Though they tried for years to get the film made, no major studio would fun the project. Kirk Douglas owned the rights, and when he could get a film made he took the work to Broadway, finally making a gift of the rights to his son Michael, at that time a rising actor best known for his work on TV in The Streets of San Francisco. The younger Douglas found too that no one in Hollywood was interested in making a film out of iconic counter-culture novel.
Angry and disillusioned, producer Douglas went outside the film industry to music mogul Saul Zaentz who decided to make the movie. Jack Nicholson was the only choice for McMurphy, but they found no major actress interested in portraying Nurse Ratched, known as Big Nurse in the Ken Kesey novel. Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn all declined, adamantly refusing the role, believing their career might not recover from portraying a monster. Fonda stated whoever plays the role will win an Oscar, but be so identified with the role, they would rarely work again. Shirley McLaine briefing considered before backing away, and Fay Dunaway demurred.
Having seen Louise Fletcher in an Altman film, director Milos Forman spoke with her and she agreed. The other difficult role to cast was the Chief, the massive Native American befriended by Nicholson in the film. A towering park ranger, Will Sampson was discovered and offered the part, forever altering his life. The Czech director was considered a major coup for the film as he brought him a sense of realism, near documentary style, perfect the producers agreed for the film.
Then it was off to Oregon State Mental Hospital to make the film. Nicholson had already been there for two weeks, sleeping there, soaking up the atmosphere, watching behavior. When the film opened the critics hailed praise on the film, recognizing it was an instant classic and among the great American films. In addition it was a box office smash, right behind Jaws (1975) as the years top grossing picture. The movie would sweep the Oscars, the first film since 1934 to win the five top awards, Nicholson finally winning his Oscar after four nominations, but he won it for his finest performance.
And for the role no one wanted, Ratched won Louise Fletcher the Oscar. Brilliant, manipulative, an emotional bully, and castrating monster, the actress found the precise tone for the film. Forman, the master did everything right, creating a masterpiece.
1. Milos Forman
The Czech Director fled his country shortly after the Russians invaded, and struggled to find work. After seeing some of his earlier films, Douglas wanted him and no one else to direct the picture. Forman worked with a hyper realism in his work, perfect for what he hoped to achieve with this film. The director brought even more than Douglas had hoped for, perhaps understanding repression better than most given his heritage, something he passed onto the theme in his film. He gently guided the actors, coaching some of cinema’s best performances. He would win a well deserved Oscar, another nine years later for Amadeus (1984).
2. Jack Nicholson
Breathtaking best describes the performance of Nicholson in this film, and though he has been remarkable since, often, never again was he this brilliant. As MacMurphy, Nicholson found his signature role, that rebel thumbing his nose at authority though he cannot manage to stay out of trouble with the law. Not realizing coming to the hospital means the state has committed him, he thinks he is getting a light, easier sentence. With what Ratched is allowed to do to the men on the ward, you wonder who is the criminal? What the nurse does seemed far more terrible than anything MacMurphy has done. There is a long, extended close up of Nicholson towards the end of the film, as the party is winding down. Way in the distance he hears a distant train, and a wry smile creeps across his face as he realizes in a few moments he will be free, perhaps hopping that same train into Canada. He does realize he is already doomed. One of the greatest performances ever put on film, masterful.
3. Louise Fletcher
Finding the perfect tone to portray this monster, she played Nurse Ratched as though she believed what she was doing to these men was for their greater good. Obviously a man hater, she enjoyed metaphorically castrating each one of them, instilling in them a genuine terror of being undermined or humiliated. McMurphy will have none of it, he does not care about her ward, and she is not going to run him. The moment he goes against her, he is doomed. Watch her cobra like gaze during the end of a group session where she has destroyed one of the men. And worst of all, when Billy sees her the night after the party, he is not stuttering, until she mentions his mother, until she breaks him down. Fletcher was brilliant, perfect, but never again did she give a performance of this quality.
4. Michael Douglas
Nothing happens without Douglas. He was the driving force behind the film, believing in the production before there was anything to believe in. He had the courage to tell his father that he was now to old to play the role, and smart enough to go outside the film business for money. The move from an actor trying to step out of the shadow of his father, to producing a film was brilliant, as he won an Oscar and had a huge role in creating one of the greatest American films.
5. Will Sampson
Found as a Park Ranger, the towering Native American was the perfect physical choice for the part, but he act, as many of his scenes were with Nicholson. Turns out he could, and Bromden becomes one of the films most iconic characters. The moment we realize he is not deaf and dumb as they all think, is genius, Nicholson realizing Chief has won, fooled them all. They become good friends, in their own way soulmates.
6. The Supporting Cast
William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Danny Devito, Sydney Lassick and Brad Dourif were all hard working character actors, some having appeared in the stage play when they were cast in the films on. Dourif is brilliant as Babbitt, struggling with his manhood, the fight to get words out a constant battle. As the volatile Taber, Lloyd is often frightening, but calms under MacMurphy’s friendship, while Lassick is heartbreaking as gentle Cheswick who learns to speak up and fight for himself. DeVito is bizarre as Martini and Redfield perfect as a man struggling with his sexuality and the fact he might be a homosexual. Each brings something unique to the film, something unforgettable.
7. The Location
The Oregon State Mental Hospital was the main location for the film, with many of the patients in the background real patients and the doctor of the hospital cast as Dr. Spivey. The polished tiled hallways, the bright lights, the music, the order of it all suffocating. In the middle of the activity room is a table where the men play cars, the nurses station behind a wall of glass where she can see and hear all, like God.
8. The Screenplay
Though there is less a Christ inference in the film than the book, MacMurphy in his own way is the leader of the men and will heal them during his time with them. He does not ask for the crown of thorns as he does in the book, which is a good move, making the character less Christ-like. The move to not see the events through the eyes of the Chief, who hallucinated in the book, was genius. They found the heart and soul of the book, the soul, and gave us that. When Nicholson was cast he became the beating heart of the film.
9. The Cinematography
The claustrophobic hallways and offices of the hospital are brought to vivid life in the film, making their fishing trip all the more glorious. Expansive blue skies, ocean blue waters, a large fishing vessel, and in these moments we understand what these men are lacking. Often the shots are just faces, but those faces all tell a story within the story. One of the great images in the picture is the Chief pulling MacMurphy’s limo body up to embrace him. Pure genius.
10. The Haunting Ending
When the Chief realizes what they have done to MacMurphy, he cannot bear to think of his friend in that place. He suffocates him as music builds, a beating drum, like a native might use calling the spirits to him. He moves into the shower room and takes hold of the massive marble shower MacMurphy had tried to lift. Heaving it gives, slowly, the pipes breaking water flowing as he walks towards the window, where in a sudden burst of power he throws it through the window and escapes. The men will believe it to be their precious Mac, free at long last.