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Film / One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

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"Jesus, I mean, you guys do nothin' but complain about how you can't stand it in this place here, and then you haven't got the guts just to walk out? I mean, what do you think you are, for Christ's sake, crazy or somethin'? Well, you're not!"'
Randle Patrick McMurphy

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 comedy-drama film co-produced by Michael Douglas, directed by Miloš Forman, and starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. Based the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, it mostly follows the original plot, albeit with a number of deviations that allow it to work better on the big screen.

It takes place in 1963 at an Oregon mental hospital run by Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), who rules over the patients with an iron fist. She holds so much power over them that no one dares to stand up to her... until Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson) swaggers into the ward and things are never the same again.

It is one of only three films to sweep the "Big Five" major Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay. (The others are It Happened One Night and Silence of the Lambs). Like the latter of these, it now has a TV series prequel: Ratched.

The film contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Strongly implied after Billy's Sex Is Liberation scene: he actually loses his stutter until Nurse Ratched mentions his mother, then it comes back with a vengeance.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness:
    • In the book, Nurse Ratched is described as a handsome woman who was probably quite beautiful when she was in her prime; Fletcher, who was in her early 40s while filming, was undoubtedly still quite lovely.
    • Inverted with Harding, who is described in the novel as looking like a film star. In the film, he looks like an average (or perhaps even slightly unattractive) middle-aged man. This may have to do with his homosexuality being toned down a lot in the movie, as he was a stereotypical pretty boy in the book.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: In the novel, Harding was as heavily implied to be gay as was possible in 1960s literature, depicted as effeminate, forced into the asylum for unnamed sexual acts, and getting a long speech about the ridiculousness of the society that condemned him. In the movie, the other inmates tease him by implying that he is homosexual, but he's far from effeminate and is said to have a wife. If he is meant to be gay in the film, he's likely deep in the closet.
  • Adaptational Villainy: In the book, the Japanese nurse in the Disturbed Ward turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic towards the patients, treating McMurphy and Bromden after their fight with Ratched's orderlies, is critical of the more barbaric elements in the mental hospitals, and confirms nurses like Ratched are "a little sick themselves"; she even notes she'd prefer keeping patients in her ward to keep them away from Ratched, if she were capable of doing so. In the film, while she's not a villain, she's reduced to another cog in the hospital's machine, and administers McMurphy's electroshock treatment.
  • Adaptational Wimp: In the book, Harding, while pompous and perhaps overly verbose, was still quite clever and insightful, coming up with excellent ideas and giving some very cutting lectures about the situation of the hospital and McMurphy. In the film, he's more of a straightforward Butt-Monkey.
  • Aesop Amnesia: McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched's authority and unfair rules at every turn and becomes something of a hero to the sheepish patients, leading them to explore and regain their own lost individuality... at least until McMurphy attacks Ratched in order to avenge her driving Billy to suicide and is moved to another part of the hospital and lobotomized as a result. Before Bromden's escape, they're all back to behaving exactly as they did before McMurphy arrived.
  • Alliterative Name: Billy Bibbit, Charles Cheswick
  • Anti-Hero: McMurphy is a sleazy, erratic, and violent convict. He's still not as bad as Nurse Ratched.
  • Ascended Extra: In the book, Taber was a past patient mentioned a few times by Bromden. In the film adaptation, he is a main character on the ward while McMurphy is there.
  • Battleaxe Nurse: Nurse Ratched.
  • Bedlam House
  • Big Bad: Nurse Ratched.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Nurse Ratched loses the excessive power she held over the patients and Bromden finally manages to escape the ward , but at the cost of Billy, who commits suicide, and McMurphy, who gets lobotomized by the hospital, forcing Bromden to Mercy Kill him.
  • Blithe Spirit: McMurphy challenges Nurse Ratched's unfair rule over the hospital and its sheepish patients, teaching them how to take back their individuality and bend or break the often arbitrary rules they live under. Other than Bromden, it's debatable how much good this does them in the end.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: McMurphy.
  • Bury Your Disabled: At the end of the film, a lobotomized McMurphy is Mercy Killed by his friend.
  • Butt-Monkey: Harding.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The Hydrotherapy Console.
