Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd:
Now that the festival season is over, and before the ‘gotta see theatricals that might be nominated for the Oscars’ season begins, we thought it might be a good time to knock a few off the List of Shame. In this case, not mine, but rather my wife’s. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is a film I am very well acquainted with. I’ve seen it dozens of times, but all back when it hit Hotel PPV back in 1976. In my old playback op job, I’d watch it pretty much every shift. It was just that good.
The story arc is simple, it’s the characters that make this film a classic masterpiece. With the prowess and skill of Sydney Lumet, director Milos Foreman creates characters so fully realized, so completely believable, and so endearing that you feel like you know them like family.
Wait a second, Nurse Rached.. endearing? The cold as ice, demonically domineering, Wicked Bitch of the Ward? Strangely, somewhat yes. Although my memories of her from oh so many years ago were that of evil incarnate, it changed on this viewing. This is a Foreman master stroke. She’s domineering, yes, but that’s part of the job. She’s petty, but not without reason. When she withholds the patient’s smokes, it is for their own good, so they won’t lose them to McMurphy. She believes in her methods and she thinks of the greater good for the patients. When McMurphy wants to change the schedule to watch the World Series, she explains how it could upset the others by changing the schedule that they cling to. It’s also her whose idea it is to put it to a democratic vote. After McMurphy’s ‘field trip’, when She, the head of the hospital, and other administration staff discuss what to do with McMurphy, she’s the one who invites the idea that we should take care of our own, not bump the up or down to be someone else’s responsibility. While this scene could be read as her wanting to dominate McMurphy, I’m not so sure. I think she believes in what she says. She’s even humanized with a first name; Mildred. I saw in this viewing that even McMurphy doesn’t have a ‘real’ problem with her. That is until she turns, at the end, and takes vengeance out on Billy. This, I thought, was out of character. The ‘party’ simply made her snap. I really think this break believable. The character would never have worked, though, without the expert performance by Louise Fletcher. I can’t help but think that this one of the most difficult characters to bring to the screen, and she is completely deserving of her Oscar win. Kudos to her hairstylist, too.
Another revelation for me was Jack Nicholson. Everyone seems to recount this as being Jack being the most Jack. Not so. His performance as the jail dodging McMurphy is surprisingly understated. He’s there to do his remaining time, not realizing what clock he’s on, and just get along with his fellows. His reaction to the revelation that there are only a few committed amongst him is met with genuine bamboozlement. It’s almost like he’s hurt by the realization that he’s misunderstood their disease. For me, this is Nicholson’s greatest performance, including The Shining.
As I haven’t rewatched this since 1976, it was a special treat to see the characters I’d known and loved in light of who they are today. Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, and Brad Dourif at the very beginnings of their careers. You can see the root of their future performances on display here. Dourif, as Billy, is the essence of if innocence and goodness on the threshold of manhood struggling with the urges of adolescence. Lassick, as Cheswick, as sweet a man as you can find. Someone just looking for friendship, and willing to speak his mind despite the fear. Christopher Lloyd, as Taber, demonstrates facial expressions that clearly show his comic genius, and his ability to portray bat-shit crazy. Danny Divito .. my wife didn’t even recognize him. He was that good, and that believable as the barely functioning, one foot out the door, Martini. These characters are the heart and soul of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest.
The real heart of the film, though, is The Chief. Although I’ve never read the novel, I’ve heard over the years that it is in Bromden’s voice. On this viewing I was keeping an eye out for that, and it’s there. You can see his genuine connection with McMurphy from early on. His discovery of friendship and courage chronicle the story. The basketball scene is some of the funniest understated physical comedy acts I’ve ever seen, and up there with the masters. Its Will Sampson’s austere and touching performance that wins your heart, gives you hope, and makes you let out a gentle cheer.
Thirty seven years on, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest is just as fresh and wonderful as I remembered it. A true masterpiece.