One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman. Adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name (which had already been adapted for the Broadway stage in 1963), the film won five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and six Golden Globes.
The story centers on R. P. McMurphy who, while faking, is committed to a mental hospital to escape prison after being accused of raping a minor. He will gradually be affected by the distress and loneliness of patients. By his strong personality, he quickly opposes the repressive methods of Nurse Ratched.
|Name||One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest|
|Based on the book||One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey|
|Main actors||Jack Nicholson
|Production Companies||United Artists Michael Douglas Production|
|Music by||Jack Nitzsche|
|Country of production||United States|
|Box office||US$163.3 million|
In the original English title, the term “cuckoo”, which has as its first meaning the cuckoo bird, also refers in slang to a mentally deranged person, like the patients of the psychiatric hospital where the plot is set. The translation of the title into French could therefore have been Someone flew over the crazy nest. For the release of the film, the French distributor wanted a translation closer to the original title than that of the first translation of the book at Stock in 1969, which was La Machine à brouillard. The book was later reissued with the same title as the film when it was released.
Synopsis of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
In 1963, Randall P. McMurphy, a 38-year-old sociopath sentenced to hard labor for various assaults and rape of a minor, fakes alienation to be interned and thus released from the prison where he was incarcerated. The director of the asylum is not fooled, but he still accepts that his mental health be assessed to determine whether his place is in the asylum or in prison.
After being admitted to the facility, McMurphy attends the “therapies” of head nurse Miss Ratched, a cold-cold and authoritarian woman who sometimes displays cruelty to some patients and whose rules McMurphy will quickly challenge.
McMurphy’s whimsical, aggressive, and jovial temperament soon led the other internees to become aware of the freedom they were denied and to disobey and rebel with him. McMurphy himself understands, having entered the institution voluntarily, that he is less free here than in prison and that he may have lost that freedom forever. He seems to befriend some of the internees, including the “Chief,” a mute native colossus who everyone believes to be deaf and dumb and who appears gentle as a lamb despite his physical appearance.
Despite some nervous breakdowns from McMurphy in the face of the nurse’s intransigence, at first, everything goes pretty much well before things quickly escalate: McMurphy manages one day to organize an incredible bus trip in the vicinity to go fishing aboard a boat. Back in the establishment, he bribes the guard and manages to get two of his friends in. A party ensues during which alcohol flows. In the morning, Miss Ratched finds one of the internees, young Billy, in a bed with one of the two young women. Miss Ratched blames and humiliates Billy to the point that he ends up committing suicide by slicing his carotid artery, while McMurphy is at the same time about to flee. Faced with this tragedy, the latter changes his mind to avenge Billy and tries to strangle Ratched, whom he holds responsible for the death of the young man.
Management finally hardened its reaction to the disruption and decided to lobotomize McMurphy. After the operation, the “Chief” finds him in a vegetative state; No longer seeing a solution, he hugs him and says “You come with me” and suffocates him with a pillow to prevent him from living in this state for the rest of his life. In the final scene, the “Chief” rips a water dispenser from the ground and throws it at a screened bay window, executing a plan that McMurphy himself had proposed at the beginning of the film to get out of the establishment, without having had enough strength to implement it. The “Chief” flees to the mountains of Salem and manages to become a free man again.
