Saturday, December 13, 2014
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
(November 1975, U.S.)
In the Spring of 1985, I was a high school senior faced with the task of preparing and writing my term paper for English class. I was also someone who had invested a large portion of his own money to buy blank video tapes (remember those??) to record full length, uncut movies from premium movie channels so as to start what would inevitably become a long line of movie collecting. I was also still a kid that didn't want to be bothered with reading a book that didn't interest me much. So what to do? Knowing that Ken Kesey's novel was a popular and important piece of literature and also knowing that Milos Forman's ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST was one of the films I'd recorded off of Cinemax about a year prior to this task, I decided to put my best foot forward and do all that I could to cheat the system! I watched the film again and dug deep into Encyclopedia Britannica and any other pre-internet material I could find that would give me solid insight into the essence of Kesey's novel. The result was a well-crafted, multiple page paper that I actually got an 'A' on! So either my extensive methods of "faking it" were right on, or my English teacher was just that stupid! I may never know but I'd like to think it was both! It may interest you to know that four years later, I was robbing the cradle a bit and dating a high school senior who, by nothing more than sheer coincidence, had chosen Kesey's same novel for her own term paper, as well. So, what's a good boyfriend to do? Give her the paper you wrote (and saved!) and maybe she'll get an 'A', too!
Since those irresponsible high school days of mine, I can say that somewhere along the course of my life, I did read Kesey's book (at least I think I did!) and I would have to confess that it did give me greater insight to the greater meaning of the film. At first glance, it's very easy to presume nothing more than its base story of committed anti-authoritarian criminal Randle Patrick McMurphy (played by the great Jack Nicholson) surviving on his wits and his own version of insanity inside an Oregon mental institution for the purpose of professional evaluation in the year 1963. It's also very easy to not look further beyond the story of McMurphy's own brand of insanity that brings some joy and hope to a group of mentally unstable men who, otherwise, have none. However, it's my own personal opinion that the true story of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST is that of the ultimate struggle between men and women (this, by the way, was my theme behind my high school term paper that got me that 'A'). I believe this story is just as much about Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher) as it is about McMurphy. When we first meet him, we pretty much know from the get-go that he's likely faking his mental instability in order to avoid prison work detail. Of course, we're talking about Jack Nicholson here, so how much could insanity truly be faked?? It's seems obvious, at first, that McMurphy's only real task at this place is to tolerate those nuts around him and just get through his time in order to obtain his freedom. What he doesn't expect, and can't seem to accept, is the strong psychological hold that Nurse Ratched has over the stability and confidence of these men to simply want to live their lives as men.
(so what the hell do I mean by that? Glad you asked!)
Consider that the year is 1963 and what honestly constitutes the ideas of what makes men real men (it wasn't eating quiche, I can tell you that!). Real men love to be men by watching baseball on TV, by freely smoking their cigarettes, by engaging themselves in card games, by going fishing, by drinking and by fucking! Nurse Ratched seems to deliberately go out of her way to sabotage these simple pleasures by denying the men the chance to watch the World Series and by unfairly rationing their cigarettes. What's particularly infuriating is that Nurse Ratched doesn't appear to be that evil a person. Study carefully the face of Louis Fletcher in her infamous role and you'll see that her face is quite kind, gentle and even gives a false impression of being fair and impartial. You see, Nurse Ratched isn't really mean...she just does mean things with a very pleasant look on her face...and that, perhaps, is what makes it all the more evil. It would seem the men, all except McMurphy, are so mentally fucked up that they can't even recognize when they're being played like this. Or if they do recognize it, don't have the courage or the strength to combat it. McMurphy has that courage and strength and does all that he can to break the rules and give these men the joyous freedoms to act like men, even if it means a certain degradation to women. Hell, especially if it means a certain degradation to women (we're talking about Jack Nicholson here!)! But this is not to say that McMurphy doesn't have a heart. He's particularly sympathetic to Billy Bibbit (played by Brad Dourif), a stuttering recluse who's still a virgin and is terrified of his own mother. Nurse Ratched, by the way, knows this all too well and uses every means to take advantage of that situation...but more on that later.
