Posted in: by Rick Hermann, Contributors, Film Reviews

Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

In just about every Jack Nicholson performance there is a moment (often more than one moment) when Nicholson’s face reflects something suddenly and deeply wrong with the universe. In Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest one of those moments of both recognition and profound confusion comes after Billy has been trundled off to bed with Mac’s girlfriend Candy and McMurphy has disposed himself near the open window to wait. He begins by sharing some rum with Chief Bromden and finally sinks to a sitting position on the floor. Closeup on Nicholson’s face. He smiles, glancing in the direction Billy and Candy have gone, and then without warning or apparent reason the grin drops from sight, McMurphy’s mouth opens slightly, and his brows pull a little closer together. The window is open behind him, but somehow you know (regardless of whether you’ve read the book or the play) that McMurphy will not be crawling through it, and you’re not really sure why. After a moment, the smile creeps back onto Nicholson’s face, but then his eyes close and we cut to the next morning, the window still open, McMurphy and the Chief passed out underneath it.

It could, be argued that Forman lets the camera linger a mite too long on Nicholson’s face. In The Passenger, Antonioni does the same thing with Nicholson, and the result is totally different, and, I think, slightly more credible—not because Antonioni might be a better director (whether he is or isn’t is beside the point) but because his wasted intellectual protagonists can more naturally evoke the ennui that lies at the bottom of their souls. McMurphy, needless to say, is not presented as the introspective type, and yet Forman lets more of Nicholson’s brooding (shades of Bobby Dupree contemplating himself in the mirror at the end of Five Easy Pieces) seep into the scene than seems consistent with the rest of the performance. To a point, one must sympathize with Forman’s brief indulgence. Here he is with Jack Nicholson on his hands, and Nicholson is so good at doing that sort of thing that it would be difficult to shoot a whole movie without giving Nicholson at least one of those quietly volcanic moments in which to unload all that barely submerged chaos. And in a way, Nicholson’s changing facial expression—and everything underneath it—at that particular moment is the story’s turning point, but its overtness seems more than anything to underline a lack of clarity: what is going through McMurphy’s mind right then?

Part of the problem may derive from an uncertainty about point of view. The nature of Forman’s dilemma may be hinted at in that lingering closeup where there seems to be an out-of-balance tension between what is essentially Nicholson and what is supposedly McMurphy; the tension is something which Forman seems generally to be conscious of, and which he tries to keep in balance by carefully handling McMurphy’s part in a way that prevents McMurphy’s point of view from becoming our point of view as well. For while Nicholson is the kind of actor it’s damned hard not to watch every second he’s on the screen, McMurphy is scarcely the sort of protagonist you want unequivocally to identify with. When it comes to holding these two tendencies in some kind of moral and aesthetic balance (being engrossed by Nicholson’s performance without adopting an overly empathetic relationship with McMurphy), Forman’s sensitivity to the people he is filming proves to be his saving grace. For instance, when McMurphy begins lambasting some poor guy in a wheelchair who doesn’t know what’s going on in the world and the audience is beginning to react with a few scattered laughs (McMurphy wants another vote in favor of watching the World Series on television) the subtlest camera movement suddenly brings Nurse Ratched into the frame as well, and her presence makes it much more difficult to think that the way McMurphy treats some of the patients is in any way funny. Time and again Forman does this kind of thing—perhaps using a series of cuts to bring us away from McMurphy and back into the larger context of the group. The result is a subtle modulation of an overall point of view that allows Forman to maintain an essentially compassionate undertone by keeping us always in touch with the patients as a community of human beings.

Often this feeling of community spills over into the very atmosphere the characters exist in, creating a strongly unified tract of dramatic and psychological space that provides an intense intimacy within the world of the mental ward. As peripherally an ambient detail as a somewhat motley group of musicians who play flutes and guitars just outside the fence when McMurphy comes out for the first basketball sequence turns into something like a leitmotif when, during the next outing, only their music seeps onto the soundtrack, as though its pastoral lightheadedness and charm were as much a part of the air surrounding and penetrating those cyclone fences as Nurse Ratched’s mind-dulling Muzak is a part of the communal room inside the hospital. But when it comes time to explode that sense of unity (as well as confinement) with a venture out into the world world—when McMurphy hijacks the bus and boat—we are struck by a palpable freedom reflected in the stares of the patients as they pass along the ordinary streets of an ordinary town as though coursing through some magically alien environment—and at the same time we’re hit with a realization of the suddenly incongruous makeshift quality of Forman’s conception and direction of the sequence. Where do we draw the line? Where is the elated/paranoid point of view of the patients to be differentiated from a wobbly directorial aptitude for handling an outdoor action and comedy sequence (slapsticky comedy at that) in a film where such a placid and reflective manner of depicting people as Forman’s is more successfully realized in his articulation of a collective spirit and his almost Bergmanesque poetry of the human face?

