Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman
Screenwriter: Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, and Ken Kasey
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, Danny Devito
Genres: Drama, Comedy
MPAA Rating: Rated R for sex/nudity, violence, language, alcohol/drugs, and frightening/intense sequences
Release Dates: 11/19/75 (Wide Theatrical); 11/30/16 (Disc/Streaming)
Where to Watch: Netflix
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%
Runtime: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Oscars: Won–Picture, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), Director, Adapted Screenplay; Nominated–Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif), Cinematography, Editing, Original Score


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, in many ways, a unique film — and not just because it’s only one of three films (the others being It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs) to receive the top 5 Oscar wins: Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Not an easy feat, to be sure.  And, while it is worthy of those aforementioned Oscars, it is not the greatest Best Picture winner of all time, though neither is it the worst. Rather, it sits comfortable at 12th place in my Best Picture ranking (I still have many more to see).  

One Flew is a fascinating look at life in a men’s mental institution during that particular time period. Director Milos Forman certainly doesn’t shy away from the harsher aspects of life there, including the patients being drugged (even when they don’t need it, and against their will) and controlled by ruthless head nurse Miss Ratched. The residents — most of whom are there of their own volition — have gotten used to this monotonous, controlled existence that is unbelievably boring.  In comes Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, who is not crazy but is guilty of sleeping with underage women (so, yeah, he’s no saint); he assumes that he’s better off in an institution as opposed to in prison. He’s definitely wrong about that. And, fortunately, he brings some much-needed joy and laughter to the residents, although it is of course short-lived. 

The film isn’t a glamorous epic, multiple Oscar-winning flick like Titanic, but it doesn’t have to be.  It has a style all its own, that has probably tried to be copied with minimal luck (I imagine). The film’s success also relies on the able shoulders of Nicholson, in perhaps his most fascinating, complex roles — a performance that needs to be studied in order to understood more than it is at face value. He’s certainly no saint, but eternal optimism makes him more likable than anyone else would in that situation. 

Louis Fletcher is, of course, brilliantly, subtly menacing as Nurse Ratched; this is perhaps why she was placed in the lead category as opposed to the supporting, despite having fairy little screen time (compared to Nicholson, at least). I don’t take issue with this particular case of [minor] category fraud, especially since Ratched plays such a huge role in the narrative. Any scene with her and Nicholson is bleeding with perfection. 

Nicholson and Fletcher are assisted by a cast of [mainly] men in highly dynamic roles, include some who you may recognize: Brad Dourif, Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd (in his first movie role), among others. Dourif is especially wonderful, and was nominated here for Supporting Actor. He plays a young, stuttering, awkward resident and steals every scene he’s in.