Ten Decades of Oscars: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)

Hello! And welcome to yet another installment of my ongoing feature: Ten Decades of Oscars. Well, we’ve done it: we’ve reached the 70s. It’s all downhill from here, folks! I joke, I joke. Kinda. The 70s isn’t my generation of films, but it’s one that’s heavily informed my desire to explore cinema as both an artform and a craft—not to mention my tastes. It’s not just the era that birthed the blockbuster with JAWS (1975) and STAR WARS (1977), it’s the era the indisputably represents the turning point of American culture into something more jaded, but also more truthful. Where the 1960s started with Jack Lemmon tiptoeing around the premise of his supervisors using his apartment to screw their mistresses, the 1970s began with the antihero in full force from Popeye Doyle in THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER (1972) to R.P. McMurphy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975). From grand crime epics to grounded stories of divorce. Where every participant’s motives in war should be questioned, not just those our heroes battle against. This new reality isn’t just focused in the films that won the grand prizes throughout the decades; their counterparts were often of the same calibre, and were also films that have hugely influenced my cinematic upbringing: CHINATOWN (1974), A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971), DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975), TAXI DRIVER (1976), NETWORK (1976), THE CONVERSATION (1974), STAR WARS (1977), ALIEN (1979)—I mean, the list is almost endless.

But today I want to focus on 1975’s winner ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, and I want to address it somewhat differently than I have for the past winners. I want to talk about those watershed films for us cinephiles. I want to talk about those films that we don’t so much watch as we do breathe into our soul and allow them to reconstruct our adolescent DNA, and how they become portals to greater understanding and appreciation and, truly, a lifetime of passion for a specific artform. The funny thing is, you probably have your own specific film that you’d call your Portal to Film, but I believe we possess many—and not just films. Zeroing in on individual artists has blessed me with films I may have never considered before. When I worked at the movie theatre, it wasn’t uncommon for me to be asked, “How do I get more into movies? Where do I start?” And instead of films, I’d list artists: Kubrick, Hitchcock, Kazan, Ford, Scorsese, Nichols, Coppola. Want to dive into more modern works? It’s still a handy guide: Villeneuve, Johnson (Rian), Del Toro, PT Anderson, Fincher, Coens, Tarantino, Iñárritu, Bigelow, Lee (Spike), Jonze—I’ll run out of blood in my fingertips before I run out of popular directors. And don’t shy from popular. Everyone works with popular artists. They’re your gateway to other artists.

I’m rambling on like this because ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is a kingly example of this for me. My favourite actor has been Jack Nicholson for as long as I can remember. He’s always been there in the most memorable roles, from the Joker to Jack Torrance, and he’s well-known for his fiery dynamism. When I first watched this film, it was because of him—though I knew it won its fair share of awards and it was well-respected, highly lauded. And it’s true, Nicholson’s offbeat, unpredictable fire is on display here, but it works in his favour here—the only “sane” person in an institution for the mentally unstable. And his performance remains one of my absolute favourites. It is bouncy and funny and loaded with contradictory feelings—the need to do as he pleases regardless of the law, but also the desire to see the institution run on basic principles of fairness. He simply infuses each scene with a watchable quality that he’s always possessed.

Nicholson has seen his share of flops, too. He’s charismatic as all get out, but if the material/filmmaking isn’t on or near his level, that fiery dynamism can whimper into a forgetful performance. CUCKOO’S NEST has the benefit of a terrific screenplay and director, Milos Forman. This is where the Portals open up: because of this film, I sought out Forman’s 1984 winner AMADEUS and fell in love, and then to 1999’s MAN ON THE MOON, another bombastic character study. And this is what I want to say: did you see a performance from an actor you’re unfamiliar with and it blew you away? Follow them! IMDb couldn’t exist for a more useful reason. Watch at least four of their works, preferably works you know nothing about, and see what sticks. Did you find something fantastic? Follow the director! Watch what you can find. Follow the artists. They’re the best portals to films you’ll never find any other way. These days, I often choose films I’m interested in based on the artists involved—more often directors and writers than actors. I’ll say, “Ooh this came out today, let’s watch it!” and my partner will ask “What’s that about?” and I’ll say, “I dunno, I just know I wanna watch it!”

But what more can I say about ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST? It holds a close place in my heart for multiple reasons. And though it is a total representation of its era, it’s only cynical insofar as its story, of its willingness to make an antihero out of R.P. McMurphy, but the outlook, the way that story is told, is far from cynical. It may be the best example of the 70s winners of a film that just wants to tell a good story, that wants to make us laugh and cry and feel like we’re different people by the time the credits roll. It has no particular message, no political viewpoint. It just wants to engage on a wide range of emotions, some intellectual and some not. What does Nurse Ratched do that is so despicable in this film other than have a couple minor power trips? By the end, she impugns past the breaking point, but she’s also quite blindsided, and so her reaction is still in step with what you’d expect from her: nothing extreme but quite judgemental. And yet she’s played so distressingly calm by Louise Flecther. She’s so calculating. She’s such an antithesis to McMurphy’s zeal that we view her as positively evil. To the point where they made an absurd TV show about her. Yeah. It’s such a captivator, this one. There’s a scene near the end where we sit on a close-up of McMurphy for one full minute. No dialogue. No camerawork. Just Nicholson sitting, reflecting, thinking, and it wouldn’t be half as engrossing in any other film.

Join me next week when we enter the decade in which I was born. Boy, I hope someone got fired for that blunder. The contestants are:

ORDINARY PEOPLE
CHARIOTS OF FIRE
GANDHI
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
AMADEUS
OUT OF AFRICA
PLATOON
THE LAST EMPEROR
RAIN MAN
DRIVING MISS DAISY

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is available on Blu-ray and digitally on Apple TV, Google Play, and Microsoft.

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