In summation… It’s hard to summate. The story is there, but it’s not very satisfying. I loved that, but you might not. Stay away from this film if you expect Disney-esque happy endings. Put it on your must-watch list if you like a real-world ending.
This is another film that I’ve been hearing in reference for basically my entire life. In this case, I had zero idea what it was about going in. I actually thought it was going to be similar to either Animal Farm or Animal House (I always forget which one is about the crazy college party and which is an allegory detailing the fall of all mankind) but it turns out that Cuckoo’s nest is a little of both.
The first thing that struck me about the movie was the appearance of a couple of actors that I didn’t know ever did a serious film. I’m not talking like a comedy actor dipping his toes in the dramadey scene here, I’m talking full on comedy-only actors that put in some goddam amazing performances in this one. In one case, even after watching the entire movie I still didn’t know who the actor playing the character was. The picture to the right is the character they call ‘Martini’. I mistakenly thought the actor playing the character was a younger version of Richard Kind.
To the right you’ll see a picture of Richard Kind. Do you see the resemblance? Almost the same squinty eyebrows, a very similar nose, the lines around the mouth look about right, the ears look like they might match if it was the same haircut in both photos, hell even the teeth seem like they would match if the smile was the same in both photos. Richard Kind has an IMDB resume of 198 acting credits, so I was pretty sure that I was right about this one. Nope. The top image, the guy who actually played ‘Martini’ in the film was Danny goddam DeVito -who also has an impressive IMDB credit list, but not for anything approaching a serious role (aside from this). To put my mis-guess of the actor in perspective, I’ve taken the picture of Martini from above and placed it between recent-ish photos of DeVito and Kind. See it below. Even knowing it was definitely Danny DeVito playing the role, I sill think it must have been Richard Kind.
But DeVito wasn’t the only actor in the film. Another surprise was that Christopher Lloyd was in the film and looking about as young as he ever did. Lloyd was born in 1938, so he would have been 37ish in this film and I guess he looks like it, but I remember him from Taxi, where he looked like he was well into his 40’s -even though it was only a couple years after Cuckoo’s Nest- and Back to the Future -where he looked like he must have been in his 60’s despite being in his 40s. I’d never seen him in a serious role prior to watching Cuckoo’s Nest (there’s a difference between being the straight man in a comedy and being a serious actor, ask Leslie Nielson) and he pulled off a goddam amazing performance -as did DeVito as Martini.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the movie was that Jack Nicholson’s character seemed to be a real person. He was believable as McMurphy and I think that’s a direct result of not yet being Jack Nicholson. After Cuckoo’s Nest, he seemed to become a bit more Nicholson-esque with every role he played. At some point (for me it was with the movie A Few Good Men) he seemed like he was a caricature of himself. It was as if he was imitating Christian Slater‘s imitation of him. Slater openly said his acting persona was based on Nicholson, but even Slater never took it so over-the-top. It’s hard to watch anything with Nicholson in it now because his character is always doing the voice that is like a caricature of a caricature of his older roles.
Of course none of that matters in Cuckoo’s Nest.
Louise Fletcher plays an amazing character and completely nails down the heartless and unshakable person in charge. She does it so effectively that I actively hated her for hours after watching the film. She has no regard for the well-being of the patients in her charge, nor does she seem to care about any potential rehabilitation. She’s all about power. She is in charge and you’d better fall in line or face the consequences. That is all well and good early on, but as McMurphy starts to get through to the other inmates (sorry, patients) she never wavers. When it becomes abundantly clear that McMurphy is actually helping the other inmates, Nurse Ratched doesn’t embrace the help. She instead clamps down to make sure she is still in control.
I won’t spoil the movie any further except to say that I was not ready for the ending. Cinema no longer seems to embrace telling a real story as much as they seem to embrace the happy ending. There is not a happy ending in this one. It’s a realistic ending, but definitely not happy. I really wish more movies would embrace that. In the real world there aren’t a lot of happy endings, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a lot of normal beginnings and hopeful middles.
Cuckoo’s Nest told a story -and did so very well- of a group of people just trying to get by with what they had, and what happens when you give a sliver of power to the wrong person. It’s definitely a poignant story. It seems far too believable to be completely fabricated, but the portions that make it ring true will also hurt your heart.