Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


The first face you see on the screen in this movie is my old friend Peter Brocco. He is lying down in bed. Later we see him quite a few times, in a wheelchair, playing a character named Colonel Matterson. He looks totally befuddled, suffering from some sort of senility. Believe me, Peter was never befuddled, he was one of the sharpest and sweetest guys I’ve ever known. He was in well over 300 movies and TV episodes, seldom in a very large role. He was blacklisted by the treasonous House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. The only Un-American activity that ever happened in those stinking hearing rooms was the unconstitutional questioning of good Americans as to their political affiliations by the motherfuckers behind the desk. Aside from being a good actor, Peter was a skilled potter, something he needed to survive the times when he couldn’t work.

Cuckoo’s Nest is one of only three movies to win the Big Three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Best Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman). The first was It Happened One Night in 1934, and wouldn’t happen again until 1991, for The Silence of the Lambs. It was a worthy winner, though it was a tough year, and I might have voted for either Barry Lyndon or Nashville, and Stanley Kubrick or Robert Altman.

Seeing it this time I was not quite as solidly behind Randle McMurphy as I was when I first saw it. Big Nurse Ratched was unquestionably a petty dictator who reveled in being able to dominate her inmates, but McMurphy seems to have been a violent man, not totally out of place in a looney bin, even though he faked insanity to get into what he hoped would be a cushy way to serve out the rest of his sentence. His fatal error was in not realizing that in mental hospitals they didn’t have to let you go after you’ve stacked your time. They let you go when they say you are ready to go. Which might mean never. And it is also unquestionable that he was a breath of fresh air to the intimidated men on the ward. Naturally, a free and basically untamable spirit like McMurphy can’t be allowed to endanger the authority of Big Nurse. And he was dumb enough to let two opportunities pass.

The first is when he steals a bus and takes a lot of the men on a fishing trip (In Depoe Bay, Oregon, which claims to be the smallest harbor in the world.) The second attempt was much more serious. He brings two prostitutes into the ward one night. McMurphy takes the time to see that stuttering Billy (Brad Dourif in his first role) gets laid. But then he gets drunk with the others, after they have trashed the place. Next morning …

The mess is discovered, and Ratched finds Billy in bed with a girl. Billy comes out of his shell a little and stops stuttering. Big Nurse says she will have to tell his mother. Billy has major mommy issues, which Ratched knows. He beings stuttering again, and then slits his throat. McMurphy attacks Ratched, choking her, nearly kills her. (In the book she was so badly injured that she could no long talk.)

Some time passes, and McMurphy shuffles back onto the ward, his eyes total vacant from a lobotomy. Lucky for him (in my opinion) he had a true friend in The Chief. Played by the very large Will Sampson, he had feigned being deaf and dumb for years, but finally decides to talk to McMurphy, which of course blows his mind. Chief smothers him and then smashes his way out of the booby hatch.

It’s a terrific film, even though Ken Kesey went to his grave saying it was awful. He never actually saw it, you understand, but I can see his point, since the book was narrated by Chief and the movie shifts the emphasis to McMurphy. He actually sued Michael Douglas, the producer, for breaking a verbal agreement not to mess with the book, and won some money. Well, fuck him. As an author myself I recognize that when you sell to the movies, it becomes their artistic endeavor, unless you are writing the script yourself. It does you no good to whine that they fucked up your book. If you want artistic integrity … don’t sell your book!