- Original title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Director: Miloš Forman
- Screenplay: Bo Goldman, Lawrence Haubend’ based on the eponymous novel by Ken Kesey (1962)
- Set design: Paul Sylbert
- Costumes: Agnes Rodgers
- Photograph: Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler
- Sound: Mark Berger
- Editing: Richard Chew, Sheldon Kahn and Lynza Klingman
- Music: Jack Nitzscheet Ed Bogas
- Producers: Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas
- Production companies: Fantasy Films, United Artists
- Distribution company: United Artists
- Budget: USD 4,400,000 (estimated)
- Country of origin: United States
- Aspect ratio: colors (DeLuxe) – 1.85:1
- Genre: Comedy drama
- Duration: 133 minutes
- Release dates:
- United States: November 19, 1975 (New York premiere); November 20, 1975 (national release)
- France: March 1, 1976
- Forbidden to children under 12 years old as soon as it is released in theaters.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Distribution
- Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick McMurphy
- Louise Fletcher as Head Nurse Mildred Ratched
- William Redfield as Dale Harding
- Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit
- Will Sampson as “Chief” Bromden, the Indian giant
- Danny DeVito as Martini
- Christopher Lloyd as Taber
- Sydney Lassick as Charlie Cheswick
- Scatman Crothers as Orderly Turkle, the night watchman
- Dean Brooks as Dr. John Spivey
- Nathan George as Overseer Washington
- Vincent Schiavelli as Frederickson
- William Duell as Jim Sefelt
- Michael Berryman as Ellis
- Mews Small as Candy
- Louisa Moritz as Rose
- Peter Brocco as Colonel Matterson
- Ted Markland as Hap Arlich
- Mimi Sarkisian as Nurse Pilbow
- Delos V. Smith Jr. as Scanlon
- Josip Elic: Bancini
- Alonzo Brown as Miller Supervisor
- Mwako Cumbuka as Overseer Warren
- Lan Fendors as Nurse Itsu
- Mel Lambert as Harbormaster
- Kay Lee as Night Nurse
- Dwight Marfield as Ellsworth
- Phil Roth as Woolsey
- Ken Kenny as Beans Garfield
- Tin Welch as Ruckley
- Saul Zaentz as Captain on Wharf (uncredited)
- Tom McCall as TV commentator (uncredited)
- Aurore Clément as Lady on the Wharf (uncredited)
- Anjelica Huston as Lady on the Wharf (uncredited)
Actor Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the book by Ken Kesey, then unknown author, and thought of adapting it to the cinema, but the character considered too subversive of the novel prevented him from finding financing. Kirk Douglas then adapted the novel for the theatre, changing the narrative point of view, that of an offender who chooses to be interned to escape prison (in the novel, the story is told by a schizophrenic Indian chief). Douglas played the role of McMurphy for six months in his 1963 Broadway stage adaptation directed by Dale Wasserman, but the play was a failure. In 1966, during a charity tour, Kirk Douglas met Miloš Forman in Prague where he discovered the films of the young Czech director.
He then thinks of entrusting him with the film adaptation and promises to send him the novel. But Miloš Forman never receives the book, which is intercepted at the border, and Kirk Douglas finally thinks that the Czech director disdains to answer him.
Following the Prague Spring in 1968, Miloš Forman went into exile in the United States and directed his first American film, Taking Off. Meanwhile Michael Douglas had taken over the film adaptation project that his father Kirk had had a decade earlier: Kirk Douglas thought again to play the role of McMurphy, but unfortunately, the production company now considers him too old to interpret the role of McMurphy again. Michael Douglas teamed up for the production with Saul Zaentz and for the script with Lawrence Hauben who suggested to Michael Douglas to choose Miloš Forman as director, which had already been Kirk Douglas’ choice years before. When Miloš Forman finally received the novel, he was enthusiastic: “For you, this book is literature, but for me it is life! I lived this book. The Communist Party was my nurse Ratched!”
After the death of Miloš Forman, Michael Douglas said when asked what he thought of the film’s director: “It was really a terrible loss… I remember at the time, my co-producer Saul Zaentz and I were interviewing to find a director on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We were a little disappointed because they were all very discreet, they said nothing, they did not share anything with us … And then Milos arrived, from New York, in my house in Los Angeles. He sat down. He opened the script to the first page, and he talked to us, page after page, about what he wanted to do with each scene. I remember how excited Saul and I were about it. We were really happy that this director shared with us and understood how special this project was. Milos got the job like that, without discussion. It was for him!”.
