Randall Patrick McMurphy has poor impulse control. He drinks too much, fights too much, exhibits hostility to authority, and has been convicted of having sex with a 15-year-old girl. Almost as a lark to avoid serving prison time, he agrees to be committed to a mental institution instead. He does not seem to be the heroic type.
Yet, as created by author Ken Kesey in his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and brought to the screen by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 movie version directed by Milos Forman, McMurphy has become one of the legendary movie heroes of all time. An anti-authoritarian figure for the ages, McMurphy is not moved by high ideals or principles, but he has a keen sense of fairness and a willingness to risk his freedom (and eventually, his life) to enable others to overcome their circumstances.
In this case, those “others” are the patients/inmates in a state mental institution in Oregon who live in a ward under the seemingly benign but passive-aggressive rule of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Despite considerable risks to himself, McMurphy turns his generally obstinate behavior into active resistance.
Released to great acclaim in the aftermath of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest struck a chord with audiences that still shared a 1960s-style resentment of unjust authority, bureaucracy, and the abuse of power. Its overall message is that some rules — or, by extension, laws — need to be broken if justice is to prevail.
A 35th anniversary edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, out this week, does not do much to set the film, or the novel on which it is based, in the context of the era in which it was made. But the Ultimate Collector's Edition (Warner Home Video, $39.92/$49.99 Blu-ray, rated R) provides excellent information and anecdotes on just about everything else associated with the project, including its origins as a novel, an unsuccessful Broadway production a few years later starring Kirk Douglas, and, finally, the making of the film, produced by Douglas' son Michael and Saul Zaentz of Berkeley's Fantasy Records.
The special features on the new DVD illustrate why the movie swept all five of the top Academy Award categories, winning Oscars for best picture, director, actor, actress, and screenplay — no small feat in a year in which the competition included Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Barry Lyndon, and Nashville.
The highlight among these extras is an 87-minute documentary, Completely Cuckoo, which was produced, written, and directed by Charles Kiselyak, who also contributes an essay in the accompanying 52-page commemorative book. In both, Kiselyak goes into illuminating detail about Zaentz and Michael Douglas' selection of Forman as director. They chose a filmmaker with special insight into the evils of bureaucratic power, as he was living in exile from communist Czechoslovakia and was the child of parents who perished in the Holocaust.
The documentary is also particularly good in showing how the film's memorable cast was assembled, as, except for Nicholson, everyone was a relative or complete unknown, including Fletcher, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Will Sampson.
Kiselyak's documentary, as well as the DVD's audio commentary featuring Forman, Zaentz, and Michael Douglas, gives due credit to Dr. Dean Brooks, the head of the state mental hospital in Salem, Oregon, who agreed to let the filmmakers shoot their movie on an unused wing of his hospital. Brooks also let cast and crew members meet and observe patients in order to better portray people with mental illness. Nearly 90 patients ended up working on the movie, either as extras or crew members, and even Brooks took part, portraying Dr. Spivey, a character much like himself. One of the DVD's deleted scenes includes an expanded version of Brooks' mostly ad-libbed scene with Nicholson upon McMurphy's admission into the institution.
Brooks also appears, along with Michael Douglas and others, in a new documentary, Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill, that explores more recent problems facing those with mental illness and the medical staff members who treat them.
Kiselyak doesn't duck the bitter controversy that arose between Kesey, who was commissioned by the producers to write a screenplay based on his novel, and Michael Douglas and Zaentz, who rejected it. (In the documentary, Kesey says he wrote the screenplay “on peyote.”) The producers, who owned the cinematic rights to the story, went on without Kesey's involvement or support, hiring Lawrence Hauben and, later, Bo Goldman, to deliver an acceptable screenplay.
The Ultimate Collector's Edition is also packed with memorabilia, including a reproduction of the original press book, four small reproductions of theatrical posters of the movie from around the world, and a deck of playing cards that includes the faces of the main actors (but not the “blue” deck McMurphy brings into the hospital).
A film on the uncomfortable subject of mental illness might not have been made without Nicholson's participation, as the actor had emerged, by the mid-'70s, as one of Hollywood's most exciting and bankable stars. By the time he took on the role of McMurphy, Nicholson had already received four Oscar nominations (for his performances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and Chinatown), but Forman's film gave him his first win. Forman allowed Nicholson to use his ability to improvise in order to obtain startlingly true and revealing performances not only from his star, but from all the cast members who interacted with him.
This brings us to the only other serious omission from this fine new anniversary edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — the absence of Nicholson's participation in any of the documentaries or commentaries about it. There have been rumors that Nicholson and Forman did not get along on the set, though the only reference on the DVD to any conflict between director and star is made by Forman, who in his commentary mentions just one scene in which they had a disagreement. Whatever the case, it would have been great to hear what Nicholson thought about the movie, its message, and his performance.