    • In the first scenes of the film, Dr. Spivey and McMurphy have an extended conversation about a framed photo on Dr. Spivey's desk. This photo frame is likely the source of the broken glass that Billy Bibbit uses to slash his wrists and jugular later on in committing suicide.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Subverted Trope. McMurphy is shown to fake being a vegetable earlier after the shock treatment but regrettably wasn't faking it later on.
  • Creator Cameo: Producer Saul Zaentz appears as a man at the inmates' bus outing.
  • Demoted to Extra: Doctor Spivey has a lot fewer scenes in the adaptation, and his whole character arc is removed wholesale. In the novel, he spearheads the reformation of the hospital after Ratched is gone.
    • Harding also plays a much more important role in the novel, where he explains the goings-on at the hospital to McMurphy when he arrives and through Mac's example, he eventually gains the courage to tell off Nurse Ratched and leave the ward for good. In the movie, he's a relatively unimportant background character with a one-note fussy personality.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: The death of Billy causes McMurphy to attack Nurse Ratched leading to him being locked up, lobotomized, and eventually killed by his friend.
  • Driven to Suicide: Billy Bibbit.
  • Electric Torture: The hospital permits Ratched to administer electroshock therapy this way, giving it without anesthesia to patients who don't actually need it.
  • Emotional Regression: Billy is a chronically shy and soft-spoken young man with an intense fear of his mother and an unrelenting stutter. With the help of McMurphy, he manages to have sex for the first time, losing his virginity and gaining the confidence of a man. However, when Nurse Ratched returns, she calls him out and attempts to shame him. He responds without a stutter that he's proud of himself and isn't having any of it. Then she says she's going to tell his mother...
  • Faux Affably Evil: Nurse Ratched is a calm, polite woman who is respected by the rest of the hospital staff. The patients (and audience) see her as a cold and sadistic Control Freak who administered electric shocks and even lobotomies to keep the patients in line.
  • The Film of the Book: Of the 1962 novel. Author Ken Kesey didn't like it (mainly due to the massive changes), but it was critically acclaimed and became one of only three films to win all of the "Big Five" Oscars (best picture, screenplay, director, actor, and actress). Kesey responded negatively to the alterations, most notably making McMurphy more of the film's central focus, though his reaction was no doubt partially fueled by the fact that he received no money for it.
  • First Law of Tragicomedies: The first half of the film (even more so than the book) plays as a comedy with its focus on the mischievous antices of McMurphy. The film takes a more serious tone when it's shown how the cruelly the patients are treated by the psychiatric hospital system in general and by the controlling Nurse Ratched in particular.
  • Fun with Acronyms: Randle Patrick McMurphy, R.P.M., is in constant, often (metaphorically) circular motion.
  • Go Among Mad People: McMurphy feigned insanity and got himself sent to the asylum, thinking it would be an easy way out from his prison sentence. He was dead wrong.
  • The Hero Dies: McMurphy himself at the end.
  • Hospital Hottie: Nurse Pilbow and Nurse Ratched.
  • Insanity Defense: McMurphy claims he's insane to get transferred to the institution to serve out the rest of his sentence in cushy surroundings and is more than a little alarmed when he realizes that 'the rest of his sentence' is no longer the original length of a few months but whenever the doctors decide that he's no longer a threat to himself or others— which, considering he's pissed off the evil Nurse Ratched, could mean an indefinite stay.
  • Jailbait Taboo: Why McMurphy was incarcerated to begin with. As he explains to Spivey:
    McMurphy: She was fifteen years old goin' on thirty-five, Doc, and she told me she was eighteen. She was very willing, you know what I mean? I practically had to take to sewin' my pants shut.
  • Jaywalking Will Ruin Your Life: McMurphy got into this whole jail to mental hospital to lobotomy and ultimately to death situation because he committed statutory rape on a fifteen-year-old girl. At the time of the film's release (1975), statutory rape of the kind involving an adult and a teenager was considered to be less of an issue than it is considered to be today.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Despite mocking and berating the gang so much McMurphy genuinely seems to develop a bond with them and is ultimately driven to his Rage-Breaking Point when Nurse Ratched drives Billy to Suicide.
    • This is especially evident with his interactions with Chief. Sure, McMurphy tastelessly ridicules Chief's ethnicity, but Mac was still the only one on the ward who even bothered trying to befriend Chief. It's quite clear from scenes like the basketball game that McMurphy genuinely wanted to bring some joy into Chief's life.
