One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Milos Forman

Anti-Authority Film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Still Bites

Film-goers viewed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a metaphor for ’70s era struggles against war, racism, and political corruption.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Milos Forman
United Artists
19 November 1975 (US)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ken Kesey
Penguin (reprint)
October 2016

When One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released amid a politically and culturally shifting decade, America welcomed its anti-authoritarian message. Though it was set in a corrupted psychiatric ward in the early ‘60s, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest mirrored the general feelings of anxiety in mid-’70s America. It was a shifting age when traditional belief systems had been shaken to the core. The heavily-protested Vietnam War was coming to a head with a U.S. military presence that peaked at 543,000 American combat troops by 1970. If that wasn’t enough, the Watergate scandal rattled people’s sense of patriotism, as they began to wonder whether their government was taking care of them.

Since the birth of the counter-culture movement of the ‘60s, a new generation had already begun to question authority through protest. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s main protagonist, Randle Patrick McMurphy, is the perfect poster child for this new path of thought. He represents standing up for oneself and no longer “toeing the line” as Ken Kesey eloquently put it in his original 1962 novel.

McMurphy isn’t perfect by any stretch. He is a schemer who knows how to work the system by faking insanity to avoid prison time. Simultaneously, he is regarded as a savior to his fellow patients in the Oregon ward he is committed to. When pre-production began on the 1975 film, the main question that lingered was who could play such a complex anti-hero? Big names like Burt Reynolds were discussed, as it would need a bankable young star if it had a chance with audiences. In the end, Jack Nicholson, with eyes like a playful cobra that could charm the most cynical of theater-goers, was the obvious choice.

Years later, director Milos Forman was still astonished when he recalled Nicholson’s commitment to the role when he commented, “From the moment he came on the set to the moment he left the set, I don’t know today if he’s crazy or not!”

In 1962, before Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was even published, Kirk Douglas, then at the top of his game after starring in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, bought the film property. “He had the book translated into a play and he went to Broadway, which was very unusual for a superstar,” his son, Michael later recalled. “The idea was that right after the play, he’d have it translated into a movie.” Taking on the stage role of McMurphy himself, Douglas hadn’t allowed his a-list status to cloud his recognition of quality material, regardless of how film studios would react to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s subject matter. Douglas pitched the story to Hollywood, but studio after studio turned him down, explaining that a film about life in a psychiatric facility would be too depressing for audiences at the time.

The project sat on the shelf collecting dust until 1972, when Michael Douglas, who had now become politically active and whose own star was rising with the television series, The Streets of San Francisco, read the novel. “It was a brilliantly conceived story of one man against the system,” Douglas wrote in the The Guardian. “I had never thought about producing, but told my dad: ‘Let me run with this.’” With a fire in his belly, he set out to prove the naysayers wrong. Predictably, most studios, again, rejected the idea until Douglas finally found a production partner in Saul Zaentz, head of Fantasy Records. Douglas’ perseverance paid off in a big way as Zaentz was so interested in the script that he put forward most of the production money, budgeted at $4 million.

At the approximate time pre-production began on the anti-establishment film that would make movie history, America faced its own struggles with power and oppression. The Vietnam War, which had been going on for nearly 20 years, had long ago lost popularity with Americans, and protests had grown in size and intensity. Exacerbating the events of the Vietnam War was the fallout of President Nixon and the government corruption of the Watergate scandal, which caused Americans to face a genuine crisis of confidence. When Kesey released the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest novel a decade earlier, he had already become somewhat of a hero for his depiction of anti-establishment thinking. Time magazine called the book, “a roar of protest against middlebrow society’s rules and the invisible rulers who enforce them.” People had been compelled to fight in Vietnam for something they didn’t believe in, and McMurphy seemed to represent how they felt about it.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s iconic villain, Nurse Ratched – who in many ways represented what Americans opposed in society – would be the most challenging role to cast. Many in Hollywood were concerned that a female role like this might upset people during the women’s liberation movement. Playing an evil character wasn’t an image many actresses wanted to associate with at the time. In fact, Anne Bancroft, Faye Dunaway, and Jane Fonda flatly turned it down.

Louise Fletcher was finally cast in the role, and years later, she told the Telegraph, “I wanted to make her believable as a real person in those circumstances. I drew on the misuse of power, a prominent issue in those times with Nixon having been forced to resign. I saw very clearly how people can believe that they’re doing good and they know best.”  Fletcher was astute in her observations. In Nixon’s attempts to cover up his involvement in the June 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Washington, D.C., Watergate Office Building, he may very well have believed he was doing good. But the situation had reached a breaking point by the mid-’70s. On the evening of 8 August 1974, President Nixon officially resigned from the Oval Office. 

Watching McMurphy oppose Nurse Ratched with a force as strong as her own, it seems impossible that any actor other than Nicholson could have embodied the gruffness or intensity it took to go head-to-head with her stern authority. But, surprisingly, there were many doubts about his casting. Douglas explained, “He looks like he was a natural for that part, but the truth is before this movie, he had played the sensitive, young man. He had done Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, kind of sensitive man parts.”

