This film gets me every time. The final moments, when the Chief discovers McMurphy’s been lobotomized, kills him out of pity, then completes Mac's metaphorical task of lifting the water fountain off the ground, plunging it through the window, thus releasing him into the wild to freedom, is as triumphant a climax as their ever was in cinema.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) dir. Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny De Vito, Will Sampson, William Redfield
By Alan Bacchus
The scene referenced above isn't even the climax of the film really. It occurs in the denouement after the already devastating discovery of Billy Bibbits' body, self-mutilated to death because of the degrading emotional punishment inflicted by Nurse Ratched. This moment caps off the wonderful third act set piece, the final hurrah for RP who throws a debaucherous party for his cookey companions in celebration of his last day before his escape.
It’s the last act of defiance, which brought a brief moment of sanity to the lives of the residents and inmates of their mental institution. It’s a perfect ensemble of actors that play those lovable crazies. I can think of few other films where every role is cast just right, and even the most insignificant character finds a memorable moment which contributes to the greater whole of this picture. Charlie Cheswick, for instance, played by Sydney Lassick, a bubbling cauldron of stress, anger and self-loathing, who is controlled by the intellectual boob Harding (William Redfield). The interaction of Harding and Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd) even has its own sub-story, specifically Taber’s hatred of Harding's superiority complex and manipulation of Cheswick. And there’s the quiet Martini (Danny De Vito), who barely whispers a word and is astoundingly short in stature yet has an immeasurable, watchable star quality.
The three stand-out performances, of course, are the leads. Nicholson’s first Oscar is richly deserved. In fact, back then the consensus was that the trophy was long overdue, after having nominated performances passed over in Easy Rider, The Last Detail, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown. As McMurphy, he is the personification of screen magnetism and easy naturalism.
Nurse Ratched has become legendary as the evil stuck-up and resolute antagonist to McMurphy. But as acted by Fletcher and directed by Forman, Ratched never overtly expresses unwarranted antagonism. At all times on the surface she’s a professsional caregiver who puts the mood of the ward as a whole above the individual needs of the patients. Fletcher's performance is never short of awesome. She doesn't have much dialogue, instead the Oscar-winning moments occur in those unspoken facial reactions to McMurphy’s outrageous behaviour. And has someone’s haircut ever been more important to one’s character than Nurse Ratched? I’ve never seen that V-Shaped updo anywhere else other than on Louise Fletcher, almost as if the hairdo was invented just for her.
As great as Nicholson and Fletcher are in this, our heart is with Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Just as Nicholson fit perfectly into the skin of RP McMurphy, so does Brad Dourif and Billy Bibbit, the meek stuttering teenager who suffers from gross maltreatment from the women in his life. And in terms of cinematic turnarounds – that is, those moments in a film when the high of a character quickly turns to a low in an instant – Bibbit’s victory bedding Candy, and for that oh-so-brief fleeting moment, losing his stutter, turns heartbreaking so quickly when Ratched stabs him in his achilles heal by threatening to report his actions to his mother.
And tying everything together is Jack Niztsche’s timeless music, using the unique sound of the musical saw creating the off-kilter yet melancholy tone that sets just the right mood.