Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy is probably the earliest memory I have of him as an actor. Him with his black woolen cap playing basketball with the Chief (played wonderfully by Will Sampson) is probably the only thing I remembered about this movie which I had probably seen first when I was around 12 yrs old or so. I didn’t quite remember either the rest of the movie or worry about how I was watching one of the best movies of all time back then, but then the second coming of “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” in my life pretty much cleared all the hype and hoopla surrounding the movie and I understood why it is rated so high up there in almost every list of all-time great movies.
McMurphy is a criminal serving a sentence for rape and is transferred to a mental institution (where the rest of the story plays out). The whole transfer is just a ploy by him to avoid hard labor and serve out the rest of his time relaxing and fooling around. Although his anti-authoritarian mindset doesn’t help his cause at the hospital. The ward is run by a calm but unyielding Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, who didn’t need too many words to convey the contours of her character in this movie). Nurse Ratched uses a variety of methods including group therapy sessions, unpleasant medicines and a strict daily regimen to keep the patients under check and calm.
When McMurphy is introduced to the mix, he notices that most of the inmates are reasonably unfriendly and are highly institutionalized in their lives which have no place for an outsider or a new friend. He kills time playing cards with some of the inmates, and trying to bait Nurse Ratched to amuse himself. The Nurse amuses him for a while but increasingly stifles her control levels over him to assert her authority over the ward.
Slowly McMurphy becomes friends with the mute Chief who in turn reveals to McMurphy that he is not in fact mute at all, but is playing the role just to keep the Nurse and the other inmates off his case. The Chief does so also because he is as distasteful of the hospital establishment as McMurphy is, but wants to deflect unnecessary attention off himself completely opposite to what McMurphy was currently doing.
McMurphy, meanwhile couldn’t control himself from making the most of his relaxed lifestyle at the ward and indulges in activities which necessarily don’t go well with the image and discipline that Nurse Ratched had created for the rest of the inmates. This lands him into a lot of trouble with the Nurse, which is when he realizes that she has the authority and the power to retain him in the ward for as long as she pleases, even beyond his specified prison sentence.
What happens in the rest of the movie makes for more than interesting ending. Now while the story in itself might not sound too appealing or entertaining, it is power packed performances from the leading characters, McMurphy, Nurse Ratched and the Chief which make this movie a mandatory must-watch for every serious cinema lover. The fact that it has a pencil-thin story line but still manages to keep you riveted to what’s happening is testimony to its greatness. This would not be classified as a blockbuster, but a ‘classic’ for sure.
Jack Nicholson in probably his second best role (barely behind the role in The Shining) puts in everything that is expected from an Academy Award winning performance. The scene in which he calls for a vote in the group therapy sessions and the other one in which he makes a show of trying to lift a fixed plumbing fixture make for probably the most memorable scenes in cinema.
A must-watch movie for any serious cinema lover and Jack Nicholson fans.