One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

(1975) *** 1/2 R
133 min. United Artists Films. Director: Milos Forman. Cast: Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Dean R. Brooks.

/content/films/3848/1.jpgNo American anti-establishment drama ever struck a louder chord than One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Ken Kesey's 1962 novel about a free spirit in an insane asylum hit the stage a year later in an adaptation that starred Kirk Douglas as Randall P. McMurphy. Joining forces with Saul Zaentz, Douglas' son Michael produced the film adaptation that eluded his father. Expatriate Czech director Milos Forman was just the man for the job: having lived under Communist repression in Czechoslovakia, the New York transplant knew the mentalities of oppressors in power and rebellious thinkers chafing against sociopolitical limitations.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest gave Nicholson the role to cement his "A"-list stardom. As McMurphy, the sane rebel dragged down by a mental institution, Nicholson gets to use all the colors on his palette, from quiet, troubled contemplation to the disturbingly truthful, live-wire jesting with which he has become best associated. McMurphy has been repeatedly pegged as the "bad egg" in the nest, whether it be prison—where he's done time for assault and statutory rape—or the hospital he at first sees as an escape of sorts. Rather, this is just another prison, and the domain of Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who immediately proves to be McMurphy's natural, mutual enemy. A passive-aggressive functionary, Ratched has widened her sphere of influence and power, and likes it that way, keeping her patients dependent and cowed until they come around to her way of thinking (as McMurphy puts it, "She likes a rigged game, you know what I mean?"). The battle of wills that ensues includes casualties and collateral damage among the inmates.

Forman's version of Kesey's story troublingly blends anxiety and absurdity. It's readable as a literal but not entirely fair critique of mental-health institutions at the time the film was made, but the film's primary interest is to develop an allegory of one man, surrounded by sheep, engaging in a reckless, Quixotic fight against the system—what Kesey called "the Combine." Both aspects of the narrative concern protection of the human spirit from dehumanizing treatment at the convenience of institutional "powers that be." An impromptu field trip played for laughs allows a sunny version of free play—as opposed to Ratched's soul-crushing "group therapy" sessions—but the more realistic and dramatically stirring dramatization of this tension comes when McMurphy, denied the right to watch the World Series, defiantly narrates his own game for himself and his fellow patients. It's a measure of the film's success that Ratched doesn't come across as a stock villain, per se; though she's guided by ego as McMurphy pushes her buttons, she wholly believes that her methods are the best medicine for her patients.

Still, the story is basic to a fault, and the institution's methodologies (including prescription medication, electroconvulsive therapy and, for the most problematic cases, frontal lobotomy) are all treated as equally misguided, without any nuance that might show evidence in favor of a treatment or a rule. Forman fares better with symbolism that's as theatrical as itis satirical, like the scene in which a patient—to the tune of gentle classical music—takes his medication like it's a communion wafer. Forman also does well in presenting the fabulous seventies cinematography of Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler, and the work of a terrific ensemble cast in the roles of the staff (including Scatman Crothers and a selection of real doctors) and patients (William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, William Duell, and Will Sampson as "Chief"). All in all, it's a memorable and potent film, as evidenced by its rare achievement of sweeping the top categories at the Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay), a feat managed previously only by It Happened One Night and subsequently only by The Silence of the Lambs.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 9/14/2010

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner has repackaged One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for both Blu-ray and DVD in a new 35th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition box set. The trappings of the Blu-ray set include a 52-page commemorative hardbound book with vintage stills and promotional art, a thorough essay by Cuckoo's Nest expert Charles Kiselyak that explores the story's path from novel to Oscar-winning film, a fold-out timeline, and cast and crew bios; a reproduction of the original press book; four mini-reproductions of original worldwide theatrical posters; a full deck of cast-inspired playing cards; and six glossy cast/character photo cards in an official-looking miniature envelope labeled "Randall P. McMurphy Medical File."

The hi-def transfer and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio haven't changed since the previous Blu-ray issue. The image is much improved from its original DVD edition: while generally maintaining a film-like look, the image is cleaner and more finely textured than it's ever looked on home video, with accurate color and impressive shadow detail. The sound mix is clear and clean, but there's not much in the way of surround separation, and the track is "lossy." By DVD standards, the mix is strong, but those accustomed to lossless Blu-ray audio may be a bit disappointed.

The Blu-ray disc's extras kick off with the previously available audio commentary from director Milos Forman and producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas.

Also on the Blu-ray are two documentaries produced and directed by Cuckoo's Nest expert Charles Kiselyak. The first, Completely Cuckoo (1:26:18, SD), has been previously made available on DVD and Blu-ray only in truncated form, but it's now here in its entirety. The feature-length doc covers the film from adaptation and casting through production to its attendant controversies. Interviewed are author Ken Kesey, Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, director Milos Forman, producer Saul Zaentz, Dr. Dean K. Brooks, Dr. Prasanna Pati, Dr. Don Crane, former governor Bob Straub and first lady Pat Straub, screenwriter Bo Goldman, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, Mel Lambert, Louise Fletcher, Sydney Lassick (vintage), William Redfield (vintage), former patient Gene Bailey, and first assistant director Irby Smith.

The second (and newer) Kiselyak documentary, "Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill?" (30:58, HD), looks at the real Oregon State Hospital where the film was shot, its historical reputation, and the modern-day issues it faces. Participants include Michael Douglas, Brooks, his daughter Dr. Ulista J. Brooks, his granddaughter Dr. Ulista Hoover, patient Rex Gorges, Dr. Arthur E. Tolan, administrator Linda Hammond, and OSH Museum of Mental Health board president Hazel Patton.

A section of Additional Footage is full of small gems trimmed from this Best Picture winner. The scene fragments include "McMurphy and Dr. Spivey" (1:59, SD), "Chief Captured Between Mops" (1:10, SD), "Shaving Chief" (:52, SD), "Who's the Top Looney Here?" (:59, SD), "McMurphy Meets Nurse Ratched" (1:43, SD), "First Group Therapy Session" (2:40, SD), "'A bunch'a chickens at a pecking party'" (2:20, SD), and "'Mr. McMurphy, where are your clothes?'" (1:54, SD).

Last up is the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:45, SD).

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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