So as promised, I’m starting my blog by reviewing the only three films that have ever won the “big five” at the Academy awards. First up is the film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s ground-breaking novel, which upon release in 1975 was loved by pretty much everyone except him. I’ve seen “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” three or four times now but unlike previous viewings I have now not only read the book but also did it as part of my college thesis. In short, I know the text well and can say with confidence that I prefer the film for a variety reasons. Before I get into that though here’s a minute synopsis of this monumental picture:
The film, directed by Milos Foreman, is set in a 1960’s mental institution, primarily taking place in the ward overseen by Nurse Ratched (played by Louise Fletcher). The arrival of free-spirited convict Randall Patrick McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson) usurps her tyranny and helps the cowed patients break free from her hold and find their voice. It raises questions about what it really means to be “crazy” and gives honest and at time shocking insight into how the mentally ill were treated in a time that wasn’t all that long ago. The performances are sensational, the story wonderful and it’s genuinely inspirational without being in any way contrived, clichéd or shoving its message down your throat in the dogmatic, puke-inducing way Hollywood is often guilty of (you know, like the movies that make up half of Robin Williams’s career).
According to my mum, who was lucky enough to see the film in the cinema when it came out, when the film ended there was an electric “buzz” in the auditorium she’d never quite experienced before. And although my most recent viewing experience was on my laptop screen, I still felt it (Or think or did). It’s hard to talk about an epic film like “Cuckoo’s Nest” without throwing adjectives at it so I will simply face the fact you can’t really praise this film enough.
As I mentioned before, I’ve studied the book which for the most part enriched the viewing experience of the film BUT there was one issue I found hard to totally ignore. A criticism of the book by many is that it is sexist and as a result I couldn’t help but pick up on some female representation issues in the film. To explain properly, I’ll give the world’s shortest crash course on female representation in media.
There are three different kinds of women depicted in the media – TV, magazines, newspapers as well as movies. Any woman whose image does not fall into one of these categories is an exception. And once you know what they are, you’ll notice them a whole lot more.
Okay, so the three women stereotypes are a) the mother b) the monster and c) the whore. They’re pretty self-explanatory and you don’t have to look overly-close at “Cuckoo’s Nest” to see how its gender representation is a perfect example of this. Unless you count a couple of nameless nurses that float about in the background there’s essentially three female characters: Prostitute Candy, her friend whose name I can’t remember despite watching the film only yesterday and of course, Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched is actually what I would call a mother-monster hybrid, as she genuinely believes she’s doing what is best for the patients, horrific as her methods are. You could also say there’s another “momster” in the movie: Billy’s mother. Although we never see her she’s frequently mentioned (and used as a threat by Nurse Ratched) and her hold on her son has evidently given him more issues that Norman Bates.
Saying that, I’ll happily defend the film to an extent. The book is in ways explicitly anti-women, or at least extremely critical of matriarchal rule and the film I think tones these themes down as much as they could without making more major changes to the book. Given how enraged Ken Kesey was at Chief Bromden’s character being reduced (in the book, he is the narrator), any more changes would probably have resulted in sets being smashed. The only (extremely minor) issue I have regarding changes from the novel is swapping the shower control panel for a hydrotherapy console, as I think the former contains more symbolism. If you’ve not seen the film, that won’t make much sense to you but hey, that’s more incentive to watch it.
The main reason I much prefer the film though is how it manages to make the themes more universal while never compromising addressing the specific issues about mental health. The film when stripped right down to the core is about fighting against “the system” and/or establishment – two words that mean different things to each individual. There are a ton of films that could be said to be about this but there’s few that can touch “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. It’s a film that speaks for itself without ramming inspiration down the viewers throat and thus allows its audience to interpret in a way truly relevant to their individual self. It’s also rare in its honesty. There’s no contrived speech from the main character that turns around the antagonists personality in the space of five seconds and no “happy” ending. It’s for these reasons I’m willing to overlook the aforementioned gender issues because the film, way more than the book, speaks to its audience on a human level.
Purely in terms of film-making, it is for me, flawless. From the opening shot of the Oregon landscape to the unforgettable ending, there is literally not a shot in between that isn’t in its own way fantastic. It’s a film I’ll probably end up seeing at least several more times in my life and I don’t think I’ll ever fail to feel the electricity that hovers in the air after a viewing of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.