  • Karmic Trickster: Deconstructed with McMurphy, since he lacks the usual Karmic Protection.
  • Large Ham: Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Christopher Lloyd as Taber.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Done on McMurphy for a full minute at the end of the party.
  • Lobotomy: After McMurphy attacks Ratched, he is lobotomized and left in a vegetative state. Bromden mercy kills him.
  • Mercy Kill: After McMurphy gets a lobotomy, Bromden decides to put him out of his misery by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Meaningful Name: Bromden, related to bromide, a tranquilizer.
  • Missing the Good Stuff: McMurphy is very unhappy about being prevented by Nurse Ratched from watching the World Series on television. Subverted when he entertains himself and the other inmates by "announcing" an imaginary game while staring at the darkened TV screen.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the novel, Nurse Ratched's first name is never revealed. In the film, when the hospital committee meets to discuss McMurphy's behavior, Dr. Spivey calls her "Mildred". Also, when McMurphy returns from electroconvulsive therapy and sits down at the group therapy session, he calls her "Mildred".
  • Obfuscating Disability: Bromden is not a deaf mute.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Adopted by McMurphy to get transferred to the hospital from the work farm he was originally sentenced to. It soon enough becomes clear that he's actually put himself in a worse spot.
  • One-Book Author: Nurse Pilbow is played by Mimi Sarkisian. This is her only movie, but she was also in the play.
  • Orderlies are Creeps: Downplayed; in the novel, the orderlies are sadists who beat and even sexually abuse the patients. In the film, most of the orderlies generally get along fine with the patients, talking with them and even playing basketball in the yard. However, they are also ultimately willing to go along with Ratched's orders without protest, and Washington in particular seems to take sadistic pleasure in tormenting McMurphy. It's not clear whether he does this because Mac is a trouble-maker or because Washington is cruel towards many of the other patients as well.
  • Order Versus Chaos: With chaos portrayed as good.
  • Porky Pig Pronunciation: Billy.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The movie follows the base plot of the book fairly closely. However, it takes several liberties for the sake of working better on film, namely shifting the focus from Bromden (who narrated the book in first-person) to McMurphy, altering certain events like the circumstances of Bromden revealing that he was Obfuscating Disability, and cutting expository moments that were in the original book to streamline the film's narrative. Other aspects like Bromden's schizophrenia-induced hallucinations and nightmares and Unreliable Narrator qualities are cut simply because they wouldn't have been feasibly executable at the time.
  • The Quiet One: Bromden. At first. Several of the other patients that don't participate in the therapy group are likewise mostly nonverbal.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Dr. Spivey. Unfortunately, he exercises no real power, as he follows Ratched's reports and advice on what goes on in the ward.
  • Rule of Symbolism:
    • At an early point in the movie, McMurphy boasts that he is going to break out of the mental hospital by lifting a water fountain and chucking it through a window. The inmates don't believe him, so he bets them money he can do it. He fails, but he shames the inmates by saying "Eh, at least I tried", unlike everyone else. The water fountain's a symbol for McMurphy's undying sense of freedom. He never believes that anything is impossible. He will never stop trying to live life his way, and that's exactly why the folks at the hospital eventually give him a lobotomy. Then later on in a deeply symbolic moment, Chief Bromden kills McMurphy and then lifts the same water fountain that McMurphy failed to lift earlier in the movie. Lifting the fountain is supposed to be impossible, but Chief reminds us that anything is possible for those who refuse to give in to authority.
    • McMurphy always holds onto his pack of playing cards with pictures of nude women on them while in the mental hospital. This tells us a lot about McMurphy as a character. For one thing, he views women as sexual objects, which we see when he shows the doctor one of the nude cards and casually asks, "Where do you suppose she lives?" Keep in mind that he's been convicted of statutory rape. The cards also show that McMurphy likes to gamble in every sense of the word, and often take risks. Finally, McMurphy's very devoted to playing games he knows he can win. That's why he gets so upset with the way Nurse Ratched always manipulates situations in her favor. As McMurphy tells one doctor, "She likes a rigged game." He symbolizes his dislike for her by loudly flicking through his playing cards while she's trying to speak. That's not to say he doesn't like a rigged game, he's just annoyed that someone is better at rigging the game than he is.
