Why it’s famous
With the 89th Academy Awards looming on the horizon, Oscar trivia is at the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.
A film that’s sure to be featured in countless award show retrospectives is Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which currently stands as only one of three films to ever sweep the ceremony’s “Big Five” categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
But what makes this “Oscar calibre” dramedy so special? Why is the story of a rebellious mental patient butting heads with an authoritarian nurse worthy of so much recognition and acclaim?
The key word is: simplicity.
Why you haven’t seen it
When the topic of “big Oscar winners” comes up, many moviegoers immediately mention stories that are epic and grandiose (think Ben-Hur, Titanic, Lord of the Rings). However, Forman’s film only focuses on a handful of characters, with most of the action taking place in a single location.
While this smaller scale allows the filmmakers to craft an intimate story that is rich in human drama, some viewers might be thrown off by its reliance on quiet character moments over pure spectacle.
Why it might be tough to get through
If you have an aversion to hospital dramas, or movies set in mental institutions, then you might want to skip this flick. Screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman don’t shy away from the uglier side of mental illness, which makes Nurse Ratched’s cruel manipulation of her patients even harder to stomach.
Also, fans of Ken Kesey’s original 1962 novel might want to avoid this screen adaptation altogether. Kesey famously clashed with the film’s producers during preproduction, taking umbrage with (among other things) the decision to shift the narrative focus away from the novel’s POV character, Chief Bromden, in favour of the more flamboyant Randall McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson.
Why you should see it anyway
One of the main reasons why this film has endured for so long is that it zeroes in on a theme that is pretty universal: order versus chaos. Watching a wildcard like Nicholson “fight the system” from inside a mental institution is funny as it is tragic, with every move he makes only serving to constrict his rebellious spirit.
All of these ideas are hammered home thanks to a dynamite script and wonderful performances from the entire cast, and not just the big Oscar winners like Nicholson and Louise Fletcher (who played Nurse Ratched). This film also serves as a terrific showcase for well-respected character actors like Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Will Sampson, who inject the story with the right amount of heart and pathos to elevate it above your standard Oscar bait.
Randall McMurphy: I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.
Nurse Ratched: The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine.
Randall McMurphy: In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass she won’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch.
-The only other two movies to win the Oscar “grand slam” are It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).
-On the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best screen villains, Nurse Ratched ranks at number five, right behind the Wicked Witch of the West.
-Although Nurse Ratched is not based on any Disney property, she is a recurring character on the ABC fairytale drama Once Upon a Time (this time played by actress Ingrid Torrance).