Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
Studio Line: MGM

A nice rest in a state mental hospital beats a stretch in the pen, right? Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholas), a free-spirited con with lightning in his veins & glib on his tongue, fakes insanity & moves in with what he calls the "nuts." Immediately, his contagious sense of disorder runs up against numbing routine. No way should guys pickled on sedatives shuffle around in bathrobes when the World Series is on. This means war! On one side is McMurphy. On the other is soft-spoken Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), among the most coldly monstrous villians in film history. At stake is the fate of every patient on the ward.

Director: Milos Forman
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Michael Berryman, Peter Brocco, Dean R. Brooks, Sctman Crothers, Mwako Cumbuka, Danny DeVito
Academy Awards: Won for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor-Jack Nicholson; Best Actress-Louise Fletcher; Best Screenplay. Nominated for Best Supporting Actor-Brad Dourif; Best Cinematography; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score-Jack Nitzsche, 1976.
Box Office: Budget: $3 million. Gross: $112 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1, standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Stereo, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, French; closed-captioned; double side - single layer; 33 chapters; rated R; 129 min.; $24.99; 12/16/97.
Supplements: Production Notes; Cast/Crew Bios.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Kessey | Score soundtrack - Jack Nitzsche

Picture/Sound/Extras: C-/C-/D

Two factors compelled me to rent One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. First, I'm slowly working my way through DVD reviews of every movie that won the Best Picture Academy Award; it'll take a while, but eventually I hope to have a full "Best Picture" review archive on the DVD Movie Guide.

Since there are many other BP winners I haven't reviewed, you may wonder what spurred me to grab this one right now. I felt compelled to check it out because I recently saw Girl, Interrupted, and the apparent similarities between the two films made me curious to discover just how much they had in common. I hadn't seen OFOTCN in many years, so while I thought it and GI bore some commonalities, I couldn't say for certain.

Now that I've again viewed OFOTCN, I can state that while the two share definite similarities, I found many differences as well, mostly concerning the general tone of each picture. Both films depict protagonists who enter a mental hospital, but what happens to them there and their reactions to the settings are rather different.

OFOTCN clearly takes the anti-authoritarian route and makes a stand for individual freedom. This kind of film was pretty common back in the Seventies, as movies and other artistic outlets espoused the need to do what you wanna do; Harold and Maude is one well-known example of this genre. OFOTCN is about a billion times better than HAM, but nonetheless they share the rebellious spirit typical of the times.

HAM was a poor film largely due to its thesis. It touted selfishness, not freedom; the main lesson to take from it is that we all should be able to do whatever we want whenever we want to no matter how our actions affect others. (For a rebuttal of this viewpoint, check out the "Bart's Inner Child" episode of The Simpsons; the show's concluding "Do What You Feel" festival neatly encapsulates some of the downfalls of the self-centered spirit.)

OFOTCN avoids such traps, happily, which is part of the reason it works much better as a movie. Clearly authority gets a bad rap in OFOTCN, but the film doesn't condemn leading organizations as a whole. Instead, it concentrates on rules for rules' sake, the kind of unthinking allegiance to nonsensical conformity that puts down anything different. It's not a tremendously original notion, but it's well-handled in OFOTCN and the experience creates a more thoughtful exploration than usual of what's "crazy" and what's not.

OFOTCN is definitely a "triumph of the human spirit" kind of movie, and it has some of that genre's weaknesses. We see a fair number of scenes of the mental patients "bonding" and get more of those "you're all beautiful flowers" moments than I'd like. However, since the number of those sorts of scenes I'd like equals zero, I suppose my mild dissatisfaction is to be expected, At the very least, the film handles these sequences with a minimum of sentimentality; director Milos Forman doesn't exactly film OFOTCN as though it were a documentary, but he maintains a pretty objective and even-handed approach.

The acting in OFOTCN seems uniformly excellent. OFOTCN is one of the very few movies ever to sweep all five of the big Oscar categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress (It Happened One Night and The Silence Of the Lambs are the others that have performed this trick.) Jack Nicholson creates yet another variation on himself as protagonist McMurphy, but he reins himself more than usual. In fact, I believe OFOTCN is probably one of the last times we saw more acting from Jack than just sheer personality; he's magnetic enough to get by on the latter, but this means we see few real performances from him and too much isolated charisma. In any case, he fully inhabits the role of McMurphy and brings him to life nicely.

Also excellent is Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched. That character has become shorthand for semi-fascistic authority figures, and Fletcher makes her all too believable. Despite her coldness and heavy-handed tactics, Ratched never seems inhuman, and we can see how she thinks she's doing the right thing, though we know she isn't. Nicholson has the showier role, but Fletcher provides the better job of acting.

OFOTCN features a strong supporting cast of then-unknown actors, many of whom didn't stay unknown for many years. We find people like Danny De Vito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif and Vincent Schiavelli among the recognizable faces, plus some more obscure actors like Will Sampson as the Chief, Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, and William Redfield as Harding. If there's a weak performance in the bunch, I couldn't find it.

