Ah, to be a criminal now that winter has come.
I remember watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) for the first time. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the house where Sandy Hatten lived. The movie was being aired uncut and commercial free on a local affiliate network. This happened, I believe it was, in 1979, which would make it four years following its theatrical release. Anyway, Sandy had seen the movie at the cinema, where it properly belonged, and I had not seen it at all. Once R.P. McMurphy strutted into the Oregon State Mental Hospital and the patients there started watching him and reacting to his manner, I started laughing. I mean, the inmates in the nut house were so obviously funny. Then I noticed that Sandy wasn't laughing. Her face was more akin to exploring the screen, studying the faces of the men in the group, thinking about the nature of power. Sandy was a year older than me and far more sophisticated, so I immediately reconsidered my own response to the early parts of the film. Clearly, I had been a fool.
That is true and yet it is not true. Yes, I had been a fool and yes, I should not have necessarily laughed at the antics of Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd, and the others. Yet their behavior made one of the other characters, played by Jack Nicholson, laugh. If it was good enough for Jack to laugh, it should have been okay for me.
The problem is that it's not nice to laugh at crazy people. Crazy folks cannot really help themselves. Their illnesses are the psychological equivalent of pancreatic cancer, stomach ulcers, or pneumonia, and what the hell's so funny about those things?
Of course, the real problem is that with physical maladies, it's fairly easy to tell who is the sick person in the room, whereas with mental patients, you cannot always be certain that the patient is the fruit cake. The same thing is true of people locked up in criminal prisons. Maybe they're the prisoners and just maybe the real convicts are the guards, the warden, and the lovely taxpayers who foot the bill in relative safety. And who is more free: a Marine with a machine gun or the villager he blows away?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of the rare cinematic delights that came from the so-called independent film world. Fantasy Records and Films was helmed by a man named Saul Zaentz, although in 1975 the company was a lot better known for having been the record label of Creedence Clearwater Revival than of being in the movie business. In any case, Fantasy was located in Berkeley, California, not far from the streets of San Francisco where a young Michael Douglas was filming a TV called "The Streets of San Francisco." Somewhere along the line the two men met and decided to make a film of the Ken Kesey novel. Casting alone took them six months, especially since so many people kept turning down the plum roles. Gene Hackman, for instance, was offered the role of McMurphy and passed on it, later claiming his manager had advised him against it. Louise Fletcher, who played Nurse Ratched, says that four other well-known actresses passed on her part because they were not comfortable playing someone so self-assuredly evil. The producers didn't have a ton of money, but all the actors except Nicholson were asked to work for scale wages and agreed to do so. That suited director Milos Forman just fine because, as something like the tenth director Zaentz and Douglas interviewed for the job, he wanted Nicholson's character to be the only one recognizable to a movie audience because he figured we would see the patients as unknown entities just the way McMurphy would see them. It worked.
To think of this movie as being specifically about mental illness is shortsighted. It's also not necessarily an anti-establishment movie, although it works well enough on that basis. But I suspect there was something else going on, something in particular about Kesey's novel and Dale Wasserman's play that intrigued the two producers. If you listen to the commentary track of the DVD edition of the film, as I did this evening, one of the things you may pick up on is Douglas making a point, twice, of not being sexist. He says it in relation to Nurse Ratched being the powerhouse road block in every institution. He says it again in reference to the women who turned down the Ratched role (those women reportedly including Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway). Douglas has, in the ensuing years, attached himself to a number of films that suggest a kind of suave sexism, be it as the victimized family man in Fatal Attraction, the misogynist Everyman in Falling Down, or the sexually harassed underling in Disclosure. Look, I don't know the guy. However, if we judge a person by his or her work, it would not be unfair to suggest that there might be a bit of chauvinism going on here.
In the Kesey novel, when McMurphy explodes at the destruction of Billy, he rapes the Big Nurse as a means of imparting justice. I've always been uneasy with that idea because it fits so well with much of the male-dominated leftism of the period, where, as Eldridge Cleaver is reputed to have said, "The woman's position in the Movement is supine." It's not much of a surprise, in retrospect, that Cleaver would turn out to be a Christian fundamentalist and belligerent right winger.
The way the book and the movie are set up, the female roles are either authoritarian freaks or hookers. The nurses exist only to chip away at the testicles of the men, leaving only the prostitutes to "understand" what men really need. Well, I can only take so much horse shit before I start to puke.
You could argue that sexism has nothing to do with the story and that in order to make several cogent points about the evils of power and the powers of evil, the writer and later the filmmaker decided that the gender-segregated mental institution was the perfect scene. Okay, then how come when the men are escaping to go fishing and their bus passes a store that sells televisions, the sets in the store window feature the image of Gloria Steinem even though the setting of the movie is 1963 and back then almost no one had ever heard of her and she sure didn't appear on television.
I realize we're not supposed to say things like that because Cuckoo's Nest is such a great movie. Taken strictly at face value, that's exactly correct. It's a masterpiece. But then again, as Pauline Kael said of Dirty Harry, it's a fascist masterpiece. It's not you that's sick. It's society. You're not the one with the problem, buddy. The problem is with those uppity women and those black boys who do her bidding for her. Oh, yeah, you could say that Kesey and Forman intended all that ironically. But that's bullshit. Kesey, for his part, was suggesting that when those who have been oppressed get into a position of authority, they become just as despicable as the former masters. But this movie is not just another Raisin in the Sun ready to explode. The men in this movie are being controlled, but in most cases their emasculation is voluntary, suggesting that, unlike McMurphy, these momma boys actually prefer to stay infantile rather than accept the responsibility of manhood, a condition women such as Ratched are all too ready to exploit.
Wow. That's some kind of wicked.
The truth is that I like this movie very much and feel as if it deserved the five big time Academy Awards it received. Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are amazing adversaries and Forman's decision to keep the actors in character while the cameras moved around them in the group therapy sessions was brilliant. But I also have some insight into what it may have been that my friend Sandy was thinking as she stared intensely at the screen, never once cracking a smile.