One of the best films of 1970’s – then it was a huge hit, today it’s an important part of every film anthology, Academy Award winner, true classic; the story about free spirit trapped into the cage of heartless system; magnificent performances of memorable actors, perfect achievment in making movies and deeply moving message that brings on top one of the most profound things in life – human spirit.

Directed by: MILOS FORMAN
Written upon the novel by KEN KESSEY
Director of Photography: BILL BUTLER, HASKELL WEXLER
Music composed by: JACK NITZSCHE
Color, 133 min.

Paradigm of modern society – Milos Forman achieves the perfect balance between serious anthropological themes and comedy.

Back in early 60’s Hollywood superstar Kirk Douglas read the novel called “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”, he loved it and bought the rights to the book. Few months later on Broadway, there was a stageplay of the same name starring Douglas himself. Although the reviews were positive, the show didn’t last long. The next logical step for encouraged Kirk Douglas was making the play into class-A movie, but the things weren’t that easy… He tried with Hal Ashby, then with Robert Altman but they weren’t interested in making it.

A decade later he finally dropped the idea, giving the film rights to his son Michael Douglas, promising young actor in those days. Michael liked the original idea and soon he met with producer Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Films – they began looking for a talented non-Hollywood director. In the meantime, one of the finest film authors behind the Iron Curtain, Czech Milos Forman arrived to New York after brief staying in Paris and began search for his american dream.
Finally, Douglas, Zaentz and talented author of “Firemen’s Ball” found each other and Forman agreed to make the movie.

Jack Nicholson – rebel under pressure of institution

Once they found actual mental institution that allowed them almost free reign of the facility, the director and the producers started looking for a leading star. The first pick was reportedly Gene Hackman, after him James Caan – both of whom turned it down. Forman wanted Burt Reynolds to play R.P.McMurphy but Zaentz and young Douglas thought Jack Nicholson would be perfect for the role and so they agreed to wait for him to become available. Actress Louise Fletcher had to go through six months of auditions to win female leading role – Nurse Ratched. Before she was cast, stars such as Ann Bancroft and Ellen Burnstyn rejected to play the Nurse. Other roles were filled by talented actors, for most of them this was their first film. Milos Forman’s idea was to cast impressive but unknown actors with distinct features, so he did.

The important issue for Czech author was cinematography; all his prior films were photographed by his close friend Miroslav Ondricek but it was impossible for him to travel outside (then communist) Chechoslovakia. So, they hired Haskell Wexler, but after few days on set it was obvious Forman and his director of photography just didn’t match. The compromises were hard to reach and finaly Forman decided to replace Wexler – last few weeks Bill Butler, another established Hollywood cinematographer, was in head of camera.

The shooting take place at the Oregon State Mental Hospital, but before actual filming, through 1974 Forman together with Lawrence Hauben spent a few months in that same institution truying to write a script and, at the same time, learn more about mental patients, treatments, behavior etc. “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” was filmed for eleven weeks.

The plot centers on convicted felon Randall McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who is sent over to the mental institution for observation. His high energy, strong spirit and independence contrasts with mentally unstable inmates who just line up for their medication, no questiones asked. All of a sudden McMurphy injects rebellious spirit to the other eight semi-functioning members of the ward setting off silent stares of hatred in Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). This triggers war on each other and Nurse Ratched reveals herself as the dysfunctional soulless official, determined to maintain ward policy no matter how brutal and ridiculous…

Jack Nicholson created one of the most favourite characters in american cinema – his McMurphy is unchained, independent person, rebel with a cause, eccentric individual; in a word, man who just wants to live his life out of conventions, rules, frames. “Cuckoo’s nest” is fundamental, multi-layer paradigm of autoritharian regime, it precisely depicts universal conflict between institution and individual, system vs. free spirit.

One flow over the cuckoo’s nest, Triumph at the Oscars 1975
Triumph at the Oscars 1975 – Michael Douglas, Milos Forman, Louise Fletcher, Jack Nicholson, Saul Zaentz

One of the major qualities of ‘Cuckoo’s nest’ is the realism of ‘Nest’ itself, meaning the actual place of shooting – Milos Forman insisted on filming the story in the real mental institution, even using actual personnel and patients. The crew was not only filming inside the actual hospital, they practically lived in there as long as ‘Nest’ was filmed.

For the leading role (new patient Randall McMurphy) Forman wanted recognizable movie star, unlike for other characters; The director later explained – there was that mental hospital full of strange, crazy people, that world that is unknown to the audience and on the other side there was a familiar ‘sane’ guy who supposed to enter that strange world; that’s why was much better, stronger for lead character to be played by a popular actor, familiar to the viewers. It turned out Jack Nicholson was perfect choice. In fact, he read the novel ten years earlier and loved it, just as his famous coleague Kirk Douglas; back then, Nicholson tried to buy the rights for the book and they told him Douglas already got them… The touch of destiny, years later, made Jack Nicholson a crucial part of “Cuckoo’s Nest”, just as he wanted it.

Nowadays some of supporting actors in “Cuckoo’s nest” are widely respected (Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Brad Dourif), but back in 1976 these unknow faces made the audience think that they were entering new territory, with Nicholson’s R.P.McMurphy as a funny guide. Director Forman went even further – he employed some non-actors to play particular characters like Will Sampson who played unforgettable Chief, huge Indian patient. Thus, the so wanted realism of the story was increased by using new faces on the screen as well as the facilities, quarters and hallways of the actual mental hospital in misty Oregon.

This movie is a sort of indictment of the medical community; a snapshot at medical practices at the time – at that point it was common practice to administer EST (electroshock therapy) on any new mental patient regardless of their affliction. ”One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”s message has resonated with many people since its release, some because of the strong anti-authority message, others because it shed a light on mental institutions and their particular ways of therapy.

“One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” with its multi-layer structure, finest balance between serious themes and comedy, and most of all – celebrating freedom as ultimate value is surely one of the finest pieces of cinema.