As the original holder of the film rights to Ken Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest, the first time that Kirk Douglas sent Hair director Milos Forman a copy of the novel, it was seized by Czechoslovakian customs officers in his communist run native country who deemed the book too politically dangerous to read.
Eventually, the rights were transferred to Kirk's son Michael Douglas who wanted to give himself a greater challenge than his TV work acting on The Streets of San Francisco by producing the film and collaborate with the very best including Saul Zaentz (Amadeus, The English Patient) in the ultimate cinematic anti-establishment decade of the 1970s. And with this in mind, it was as easily apparent to the first generation of movie Douglases as it was to the second that Milos Forman was precisely the right choice to tap into the politically allegorical subtext of the novel since it hit him literally where he lived.
Therefore it's interesting that, despite all of the accolades and universal acclaim for the Oscar winning film, the most vocal reception to Cuckoo was otherwise so staunchly divisive as some viewers became completely taken in by the web weaved by Forman and other fans, sadly following Kesey's lead of loathing the picture, felt that the book was the only acceptable medium in which to appreciate the story.
Obviously while it seems foolish to bicker over one's preferred medium, perhaps the most significant part of the Cuckoo reaction was that it stirred up debate that often used the book vs. movie approach as a jumping off point to delve into what makes fighting about Kesey's creation so damn important.
Namely, as Kesey's anti-hero protagonist Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) comes to discover once he's transferred to a state mental hospital to serve out the remainder of a short statutory rape sentence, arguing to challenge authority or preconceived attitudes isn't just our privilege but an important right that we must always exercise to not only keep from going nuts but to remain free and independent citizens.
A top-notch ensemble drama that startles viewers with the unexpected bursts of humor that occur amidst the rather severe setting of the film wherein only one sequence occurs outside the white on white sanitary world of the hospital, Cuckoo's Nest is at once devastating and triumphant.
And while it is guilty of preciousness from time to time as things occur just a little too conveniently for McMurphy, under the guise of Hollywood entertainment Cuckoo subversively and subtextually raises important ethical questions about medical treatment, group think, and abuses of power by those in power in all levels, as well as just how easy it is to play fast and loose with the fragile state of another human being.
But even though Cuckoo purports to be about McMurphy as he rebels against the establishment while (we assume) feigning illness to avoid prison life, the roles of the other patients soon draw us in but perhaps none leave as lasting of an impression as Louise Fletcher's antagonist Nurse Ratched.
Dubbed “Big Nurse” in the novel, the wretched Ratched was of the most heavily avoided roles of the year that was turned down by numerous A-list actresses who didn't want to play the personification of evil in the wake of women's liberation.
Yet having seen Louise Fletcher by chance in a supporting role while attending Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us specifically to evaluate the potential of Shelley Duvall, Forman brilliantly opted to ditch the desire for a “name” by casting the relative unknown less than a week before the cameras were set to roll in Oregon.
One of the most disconcerting issues surrounding Ratched is that she's in the line of healing when in reality she does more harm than good. Since she leads them in group therapy and is in control of their medication and charts, Ratched is that much more capable of evil which makes her far more unsettling as she knows just what buttons to press and precisely which triggers to use to set off a certain patient to ensure total control by humiliating them in front of others, using rules against them, or bending them to her will by dangling fake carrots in front of the patients.
And while initially we're fooled by her pleasant smile and believable wish to improve the lives of her patients, soon we discover just what Ratched is capable of when her alpha position is threatened by McMurphy whom she slowly drives from sane to insane by depriving him of anything that made him even close to her equal.
The skillful way that she's able to kill with kindness and passive aggressively manipulate the men on her floor which leads to one of the film's most Earth shattering tragedies puts Ratched on par with Shakespeare's Iago for their knack to unhinge someone and create drama out of thin air by petty jealousy.
Only the second film in history to receive the five main Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay since 1934's It Happened One Night, Forman's masterpiece gets the ultimate Blu-ray collector's set treatment from Warner Brothers for its thirty-fifth anniversary. Cuckoo's Nest serves up a hardback behind-the-scenes book, special features including a documentary and deleted footage, lobby cards, promotional and production stills and a rather silly novelty inclusion of playing cards in the otherwise sterling box packaging.
And while thankfully WB managed to make this one fit one your shelves a little easier than some of the previous oversized limited edition collections, I only wish that it would've included Kesey's original work upon which the film is based, if only to ensure that like McMurphy we'll all keep arguing and challenging one another in an ongoing battle to remain free, equal and with our dignity intact.
Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.