Nicholson won what would be the first of three Oscars one year after Chinatown as he captured the Best Actor prize for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The film also made Oscar history for being the second of the three films to win the elusive ‘Big Five’ awards and was the first picture to do so since It Happened One Night back in the 1930s.
Here, Nicholson stars as Randle McMurphy, a low-rent convict who has been serving time on a prison farm for statuary rape. McMurphy has been admitted to a mental asylum for evaluation, while he hopes that his time there will be an easy ride where he will avoid going back to prison. However, McMurphy didn’t factor in the cold and calm Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward and who manages her patients through a strict diet of medication and humiliation. It’s clear that Ratched doesn’t like the affect that McMurphy has on the patients as he tries to lift their spirits by taking them on fishing trips and organising card games between them. After learning that he could be staying at the asylum longer than he first thought, McMurphy decides to escape however his attachment to one of his fellow patients means that he ends up making the ultimate sacrifice. This is the third film in a row not to have a happy ending for Nicholson’s character, but at least the conclusion does provide a moment of hope for one of the asylum’s long-term residents.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film that has stayed with me for a long time and is one that I have written essays about in the past. I personally feel that this film is a masterpiece and perfectly combines well-rounded characters, a confined setting and a brilliant set of performances. Milos Forman’s direction gives you a sense of place almost instantly as the white walls of the asylum gives you a real claustrophobic feel for this particular institution. The creepy music that plays during medication time and the awkward group sessions also stick in the mind. I think these elements of the film are so memorable as they present the institution as a place of regimented routine.
Of the three films, Nicholson gives his biggest performance here as the slightly unhinged and worldly-wise McMurphy. Nicholson plays Randle as somebody whose personality is infectious and he’s easily implanted as the leader of the group. Nicholson’s Oscar was well-deserved especially in the latter scenes in which McMurphy chooses to stick up for young, nervous Billy rather than escaping from the asylum. Nurse Ratched, who I believe to be one of cinema’s greatest villains, is beautifully written and expertly played by Louise Fletcher. What makes Ratched so chilling is that she never raises her voice and we know nothing of her apart from her job in the asylum. The film is fleshed out by a whole group of memorable supporting characters as all of the patients on the ward are given very different identities. Among the most famous are William Redfield’s cultured Harding, Christopher Lloyd’s deranged Taber and Danny DeVito’s delusional Martini. Best of all is Brad Dourif as the tragic Billy, who was nominated but never won the Best Supporting Actor Award. If you’ve never seen One Flew, I can’t recommend it enough and it really is film-making at its very best.