Forman seems most comfortable in the confined, often claustrophobic domain of the ward where he can orchestrate the human components of his mise-en-scène in a way that accentuates that poetry and hence leads to an essential stylistic distinction in Forman’s work that has a lot to do with the kinds of people he has populated the screen with. Many of those people weren’t actors before Forman started rolling the camera down in Ken Kesey’s neck of the Oregon woods, and one might easily anticipate such an arrangement leading to a tension between the tentativeness in the way nonprofessionals grope for their roles and the director’s attempt to capitalize on their hopefully unpretentious behavior in front of the camera. To a point, Forman does let the actors’ roughhewnness work towards a more “realistic” flavoring, much in the same way that Cassavetes, using nonprofessionals, can coax forth performances that seem natural and, usually, painful evolutions of dialogue and emotion. But Forman’s frequent use of facial close shots (comparable to Cassavetes as much as to Bergman) doesn’t just serve to index emotional intensity, nor are those faces coldly scrutinized as though one side of the screen (or camera) had nothing to do with the other. Instead, Forman tends to explore his characters in a way that makes it appear that the actors are taking a large hand in defining the roles they play (which in fact they are) while the director eclipses himself to the extent of encouraging spontaneity and trying to have the camera pointed in the right direction when something flickers between the characters.

But it’s never quite that simple. Forman’s use of a nonprofessional cast probably does contribute to some of the unstudied-seeming portrayals. It’s the director’s efforts, though, that makes those portrayals an interconnected whole. Especially in the group therapy sessions where intercut reactions form an important integrating thread in the ebb and flow of temper and sympathy, Forman, like Cassavetes, is particularly concerned with creating a credible totality of interrelationships from which the camera can pick and choose the nuanced supporting bit as well as the central performance of focal dialogue. With Cassavetes, however, this actual uncertainty as to what’s going to happen next, where the camera will go now, is tied to a strong feeling of improvisation that Forman only infrequently tries to bring off, usually with Nicholson in the immediate vicinity. In one scene early in the movie it works particularly well. McMurphy has just arrived and has already had a chance to threaten the subdued ambience of the ward while strolling around a group of card-playing patients who are trying to pass a quiet morning. Now he’s meeting for the first time with Dr. Spivey; Spivey starts asking those deceptively amiable, condescendingly frank questions—”Why do you think you’re here, McMurphy?”—when McMurphy notices a photograph of the doctor holding a huge Chinook salmon by a chain. McMurphy starts asking questions about it, and the doctor, perhaps sensing an opening for “communication” with his patient, follows right along. The whole thing is slightly ridiculous: McMurphy ends up wondering if they weighed the chain as well. It works, however, because, whether it was carefully scripted or not, the halting, exploratory way in which they run through it makes it seem freshly and refreshingly improvised, especially in contrast to some lines that come a moment later during the interview—lines nudging almost uncomfortably at some kind of Big Theme about the relativity of madness and violent behavior (“Rocky Marciano knocked out 40 guys and he ain’t in jail”). Laid out in such cutely paradoxical terms, the point seems too easily digestible, again perhaps because it’s enclosed within that point of view—McMurphy’s point of view—that we’re sometimes led to accept at face value without closely examining the less palatable underside of McMurphy’s self-destructive temperament.

Direction: Milos Forman. Screenplay: Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, after the novel by Ken Kesey. Cinematography: Haskell Wexler, Bill Butler; additional cinematography: William A. Fraker. Production design: Paul Sylbert. Editing: Richard Chew. Music: Jack Nitzsche. Production: Saul Zaentz, Michael Douglas.
The players: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, Sidney Lassick, Danny De Vito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, Dean R. Brooks, Scatman Crothers, Marya Small.

© 1976 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here