All right. Enough. I have been messing around with fun movies that I love or sports movies that I like or underrated movies you should check out. It’s time to focus on great – pantheon great – films that I believe belong in anyone’s top 50 films of all time. I wanted to pick one from my top ten and struggled with the right one, but having just watched another outstanding Jack Nicholson performance over the weekend, I finally settled on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, dir. Milos Forman).
Based on the Ken Kesey novel and play, Cuckoo’s Nest is the story of a mental institution with a colorful cast of characters, primarily focused on R. P. McMurphy (Nicholson) and how his incarceration – which he claims he engineers assuming it will be easier than prison – progresses. Along the way, you meet Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, playing what is ranked the 5th best villain in film history by the American Film Institute), whose steely, emotionless gaze seems to peer right off the screen and into your very soul. Various other patients in the facility include Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif – known mostly as the voice of Chucky from the Child’s Play film franchise), Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), and Dale Harding (William Redfield). You will notice a very young Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd among the patients as well. Kirk Douglas originated the role of McMurphy on Broadway and purchased the film rights at the time. He could never get the movie made, however, and eventually sold the rights to his son, Michael, reportedly for $1.
As you will see from my scores below, there really is not a weak element to this film. It has been argued that it tends too comedic for the first 75% of the film for the darker ending to feel well earned, but I vehemently disagree with that assessment. There are constant dark undertones throughout and a sense of danger in every moment that it only feels natural to me the film would progress in that direction. The real strength lies in the performances, however, as Nicholson and Fletcher both took home Oscars for their work, with Dourif also scoring a nomination for his first film role. (The film is also part of a historic trio of movies that won the “Big 5” Oscars – those for best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay. Can you name the other two?*) This is astounding to me as you will not find anything even close to these performances in the entire careers of Fletcher and Dourif. But for this one, two-hour drama, they were spot on and richly deserved all the praise that came their way.
It is a movie filled with memorable scenes. You will likely have the ending in your head for weeks if you haven’t seen it before. Additionally, I fondly recall the fishing scene from time to time. I annoyingly quoted Danny DeVito from the poker game for years (“minimum bet is a dime, Martini”), and the job Nicholson does in deciding to become the leader of the patients a la Cool Hand Luke is textbook film acting. He brings so many brilliant moments that it is unfair to pick one out. The journey he takes from mocking them to fighting for them to genuinely caring about them is poignant and thrilling to watch. Do yourself the favor of enjoying this amazing collection of talent making cinematic brilliance. It may not be the most fun movie to watch (though I would argue it is far from depressing), but the amount of wonderful performances is simply not to be missed.
Just Watch says you can stream One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is somehow not streaming for free on any service but is available for rent/purchase on virtually all the various platforms.
*To answer the trivia question, the other two films to win the Big 5 were It Happened One Night (1934, dir. Frank Capra) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme). Unsurprisingly, both of those films land in my top 100 as well.