One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the quintessential tale of a defiant and creative mind that questions and collides with authority. The novel, written by Ken Kesey and published in 1962, takes place in an all-male Oregon mental hospital from the point of view of Native American “Chief Bromden”, who has faked being a deaf-mute for years.
Despite being told from Bromden’s perspective, the story centers on the arrival and stay of Randal McMurphy, who is convicted of battery and statutory rape. In order to get out of prison and transfer to the hospital, McMurphy feigns insanity.
The ward is run by Nurse Ratched or the “big nurse” as Bromden calls her. She is a tyrannical figure who controls and withholds basic rights like toothpaste and cigarettes. She does her best to emasculate her patients, particularly inmate Billy Bibbit, a shy, suicidal patient with a terrible stutter. Bibbit is deathly afraid of his mother and Ratched uses his fear by constantly threatening to tell his mother on him.
Immediately upon his arrival, McMurphy recognizes Ratched’s hold over the men and begins a power struggle with her, pushing her buttons and getting the other patients to question her authority. Right away, he bets the other patients that he can get the best of her:
“One week, and if I don’t have her to where she don’t know whether to shit or go blind, the bet is yours.”
With the patients under his influence, McMurphy turns the hospital on its head — something some of the other patients have wanted to do but haven’t had the nerve to go through with fully. In addition, McMurphy is constantly planning his escape. At one point, which is pivotal to the story, he demonstrates how he would break out of the ward by trying to pick up a heavy control panel and hurl it through a window. When he is unsuccessful at prying the bulky piece of furniture from the floor, he tells the other patients, “But I tried, though … Goddammit, I sure as hell did that much, didn’t I?”
McMurphy is class clown. He verbally rouses Ratched and kids the other patients. He also plays the role of leader — organizing poker games and a fishing trip, as well as inciting a vote among the inmates to view the World Series on TV. He becomes the first person on the ward to earn Chief Bromden’s trust. When Brombden lets his guard down and reveals that he’s faked his deafness, the two men bond and decide that they’ll escape the ward together and go to Canada.
But like the fate of all good heroes, McMurphy’s downfall is inevitable. After a big party in the ward that involves liquor, drugs, and prostitutes, McMurphy and the other patients fall asleep and are caught red-handed the next morning. Nurse Ratched finds Billy Bibbit in the arms of a prostitute and threatens to tell his mother about what he’s done. Her threat causes Bibbit to slit his own throat.
When Ratched blames Billy’s death on McMurphy, he attacks her and attempts to strangle her, but is removed and carted up to the Disturbed Ward where he ultimately loses his mind, so to speak, when he is given a lobotomy.
Kesey got first-hand experience in the field of mental illness and psychiatric wards when he worked the graveyard shift as an orderly at a mental institution in California. While working there, he interviewed the patients, and as part of a government-sponsored experiment, received electroconvulsive therapy and took LSD, mescaline, and the patients’ drugs.
The 1975 adaptation of Kesey’s book was directed by Milos Forman and starred Jack Nicholson as McMurphy. The film is often found on “best of” lists and earned a win in all five major Academy Award categories (Best Picture, Actress in Lead Role, Actor in a Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay). This feat hadn’t been achieved since It Happened One Night in 1934, and would not be accomplished again until 1991 when Silence of the Lambs swept all five categories.
Czech director Forman lent authenticity to the film by shooting it in an Oregon State Hospital, and has said that the asylum worked as a metaphor for the Soviet Union, which he also felt was personified by Nurse Ratched.
Jack Nicholson is a natural for the role of valiant, flippant rebel, McMurphy. He had recently played a similar character in Easy Rider. Apparently James Caan, Gene Hackman, and Marlon Brandon were considered for the role, but it ultimately went to Nicholson. Could you see anyone but him wearing that knit black cap while trying to squeeze the life out of Louise Fletcher?
One Who Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was Fletcher’s debut. As Nurse Ratched she is so cool and domineering that she made me want to strangle her. Other notable performances include Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit, Christopher Lloyd as Taber, and Will Sampson as Bromden.
Ultimately, though, the film belongs to Nicholson. He is the embodiment of McMurphy to the core. One of my favorite scenes is of the guys after losing the vote to watch the World Series on TV. Nurse Ratched has the TV tuned to some other channel, smiling in her quiet smug way, knowing she’s once again won the battle between her and McMurphy.
But as the defeated patients are shuffling back to their rooms, McMurphy sits in front of the television and begins to yell out play by play of the game as if he were watching it. This attracts the patients to join him and soon they’re all looking at the screen and cheering as McMurphy continues narrating the imaginary game. It’s the moment of ultimate unification against Ratched. Even though they didn’t get what they had originally wanted, the men are still able to use their “delusional” mental status to come together and celebrate.
But there are few times they get to come together before their fates take a cruel downward turn. After McMurphy’s lobotomy, realizing he’ll be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, Bromden does his friend the ultimate favor by smothering him with a pillow. He then breaks out of the hospital by lifting the panel that McMurphy had wanted to lift in the beginning of the story, and hurling it through the window.
The title of the book is taken from an American children’s nursery rhyme:
Wire, briar, limber-lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew east, one flew west
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
It can be argued that Bibbit flew in one direction, McMurphy in another, and Bromden flew “over the cuckoo’s nest” toward freedom.
Both the book and the film stand the test of time because at the heart of each is the relevant and timeless struggle between individual rights and a dictatorship. The late ’60s and early ’70s were ready for the story as cultural conflicts with feminism and the Vietnam War were inescapable. The new millennium is just as ripe for revisiting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as we’re all aware that individual freedoms are still being suppressed by governments around the world.
Luckily there’s always room for that one person just nutty and brave enough to question a smug and oppressive authority – albeit hopefully with less tragic results. Both Kesey and Forman do a beautiful job of bringing this character to readers and the viewing audience.