his best films of the period, it’s easy to see why: Sharp-toothed and devil-eyed – but ferociously charismatic – he was an actor who walked with an almost intimidating brand of confidence, who acted with an artistic fervor which felt tangible rather than self-indulgent à la Brando or (sometimes) Pacino.
Most of Nicholson’s ‘60s were spent either in the throes of B-pictures made on the cheap or counterculture fixtures which cashed in on the freewheeling lifestyles of liberal hippiedom. But things changed for the star in 1969. Through a supporting part in Easy Rider, the road movie staple which mirrored the post-nuclear family, post-Woodstock burnout enforced by war and other cultural incongruities, Nicholson turned heads – and yielded an Oscar nomination. Suddenly, Nicholson was a star on the rise, enforced by a busy 1970 which culminated in even more Academy attention (via a leading role in another cinematic earthshaker, Five Easy Pieces).
From that year until 1975, Nicholson was unstoppable. Involvement in masterpieces, along with Oscar nods, came almost yearly; performances in smaller productions which fell between the cracks nonetheless managed to bring subsequent praise. After a decade of close calls and stolen scenes, Nicholson had became one of the most sought-after actors of his generation.
Arguably, his lucrative ‘70s hit its apex with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), a 1963-set, Miloš Forman-directed social commentary cum black comedy. While he’d made two other films that year (the modern screwball comedy The Fortune and the underrated psychological thriller The Passenger) it was this film that attracted the most notice. No other movie he had made until that point had so completely emphasized what made him such an appealing leading man, and few had come close to as ingeniously synthesizing its social relevant, pretty universally resonant messages. It worked as a perfect Nicholson vehicle: suitable to his persona, but also conscientious and hard to immediately shake off.
In the movie, he plays Randle McMurphy, a ne’er-do-well who trades prison time for a prolonged stay in a mental institution. Locked up for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old (McMurphy claims the girl said she was 18, and that the encounter was consensual), his serving time in this environment stems from his sneakily manipulating higher-ups into thinking that a prison farm will not be conducive to his recovery. In actuality, McMurphy just figures the hospital will be more relaxing.
But upon arriving does he find that nothing turns out to be quite what he expected: The ward in which he’s placed is run by the strict, passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who enforces endless medicating and “group therapy” sessions that end up intimidating patients into a fearsome sort of passivity.
The moment McMurphy catches wind of this, he decides he won’t let it stand; shortly after making his mark does he take it upon himself to challenge the “system” of the ward and encourage his fellow patients to stick up for themselves. Problem is is the repercussions are grim, and McMurphy’ll perhaps never exactly get what he wants.
As a film capturing what makes Nicholson such a timelessly thrilling talent, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can do no wrong: here, he’s a definitive anti-hero, courageous and headstrong but made more interesting by the devilish grin as often plastered on his face as the contemplative look in his eyes. We’re fascinated by him. But take the movie without the powerful allure of Nicholson and it’s rather aged and heavy-handed.
It’s a social allegory which finds the pitfalls of classism and patriarchy-inflicted civil unrest relocated to the setting of a mental institution, with patients embodying the vulnerable masses while the hospital’s head honchos mirror both an iron-fisted government and rigid social norms which don’t much allow for any sort of outlier in the status quo to flourish. Sometimes it’s brilliant, especially in the scenes where the drama’s particularly antagonistic.
But most often does it appear as an artifact of its time that’s lost much of its social urgency in the 40 years since its release. Ideas of fighting against “the man” were certainly more potent to a period fatigued by war and by an oft-clashing generational gap, and as such the more absurd sequences depicting rebellion (like McMurphy’s stealing of a bus and taking his newfound friends sailing to his hosting of an all-night orgy toward the end of the film) don’t impact as effectively. Plus, the underlying sentiment that those who are mentally ill are simply victims of their own hang-ups and insecurities trivializes mental illness. And because such is in the same of making a larger allegorical point, that feels clumsy.
But so much about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is persuasive, its best attributes almost override its sizable misjudgments. It’s at its strongest whenever Fletcher and Nicholson are acting opposite one another: the contrast between Fletcher’s chilling calm and Nicholson’s freneticism results in tremendous tension, and in their scenes together does the film’s overarching allegory feel octaves more stinging. So consider it something of a tragedy that the rest of the movie doesn’t ring quite as true as their toxic relationship. B
2 Hrs., 13 Mins.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
hough Jack Nicholson would go on to lead a great deal more influential projects after the 1970s came to a close – from The Shining (1980) to As Good As It Gets (1997), from Terms of Endearment (1983) to The Departed (2007) – the Nicholson of 40-plus years ago is the one I think of whenever the actor's name’s brought up in casual conversation.
Young and wily – and physically unlike most leading men – he began the ‘70s as a promising upstart and ended an incomparable marquee headliner. Watching