications, but I think all too often they’re used for convenience’s sake only. A wildly curious child with a rebellious streak, an “overly imaginative” adult who daydreams — these people can be a lot of work for an elementary school teacher or an impatient spouse. So dope ’em up, the attitude seems to be, and we’ll all rest easier.
Director Milos Forman doesn’t editorialize in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — he doesn’t turn mental illness or mere oddity into something ennobling; there’s no sentimental musical score telling us how to feel about his characters. He just shows us the stark reality of those who run far afield of the herd.
Oscars Best Picture 1975
AFI 100 (1998 list): #33
unforgettable movie moment:
Mac calls an imaginary baseball game when Nurse Ratched refuses to turn on the TV to let the ward watch a World Series game.