Eleven Reasons to Watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


This Sunday, KCET gives you one of the best movies of all time. And while the Sunday night's offering is always a cinematic must-see (or pretend-you-have-seen, if you trying to keep your rep as a well-cultured person), this week's selection stands out: the 1975 winner for best picture, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It's a rich enough work that you can watch it again and again and still find some previously undiscovered thinky bit to take away. But if a personally enriching movie-watching experience just isn't enough to motivate you to tune in, here are eleven more reasons.

Jack Nicholson is mentally unwell. There is no shortage of films that address the subject of unusual mental behavior, but did you ever notice that it crops up in the filmography of Nicholson more often than it does in other actors' bodies of work? Consider Cuckoo's Next, The Shining, As Good as It Gets, Batman and even the original Little Shop of Horrors, in which he plays a giggling masochist undertaker. I'm not inviting an analysis of Mr. Nicholson's mental state, but don't you suppose Pamela Anderson stops and wonders, "Gee, why do I always play vacuous blondes with giant boobs?" (No, just kidding -- Pamela Anderson would never wonder that.)

Jack in his prime. Years from now, when critics look back on Nicholson's oeuvre, it may well be that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the film chosen to best represent his acting abilities. He's perfect in the role of Randle McMurphy, a man who fakes mental illness to avoid a jail sentence and ends up worse off in the sanitarium than he would have been in the clink. He rebels, though always with a smirk, and his alliance with the inmates forces the viewer to second-guess their thoughts on what it means to be sane. He's one of the few statutory rapists that you can't help but root for.

Her. In defense of Nurse Ratched -- hey, now there's a phrase I haven't written before -- she thinks she's just doing her job, and that job becomes more difficult when McMurphy arrives and inspires every nut in the nuthouse to remember that they're still people. Of course, you must also consider that she's a tyrant who cannot comprehend how her reign in this little kingdom crushes her subjects' souls. Louise Fletcher plays Ratched with as firm and stony-faced, but raging just below the surface. It should not be surprising that she won the Oscar for Best Actress.

Her hair. You know who should have won for Best Supporting Actress? Nurse Ratched's hair. Holy christ -- if that too-prim page boy 'do doesn't scream "psychopath," I don't know what does. I don't doubt that her crazyhair helped Nurse Ratched earn the No. 5 spot on AFI's list of the worst film villains of all time. (She's just below Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West.)

Brad Dourif. Who's he? Well, he's the third cast member from this film to be nominated for an Oscar. (He lost Best Supporting Actor to George Burns for The Sunshine Boys.) And while he does a commendable job as the boyishly handsome Billy in Cuckoo's Nest, Dourif today has an extensive filmography that includes performances as some of the most loathsome creeps ever, including torturer Piter De Vries in Dune, the murderous doll Chucky in Child's Play, and the wonderfully named Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's almost discomforting to see him play a sympathetic character

Christopher Lloyd. Having grown up knowing Lloyd mostly from Back to the Future and Taxi reruns, it's strange to see him here, in his film debut, looking young and fit and acting like the kind of guy who'd walk up to you at a bar and sock you in the face.

Danny Devito. A similar case with this one. Unless someone pointed out to you that you're watching a young Danny DeVito in this film, you might not recognize him as the slow-witted delusional inmate, Martini. Having only experienced that signature DeVito magic in recent years on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it nice to be reminded that he does great dramatic work, too.

Scatman Crothers. Five year's before he'd run into a mentally unwell Jack Nicholson again in The Shining -- the meeting does not go well, BTW -- Crothers starred alongside Nicholson in this film, playing a put-upon orderly. Say, do you think Crothers ever brought up to Nicholson his tendency to play headcases? Maybe that's why Crothers's character fared so poorly in The Shining...

The boating scene. If you haven't seen Cuckoo's Nest already, you might be surprised to hear that this film about men confined to an insane asylum features an extended, leisurely sequence on a cruise around the Oregon coast. It does, and it's surprising to watch, mostly because I feel most major studio releases today wouldn't allow for such a tonal detour. It's a great scene, and it might make you wish you too could joy ride with a ship full of jabbering mental patients. No, really.

Anjelica Huston. Years before she made her own big splash in Hollywood, Huston cameoed in this film. Nicholson's girlfriend at the time, Huston appears as one of the women awaiting the Looney Cruise's return to the pier.

The title. So why the hell is it called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, anyway? Is flying over the cuckoo's nest supposed to be some euphemism for losing your mind? In the context of the film, probably, but the text actually comes from a children's nursery rhyme whose final lines read, "One flew east, one flew west / One flew over the cukoo's nest." In the original novel by Ken Kesey, the rhyme is recalled by Chief Bromden, but it's nowhere to be found in the film. That noise? It's the "The More You Know" star shooting over your head.

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