The title refers to an anecdote told in the novel: “Chief” Bromden, when he was little, worked on the pronunciation of the English language with his grandmother through a song whose last verses were Wire, briar, limber-lock / Three geese in a flock / One flew east, one flew west / And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest; the two deaths and the final escape ultimately fit this description, especially since Cuckoo’s Nest can be understood as a metaphor for the mental asylum. Indeed, the term “cuckoo” refers in English to both a bird (the cuckoo) and a mentally deranged person.
Ken Kesey, the author of the novel, was so disappointed with the film’s script that he never watched it. He accused the screenwriter of “butchering” his book.
Casting of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Initially, the role of McMurphy was to be played by Kirk Douglas, a role he had already played in the theater years before, but as he was now almost sixty years old the role was withdrawn. Miloš Forman, the director, immediately thought of Jack Nicholson, but he was under a six-month contract for another film. He was offered in turn to James Caan, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman before returning to Nicholson, Forman seeing no one but him. The role of Nurse Ratched was offered to Faye Dunaway, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Jeanne Moreau, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Jane Fonda and Angela Lansbury. Louise Fletcher was chosen a week before filming began. Forman wasn’t sure she could play him properly, although she auditioned for six months.
In the documentary Once Upon a Time… One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Gaudemar Antoine, Miloš Forman talks about the character of Nurse Ratched played by Louise Fletcher. On his initial reluctance and change of opinion: “To play the head nurse, we were all convinced that we had to have someone who would personify evil. We offered the role, successively of course, to about four actresses who could embody this. All of them refused it. One day I met Louise Fletcher.” Louise Fletcher in turn speaks about this role: “Every time we saw each other for six months, he would tell me: Louise, don’t think about this film or this role anymore. You won’t get it. Leave me.”
Miloš Forman then continues his story: “But little by little I realized that it would be much stronger if the evil were not so visible. If it were only the instrument of evil, without knowing that it was evil incarnate. In fact, she believes she is helping people. We naturally think that this person is good. And little by little we discover that evil is at work, it reinforces much more the dramatic element. That’s why we decided to offer Louise this role.”
Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Will Sampson had their careers launched thanks to the film. Will Sampson (“Chief”), an authentic Creek Indian, was a park ranger in Oregon near the filming location. It was chosen because of its imposing size and size.
Actress Anjelica Huston, who was Jack Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time, appears in a crowd scene, but has not been credited in the credits.
Characters in the film play their own roles: the director of the psychiatric hospital (with an interesting detail: actor Jack Nicholson totally improvised, even taking the initiative, the viewing of a photograph of the director on the latter’s desk, who in turn improvised his commentary); the real patients of the facility, who can be seen fleetingly in the background; and the boat rental company who, surprised and enraged by the sudden and unannounced arrival of the film crew, therefore played with great naturalness the surprise at the sudden and unannounced arrival of the patients of the psychiatric institution.
Filming took place from January to March 1975, at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon. The team had to deal with some real mental illnesses. Thus, some secondary characters in the film are genuine hospital patients. With the exception of the fishing scene which was not in the original script, and shot last in Depoe Bay, a small port in Oregon, the various scenes of the film were shot in order.
The film is ranked the sixteenth best film of all time according to the reference site IMDb with a score of 8.7/10. The American Film Institute named it the 20 greatest American films in history in 1998 and 33 in 2007.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Box-office
The film grossed over $108,981,000 in the United States. In France, it achieved 4,774,879 admissions.
- Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards1975: LAFCA for Best Film
- 1976 Academy Awards: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the second film, after Frank Capra’s New York-Miami, to receive the five most important trophies of the ceremony. He is followed in this performance by The Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme.
- Best Film for the film’s two producers, Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz
- Best Director for Miloš Forman
- Best Actor for Jack Nicholson
- Best Actress for Louise Fletcher
- Best Adapted Screenplay for Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben
- 1976 Golden Globes: six trophies, breaking the previous record.
- Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama for the film’s two producers, Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz
- Golden Globe Award for Best Director for Miloš Forman
- Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama for Jack Nicholson
- Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama for Louise Fletcher
- Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay for Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben
- Golden Globe for Male Newcomer of the Year for Brad Dourif
- BAFTA 1977: BAFTA for Best Film
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Nominations
- 1976 Academy Awards
- Best Supporting Actor for Brad Dourif
- Best Cinematography for Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler
- Best Editing for Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman and Sheldon Kahn
- Best Film Music for Jack Nitzsche
- César 1977: César Award for Best Foreign Film
Miloš Forman is particularly concerned with the character of Randall Patrick McMurphy. Indeed, one can clearly compare the psychiatric hospital and its residents with Czechoslovakia, the country of origin of the director he fled at the time of the end of the Prague Spring. McMurphy is then symbolically the resistance to communism that Miloš Forman was with his friends.
As another example, nurse Mildred Ratched can be compared to the communist power that Forman experienced. It represents the control of the state over freedoms, individuals, creation. The small group of patients, who clearly accept their condition without resisting and without fleeing, represent the tired and miserable population that the director left behind when he left his country.
The two mythical sequences in which McMurphy tries to unseal a block of marble by saying “I at least tried” and the one where he mimes the commentary of a non-existent baseball game before the outraged eyes of the nurse are, as such, perfect examples of this resistance to communist power that Forman himself demonstrated.
But the film goes beyond the theme of the repression of authoritarianism, communist or not. Miloš Forman asks: “At what point does an individual who challenges authority cease to be a hero and become a madman? And vice versa, or both?”.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in popular culture
- The songs Welcome Home (Sanitarium) by Metallica, The Therapy of the Band Doctor Flake, and Take Me Home by Phil Collins refer to the film.
- The music video for the song Frei zu Seinby folk metal band In Extremo, Krazy by the rapper Lil Wayne and Basket Case by Green Day also refer to it.
- In Psylo’s song C’est l’heure des médicaments, most of the samples are taken from the French version of the film.
- A quote from Harding can be heard at the beginning The Great Wonder by the band Dagoba, this same quote is used in the song Shadows That Move by the band Mastodon.
- Six episodes of the animated series The Simpsons reference the film, four of which feature scenes and characters that are heavily inspired by it. Especially the episode My Buddy Michael Jackson from season 3, and the episode April Fool’s Day from season 4. Episode 20 of season 10 is also inspired by the work: Bart is forced to work in a retirement home and takes the residents boating.
- An episode of Futurama (created by Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons) also references the movie: One Flew Over the Cart of a Robot (episode 11 of season 3).
- An episode of the Supernatural series refers to the movie: One Flew Over the Nest of Demons.
- In an episode of the series Homeland, Carrie Mathison refers to it.
- In season 3 episode 17 of the series At the White House, CJ Cregg references the film.
- In Les Allumés, the episode Mettle (season 2, episode 7) parodies this film through the adventures of Daisy.
- Nurse Ratched is one of the fictional characters working at Storybrooke Hospital in the television series Once Upon a Time.
- In episode 10 of season 4 of the series Philadelphia, Frank Reynolds played by Danny DeVito, who plays Martini in the film, is hospitalized in a mental asylum. He escapes at the end of the episode by asking a character he calls “Chief” to tear off a water fountain and throw it through a window.
- Series released on Netflix in September 2020, Ratched is devoted entirely to the nurse of the same name. The facts take place well before the film, we discover her past which leads us to understand why she becomes the heartless nurse in the film. A season 2 is planned.
- The adventure game Runaway: A Twist of Fate references the film, through a level where the hero is committed to a mental hospital with great similarities to the work of Miloš Forman.
- The adventure game also with the same name One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- The creators of the survival-horror Silent Hill: Downpoursaid that the film served as an inspiration for them, among other things. In addition, the name of the hero, Murphy Pendleton, clearly refers to the film (the protagonist is named McMurphy, and the prison where he was incarcerated was named Pendleton).