Okay, later just arrived now! I want to really focus on one of the final sequences that involves Billy Bibbit. His character is truly a boy among men, not just because of his virginity, but also his fear of authority, perhaps particularly female authority. As men who were once boys, we can all likely claim that one of the true rites of passage to manhood (if not THE rite of passage to manhood!) was when we finally lost our virginity. McMurphy knows this and can't help but offer his own assistance in getting poor Billy laid, even at the cost of delaying his perfect opportunity to escape from the institution. It's the morning after the men have thrown themselves a wild party with liquor and women. Nurse Ratched has returned and all hell is about to break loose. We see Billy exit the room from where he's just "become a man" and is being cheered on by his committed peers. Despite being caught with his pants down (literally) by the great woman in charge, Billy's not ashamed of what he's done and he's even proud enough to admit it. This is a great moment for a young man who afraid of his own shadow and in the blink of an instant, it all comes crashing down for him when Nurse Ratched threatens to tell his mother what he's done. The rites of manhood have just been destroyed by a woman who's sole purpose in this facility has been to persistently destroy the rites of manhood. And again, it's not even done with malicious and threatening volume, as if she were saying, "Billy, I'm going to tell your mother what you did!" No, as I previously mentioned, such acts are committed with gentle tenderness in voice and even a slight hint of regret in manner. However, to the stuttering and scared Billy Bibbit, pride and self-accomplishment (because getting laid is an accomplishment when it's the first time!) have just been replaced by fear and a sense of moral terror at the thought of his mother knowing what he just did. Before the scene is over, Billy's newly-found manhood has been reduced to that of a shameful, whining little boy begging his female authority figure for mercy and forgiveness. The entire moment is quite honestly tragic, as are the final results of Billy's bloody suicide.
Ken Kesey was a product of a simpler time and also a time when the feminist movement was on the rise when he wrote ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. His story involves a situation where the woman is the dominant figure over the man, and remember that during that era, such a situation was not the norm. There are those who could view such a situation as just dues for all that women have had to struggle with in their competition against men in this world. There are those who could view such a situation as one where man must fight with all his strength and all his will to defend that which makes him a man against those who would deny him such matters. As an anti-hero of such, McMurphy not only stands for the freedoms and the rights of manhood, but also the dignities that stand not only behind our manhood, but our daily stability, as well. As a film that's meant to imply triumph, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the story of its characters goes horribly wrong in the end. But even though it all does go wrong, Forman's film also insists on making greater points than its story initially carries, so that in the end, the human qualities of these characters don't get lost in any of its significance.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST won the Oscar for best picture of 1975. Did it deserve it over JAWS or DOG DAY AFTERNOON? Honestly, even after nearly forty years, I still can't make up my mind. Anyway, it's been a pleasure more or less RE-writing the contents of my personal views to this story which don't seem to have changed since I was a high school senior in 1985. Like I said, it got me an 'A'!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Billy Bibbit (after being caught in bed with a woman): "Um, I can explain everything."
Nurse Ratched: "Please do, Billy. Explain everything."
Billy (stuttering): "Everything?"
Ratched: "Aren't you ashamed?"
Billy (NOT stuttering): "No, I'm not."
Rathced: "You know, Billy, what worries me is how your mother's going to take this."
Billy (stuttering): "Um, well you don't have to tell her, Miss Ratched."
Ratched: "I don't have to tell her? Your mother and I are old friends, you know that."
Billy (stuttering): "Um, please don't tell my moth..."
Ratched: "Don't you think you should have thought of that before you took that woman in that room!?"
Billy (stuttering): "No, I didn't."
Ratched: "You mean she dragged you in there by force?"
Billy (stuttering): "She did. Everybody did."
Ratched: "Everybody? Who did? You tell me who did!"
Billy (stuttering): "McMurphy. Miss Ratched, please don't tell my mother, please."
Ratched: "Mr. Warren, would you see that the men are washed and ready for the day."
Billy (stuttering): "Miss Ratched, please, please, please don't tell my..."
Ratched: "Mr. Washington, put Billy in Dr. Spivey's office."
Billy (stuttering): "No, no, no, no...!"
Ratched: "Stay with him 'till the doctor arrives."
Billy (stuttering being dragged away): "NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO...!!!""