Forman stood firm on the casting from the beginning. “Jack Nicholson was always my first choice, but we learnt that we’d have to wait six months, because he had a contract to make another film,” he said. “The producers told me, ‘Is there anybody else you’d like to have as McMurphy, and I said the only one would be Marlon Brando. Thank God he even refused to read the script!”

The delay was a blessing, as it bought the team extra time to cast the perfect ensemble. Danny DeVito, Douglas’ oldest friend and roommate in the ’60s who’d played Martini in the 1971 off-Broadway production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was first to be cast in the film. Next was Brad Dourif, who was cast as the ill-fated Billy Bibbit in what would be an Oscar-nominated performance. And long before the Back to the Future franchise made him a household name, Christopher Lloyd was cast as the rambunctious Taber in his first on-screen role. Then, Chief Bromden, an aboriginal patient who reached six foot seven inches in height. “I found Will Sampson, who played Chief Bromden, through a used car dealer from Oregon who I’d sat next to on a plane,” explained Douglas. “It turned out his dad was a Native American agent, and he sold a lot of cars to them!”

In late 1974, as shooting day quickly approached, Douglas and Zaentz made the controversial decision to shoot the film in an actual psychiatric hospital in Salem, Oregon. To make the film as true-to-life as possible, they even cast the hospital’s director, Dr. Dean Brooks, to play McMurphy’s supervisor, Dr. Spivey. When filming officially commenced in January 1975, the traditional Hollywood studio system was already archaic. New Hollywood currently created films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets that imitated the cruelty of the real world. Forman also clearly envisioned how modern ’70s life should be reflected in the film. Indeed, some of the film’s anti-establishment intensity may also have stemmed from the fact that Forman’s parents were killed in Nazi Concentration camps during World War II.

Douglas and Zaentz initially asked Kesey to write the script, but it wouldn’t be smooth. They turned down Kesey’s version, which told the story from the schizophrenic Chief Bromden’s perspective (as it had in the novel), and much to Kesey’s horror, they decided instead, to hire new screenwriters to write the story in the third person. “Kesey’s been bad‐mouthing us recently because we rejected his screenplay and he thinks he got a raw deal financially,” Douglas told the New York Times’ Richard Levine during filming. Kesey lived close by in Eugene, and because he was a local hero, his unhappiness at the situation created an unfriendly reception from the townspeople. This was further aggravated when he told a Salem reporter, “the Hollywood dream‐makers made a lot of promises, got three women pregnant and, suddenly, they were gone.”

For the 11-week shoot, Brooks employed 85 hospital patients as extras and to work on the crew— some of them dangerous. Much to the objection of the hospital staff, he viewed this as therapeutic for his patients. Additional controversy began to brew as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) got wind of the film. Its portrayal of lobotomies and electroshock therapy left mental health professionals of the APA worried and uncomfortable. Dr. Prasanna K. Pati, who also appeared in the film, explained, “They are the ones who objected to it, mostly because they thought it put mental illness and treatment in a bad light.” But Brooks stood firm in his decision, saying that the film wasn’t a factual representation of life in a mental ward. “I just hope people realize that this is an allegory about how a man caught up in the system and allowed to undergo electroshock and a lobotomy,” Brooks told The New York Times. “We haven’t had a lobotomy in this hospital since 1958.”

On 19 November 1975, seven months after the Vietnam War officially ended, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released to the world. Though the APA were vocal in their opinions, they couldn’t hold back an overwhelming public response. Theater-goers couldn’t get enough of Nicholson’s charm or the film’s pushback at “the man”. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest aligned perfectly with the anti-authority climate of 1975. The public viewed it as a metaphor for the struggle of resistance against corruption—a theme no longer reserved for hippy communes but which had migrated to mainstream culture. Film critics also shared in the love. Vincent Canby of The New York Times acknowledged the empathetic view the film took when he noted “the extraordinary way that Forman has been able to create important identifiable characters of psychotics, people who are often represented in film as misfit exotics.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stole the show at the 1976 Oscars, winning five statues, including Best Actor for Nicholson and Best Actress for Fletcher. The night’s biggest shock was when it beat Steven Spielberg’s box office smash Jaws for Best Picture. At that time, a movie hadn’t taken home five Oscars since Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night in 1936. A few days later, Capra sent Forman a telegram that read, “Welcome to the club.”

Though Nicholson was already a recognizable star, the rest of the cast became instant celebrities. “It was kind of scary for a year or two after: people would stop me at airports and tell me how much they hated me,” Fletcher later recounted to The Guardian. “Now I’m on all the best villain ever lists, alongside Anthony Hopkins for Hannibal Lecter.” Ryan Murphy even brought Nurse Ratched’s backstory to life in 2020 with the origin thriller series Ratched starring Sarah Paulson.

Almost 50 years after its release, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is still one of the most forward-thinking and emotionally complex films about oppression and people’s rights as it relates not just to mental illness but to society as a whole. Though films like James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted and Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind have followed suit, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest goes straight to the heart of the issue and examines our need for freedom and a sense of identity. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s message is that whether the issue is big or small, sometimes it is possible to stand up to the system and find fellowship in a united front. That doesn’t mean, as Randle Patrick McMurphy would soon realize, that you will win.