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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Best Picture, 1975

oneflewoverthecuckoosnestposterThe 48th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by Goldie Hawn and Gene Kelly (among others). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was nominated for 9 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), and Best Original Score. Its competition, however, was formidable. The other Best Picture nominees alone included Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (7 nominations, 4 wins), Steven Spielberg’s mega-hit Jaws (4 nominations, 3 wins), Sidney Lumet’s true-story bank-heist drama Dog Day Afternoon (6 nominations, 1 win), and Robert Altman’s ensemble masterpiece of American grassroots politics Nashville (5 nominations, 1 win). Meanwhile, Federico Fellini received his 4th and final directing nomination for Amarcord (2 nominations, 0 wins), despite the fact that Amarcord had also been included in the previous Oscar ceremony, in which it won Best Foreign Film. Finally, there was John Huston’s thrilling adventure epic The Man Who Would Be King (4 nominations, 0 wins).

In the end, Jaws won both Best Editing and Best Original Score, while Best Cinematography went to Barry Lyndon. George Burns won Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Sunshine Boys. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest scooped up the remaining 5 awards, becoming one of only three films (to date) to achieve an “Oscar Grand Slam,” and the first to do so in the 41 years since It Happened One Night was so-honored. The third film, The Silence of the Lambs, came along a mere 16 years later.

In the movie, con-artist and general cut-up R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) inspires the inmates of an insane asylum to rebel against the soul-crushing regime of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher). McMurphy is not crazy himself, but seems to have gotten himself transferred to the ward from prison on a lark, and possibly with the vague idea that escape would be easier. Once there, however, he becomes invested in shaking up the established order. These antics include efforts to puncture Nurse Ratched’s unflappable serenity, and spontaneous attempts to breathe life into the other ward occupants with everything from hijacking the ward bus to escape for a sailing trip to throwing a wild party with girls and alcohol after hours.

Cuckoo’s Nest has a very notable cast, with Dourif’s stuttering Billy Bibbit as well as Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito (who disappears into his role). Nicholson and Fletcher both give good performances as well, of course (Nicholson, in particular, was already long overdue for his first Oscar win by this point). However, I particularly have to mention Will Sampson’s magnificent portrayal of Chief Bromden; it’s a really great role, and Sampson is fantastic in it.

The movie has a number of memorable sequences, perhaps most notably McMurphy’s campaign to see the World Series. Nurse Ratched insists that he secure a majority vote of the members of the ward before she will allow it, but uses systematic loopholes to ensure that he will be unsuccessful. In frustrated retaliation, McMurphy proceeds to give an animated commentary on an imaginary game as he stares at the blank TV screen, prompting the other inmates to gather around him, reveling noisily in their shared dream. There are other stand-out scenes, particularly the surprisingly moving ending, but I would hate to spoil them by revealing more. I had actually never seen the movie, or read the play or novel, before this, so the surprises offered by the plot were totally fresh and unexpected.

What I particularly liked, actually, was the portrayal of Nurse Ratched as the “villain” of the movie. Most commentary on the film that I had previously encountered speaks of her as a horrible monster, and I expected something quite different from the soft-spoken woman on the screen. Nurse Ratched is not some cartoonishly cruel caricature of a person, but rather a chilling illustration of the banality of evil. Her sadistic wickedness is hidden behind a friendly smile, layers and layers of bureaucratic policies and procedures, and a conciliatory condescending approach to conflict.

I have two potential problems with the movie. The first, of course, is that I am always a little nervous of the portrayal of insane or mentally-retarded characters in that they tend to be romanticized, and as a result the severity of these conditions is diminished in the minds of the audience. Other Best Pictures guilty of this include Rain Man and Forrest Gump. I know very little of substance about asylums, either then or now, although I do know they have come a long way since the barbaric use of electro-shock treatments shown here. What was never really clear in the film, however, was precisely how serious the various conditions of the inmates were, and whether either Ratched or McMurphy were a help or a hindrance to any of them.

My second problem is that the film is a bit overlong. It doesn’t drag, per se, but it does seem to repeat a bit. The story progressed in fits and starts and seemed to double back on itself once or twice. I never had a clear idea of why McMurphy had been sent to the asylum in the first place, or what his motives were for behaving as he did, nor was I sure of why he was kept there for so long (or, alternately, why he waited so long to make good his escape). I suppose this isn’t so much a problem of length, after all. There were simply elements of the narrative that could have been smoothed out.

Quibbles aside, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an enjoyable and iconic cinematic experience that I would heartily recommend. It may not have been the best possible choice for the top academy honor, but it is by no means an unworthy selection. I only wish that I had read the material that it was adapted from so that I could comment on the faithfulness of the adaptation.

The Best Picture category was unusually strong this year, and I could see a strong case being made for any of the other nominees. Of those, I would have a difficult time choosing between Barry Lyndon, Nashville, and Jaws. However, I also believe that The Man Who Would Be King deserved more attention than it got (although it, too, is somewhat overlong). It’s worth noting the complete exclusion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, even from the screenplay category. I’m not sure that I would argue that it was the best movie of 1975, but it had to have been the funniest. That’s got to be worth something, right? Well, not at the Oscars . . .

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~ by Jared on February 18, 2009.

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