Sunday, May 21, 2006

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

1976 Oscar Winner for Director, Writing (adapted), Actor, Actress and Picture

Dir: Milos Forman (Hair; Ragtime; Amadeus; The People vs. Larry Flynt; Man on the Moon)

Another film for which it had been years since my last viewing. #20 on the AFI top 100 list and absolutely worthy of that distinction. This film is brilliant in so many ways, a fascinating and exciting and insightful and fun and scary story that works both in a literal and metaphorical sense.

Nicholson is truly astounding as McMurphy, simultaneously full of joy and anger, calculated shrewdness and uncontrollable emotion, ready to explode and yet always charming. That isn't just writing (although his character is expertly written as well); Nicholson makes this man come alive on the screen in one of the best performances I have ever seen. The opposite is the case for Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched, a performance that demands monlithic distance and limited expression; yet it is through the role she plays in the script that the brilliance of the character comes through. Fletcher understands the script, Nicholson understands his characters, and each hit exactly the right chords in their performances.

Forman has done wonders as well. Never has such tension and chaos been created by a bunch of people, half of whom never speak, in a room. The escalating cacophony of sounds and actions are all prefectly layered, no doubt carefully rehearsed in order to seem organic. These are not just random interjections when the arguments break out, they are (if I may be permitted to gush) a symphony of sounds all designed to make the audience feel Ratched's lack of control and McMurphy's anarchist joy in subverting control at the same time.

While born from the height of the counter culture, the story has lost none of its punch. Its defense of freedom and living remains powerful and important. Even the literal critiques of the mental health industry remain salient in a world where pharamceuticals threaten to take the stifling conformity of the institution and place it into our medicine cabinets. But the critique is not naive, we recognize in Cuckoo's Nest that these men have real problems, and the solution is not as simple as "get out there and enjoy life." But then as now, our psyches place us at the mercy of those who seek to control us through rules or through temptation.

I think this is one of the finest films I have ever seen. It is a moving experience on many levels. If you have let it lie fallow as long as I did, I urge you to reconnect with it soon.