If you attempted to sum up Jack Nicholson’s movie-star persona in the ’70s with a single image, you could do worse than a shot of him as R.P. McMurphy in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, cackling in a chair with his arms crossed, a pack of cigarettes rolled up into his T-shirt sleeve and his indecipherable hairline on full display. Sure, Nicholson had already played more nuanced iterations of a livewire, impossibly horny antihero, and had starred in better films. But Cuckoo’s Nest, adapted from the Ken Kesey novel and directed by Milos Forman, endures as a piece of pop-culture iconography because it’s a classic anti-Establishment parable: McMurphy is the embodiment of the counterculture, while Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) is the puritan society keeping him down.
Forty-five years on, Cuckoo’s Nest tends to be recalled in these broad strokes, its legacy defined largely by the two characters at its center. For proof, look no further than Ratched, Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy’s new “origin” series on Netflix starring Sarah Paulson as the titular nurse. A failed attempt at pathologizing the character by piling trauma after incoherent trauma onto her backstory, the show uses whatever name recognition Nurse Ratched still has to tell a story entirely divorced from Kesey’s novel or Forman’s movie. It’s a cynical IP grab, but one that at least managed to get Netflix to re-add the original film to its catalogue.
By contrast, Cuckoo’s Nest remains the kind of broadly satisfying movie that plays to the rafters. A runaway success upon its release, it won all five major Academy Awards, dominated the box office, and will likely play on rollaway TVs in high-school classrooms until the end of time. In its margins, though, is a less tidy story — one of ’60s optimism transposed to the ’70s, of a culture terrified of female authority figures, and of performers who manage to find the nuance in it all anyway.
Published in 1962, Kesey’s novel rode a wave of anti-Establishment fiction (including Joseph Heller’s Catch-22) that preceded the cultural upheaval in the second half of that decade. Inspired by his time working in a psychiatric ward and experimenting with LSD, the resulting novel is a snapshot of ’60s psychedelia — its schizophrenic narrator, “Chief” Bromden, even hallucinates a mechanical “Combine” that rules over society. But during the book’s long road from page to screen, the hippie revolution came and went. Kirk Douglas, courageously willing to admit (at nearly 60) that he had gotten too old to play McMurphy, sold the film rights to his son, Michael, and Cuckoo’s Nest found itself being adapted for a new decade.
“I think it’s much better that it was made now than in the ’60s,” Forman told critic Molly Haskell in 1975. “After a certain time, all the distracting elements fall away, all the transitory psychedelic stuff.” Working with screenwriters Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben, Forman dropped the narration and its acid-laced tangents, stripping the film down to the struggle over free will between its two leads. “To me it was not just literature but real life,” Forman wrote in 2012, “the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do.”
Louise Fletcher, then, was tasked with playing the ultimate killjoy. Kesey does little to characterize Ratched beyond what scholar Elizabeth McMahan calls the “castrating bitch” — a Freudian monster sent to emasculate helpless men. (A Netflix series more interested in the source text might have meaningfully contended this.) It’s to Fletcher’s credit that her Ratched has any sense of interiority, a result of her understanding that the character buys hook, line, and sinker into the rules she enforces. Ratched may have ice in her veins, but watch the lower half of her face break ever so slightly whenever it’s implied she’s harming her patients.
McMurphy, meanwhile, is the ward’s unwholesome Paddington Bear, teaching the other patients the rugged joys of being a dude: watching the World Series, going fishing, having casual sex with prostitutes. Filtered through peak Nicholson, his sheer force of life could taunt you into quitting your job. And yet, McMurphy is an uglier character than the movie wants to reckon with — he is, after all, serving time on a statutory rape charge. (“But Doc, she was 15 years old going on 35, Doc … She told me she was 18.”) Cuckoo’s Nest has a simple point to make, and in doing so, it often goes too big and broad to get lost in the weeds of thorny issues that it insists on bringing up anyway.
In its parting shots, Cuckoo’s Nest ends the way that it has to — with McMurphy’s protégé, Chief, escaping the ward in a feat of superhuman strength to go live free of Ratched’s tyranny. Parable over, case closed on whether the human spirit triumphs over the Establishment. Less straightforward is what happens 20 minutes earlier in the movie, when Forman holds a minute-long closeup on Nicholson. Immobilized by a range of emotions when he should be making his escape, we’re left to infer that maybe McMurphy has reached the end of his rope, that maybe the world beat him after all. For a movie that sometimes feels like it’s telling you when to applaud, a question mark hangs over its final act, and manages to linger on long afterward.