    • Nurse Ratched is a dictator when it comes to deciding how things are going to work in her hospital ward. But she also has this clever way of never seeming like a dictator as she uses false logic to make it seem as though all her judgments are objective. For example, she lets the patients vote on McMurphy's idea to watch the World Series game only because she knows they'll vote against it. When the patients reverse their votes on the second occasion, Ratched still gets her way by saying there were only 9 votes from the 18 patients, not caring that only nine of the patients are lucid enough to know what they're voting on. So whether things go one way or another, Ratched will find a way to get her way, and if the patients get upset about this, she'll just send them off for electroshock therapy. Basically, voting in this movie symbolizes a fake sense of freedom – the belief that your vote and your opinion count when they actually don't.
    • When Chief Bromden sees McMurphy's lobotomy scars at the end of this movie, he realizes that the hospital has made McMurphy into an obedient zombie for life. His scars mark the final victory of rules and conformity over freedom and the individual, which Chief is aware of. Chief kills McMurphy, feeling this is the only way to give Randle back his freedom. McMurphy became a hero to the other patients in the ward due to his ability to stand up to Nurse Ratched, and didn't want to see him wandering around with dead eyes and a scarred forehead, so Chief decides to take matter into his own hands and to give Mac back his freedom his own way and then he gave freedom to himself by breaking out of the hospital and running off into the forest.
  • Sadist: Nurse Ratched is a coldly vindictive Control Freak who uses her position to bully, intimidate, torture, and lobotomize the patients in her care. She accepts no challenge to her authority and is perfectly capable of tormenting her patients to the point of suicide should they disobey.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Although he has to be persuaded by others into doing it, having sex is what gives Billy Bibbit the confidence to stand up to Nurse Ratched and gets rid of his stutter in the bargain.
  • Sex Is Liberation: Billy.
  • Snub by Omission: This excerpt from the fishing trip:
    McMurphy: This is Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Frederickson, Dr. Scanlon, the famous Dr. Scanlon, Mr. Harding, Dr. Bibbit, Dr. Martini, and Dr. Sefelt... Oh, I'm Dr. McMurphy, R. P. McMurphy.
  • The Sociopath: What McMurphy pretends to be to get committed. Unfortunately for him, Nurse Ratched actually is one.
  • Softspoken Sadist: Nurse Ratched.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Charles Cheswick drowns in a swimming pool in the novel but survives the movie. According to Word of God, Cheswick was spared to make Billy Bibbit's death more shocking.
  • Speech Impediment: Billy's stutter.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: A medical lobotomy is used for this purpose, to pacify a particularly troublesome patient.
  • Stutter Stop: Billy loses his stutter after McMurphy arranges a rite of manhood for him. It doesn't take Nurse Ratched long to break him back down into a stuttering mess by playing into his psychological trauma.
  • Totally 18: This is part of the reason why McMurphy is locked up; he had sex with an underage girl that (he says) claimed she was eighteen.
  • Troll: McMurphy's main strategy in his war with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched is being one.
  • The Voiceless:
    • The deaf-mute "Chief" Bromden who eventually reveals to McMurphy that he's faking it.
    • Despite an impressive amount of screentime, Nurse Pilbow utters maybe just a couple of syllables throughout the entire movie and her entire purpose is to perform Nurse Ratched's orders. Also, the camera tends to zoom onto her face for a Reaction Shot whenever the patients start displaying extraordinary behavior.
  • Vorpal Pillow: Bromden sets McMurphy free from the asylum by suffocating him with a pillow.
  • Wham Line: Mac passes supposedly deaf/mute Bromden a stick of chewing gum and Bromden says, "Thank you."
  • White Male Lead: While the original novel is narrated by Bromden, a Native American, the film makes McMurphy into the lead. Justified because the main conflict involves McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, and Bromden's first-person narration in the book is completely lost in a visual medium like film.
  • Wrongfully Committed: McMurphy is a statutory rapist who pretends to be mentally ill in order to serve his sentence in what he believes will be a peaceful mental institution. However, McMurphy soon learns that the timed sentence proposed by the judge doesn't apply in this situation, meaning he will never be able to leave his confinement without the doctors' express consent.