One problem I encountered while reviewing OFOTCN stems from the fact it's been imitated so many times over the years. It's literally impossible to watch anything remotely concerned with mental facilities without thinking of this movie; even if they don't rip off this picture, the comparisons will inevitably occur. Because of that factor, I didn't feel OFOTCN seemed terribly fresh, but I could imagine what an impact it had a quarter of a century ago. Back then, the less-than-pleasant conditions and inhumane treatment found at similar facilities came as a shock to the general public, but the publicity helped reform psychological care. (To a degree - it's also had negative consequences, such as the widespread closing of residential buildings and the discharge of people who really need 24-hour a day care into the general population. At least most of the truly horrid facilities closed after some documentaries from this era; believe me when I say that centers like the one depicted in OFOTCN were day spas compared to some of the hellholes of the time.)

Fresh or not, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remains a well-made and effective movie. For some (like Fletcher), it was the sole highlight of their career, while others (such as Nicholson and Forman) would continue to create strong work for years to come. In any case, it represented a very solid and compelling movie. Honestly, I'd still pick Jaws over it as Best Picture of 1975, but OFOTCN seems quite good nonetheless.

The DVD:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.855:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. While not a disaster, the transfer for OFOTCN certainly could stand for some serious improvement.

Sharpness generally seemed fairly satisfactory but it rarely appeared truly crisp and clear. Outdoor scenes often looked very sharp, but interiors - which comprise most of the film - were much less consistent; some shots appeared pretty well-defined, but a good number of others lacked clarity and seemed fuzzy. Moiré effects and jagged edges did not appear problematic, but print flaws abound on this disc; mild grain shows up through most of the film, and I also frequently saw speckling. Scratches and nicks happened more infrequently - only a few times each - and I noticed no hairs or other problems. In any case, a film of such distinction really could use a nice cleaning.

Colors appear subdued and somewhat pale. OFOTCN isn't a Technicolor extravaganza, so the tones seem acceptable and probably match what Forman wanted. Black levels were decently dark and shadow detail seemed fairly appropriate, but neither stood out to me. I found OFOTCN to remain watchable throughout the film, but the image seems disappointing nonetheless.

Also fairly weak is the film's Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. I was surprised to find that sort of mix here; I expected it to be monaural. Initially the audio impressed me, for we first hear some good stereo separation for some of the film's music. Unfortunately, the soundtrack quickly becomes mediocre and worse. On occasion, additional positive stereo imaging occurs; it generally is restricted to music, but some effects pan to the sides as well. However, the vast majority of the track seems monaural in nature. The music also spreads gently to the rears, but other than that, I detected no activity back there.

Despite the limited scope, I was very satisfied with the breadth of the soundtrack; after all, I'd only expected it to be mono, so anything beyond that was a bonus. However, the quality of the audio disappointed me. Dialogue seemed very flat and thin, and whenever anyone raised their voices, it could become very distorted. Intelligibility was also a concern; I occasionally had trouble understanding lines. On the infrequent occasions we hear the score, it sounds pretty good, with clear, accurate tones. Effects are acceptably crisp and realistic, though the entire track lacks low end, so they pack no punch. As I watched OFOTCN, I flip-flopped between awarding the audio a "C-" or a "D+". I went with the more mild grade because of the better-than-expected soundfield, but it was a close call; even for a 25-year-old film, OFOTCN doesn't sound very good.

Even worse are this DVD's supplemental features. Although OFOTCN appeared as a laserdisc boxed set that included a nearly 90-minute documentary and an audio commentary, none of that arrives on this DVD. Instead, all we find are some mediocre text materials.

Inexplicably, the standard cast and crew biographies are spread to three different areas. One actually calls itself "Cast and Crew" and features three of the actors (Nicholson, Fletcher and William Redfield) plus director Forman, screenwriters Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman, novelist Ken Kesey, producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, and director of photography Haskell Wexler. "Supporting Players" tosses in three more biographies, these for actors Danny De Vito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif, while the "Memorial to Scatman Crothers" offers a pretty weak remembrance, as it's just another text biography. All of these entries are really fairly decent, but I find this chopped-up presentation odd.

More text appears in a few other sections. "A 13 Year Effort" briefly details the struggles to bring the film to the screen, while "Casting" and "On Location" provide some perfunctory notes on the movie's creation. Finally, "Awards" detail the various prizes won by the movie. It all beats a kick in the head but it's a pretty weak collection nonetheless.

And this is a movie that deserves better. I wasn't bowled over by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest but I found it to be an entertaining and compelling picture. Unfortunately, the DVD provides relatively weak picture and sound and offers few extras. If you simply can't live without this movie, I suppose you might as well get the DVD, but everyone else should skip it and hope for a reissue. As for myself, I found a place that has the laserdisc boxed set for only $25 and I grabbed it; the quality of the movie seems comparable, but the supplements make it a bargain.

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