Saturday, December 11, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Milos Forman, 1975 (9.2*)
Best Picture (AA, BAA, GG)
This excellent filming of hippie author Ken Kesey's novel of a brash mental patient, played by Oscar® winner Jack Nicholson, was the leading Oscar® winner for 1975 (five overall), winning best picture for producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, the actor. The novel arose out of Kesey's own experiences at a mental institution where he worked in California in order to gain access to the drugs after LSD was made illegal by the FDA.

Nicholson's character McMurphy, who pretends madness to get out of prison work so he's really an intelligent schemer, becomes the leader of the other patients in their fight against a dictatorial nurse Ratched, perfectly played by previously unknown Oscar® winner Louise Fletcher, who uses her position to terrorize and maintain harsh control over a band of frightened yet safe patients, many of whom undoubtably could be released after more humane treatment. She seems to derive sadistic satisfaction in keeping the 'inmates' (as they are not treated like patients but criminals) both unbalanced and cowering in fear.

Though not a pleasant film to sit through, it makes positive statements about individual freedom and dissent at a time when the U.S. was heavily oppressed by the Nixon regime which was suppressing student anti-war protests and usurping individual Constitutional rights in order to maintain fascist control over all facets of American life by some die-hard right wing conservatives, most of whom had supported Sen. McCarthy in his anti-communist with hunts in the 50's, a committee on which Nixon himself had served. This is not a film for the squeamish, as it accurately shows how electric shock, heavy anti-psychotic drugs, and lobotomies are routinely used as punishment to control unruly patients.

Nicholson showed what an explosive actor he could be as well as giving voice to the complaints of the average citizen when faced with authoritarian control over their daily lives. As such, this film makes the most American of statements, that sometimes the only recourse is to organize people and stand united against tyranny together. The excellent screenplay adaptation, which condenses a longer novel into its essential elements, also won Oscars® for authors Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben.

Director Milos Forman, also an Oscar®-winner for this, and later for Amadeus (in 1984), came here to escape communism in Czechoslavakia, then under Russian control. There he made more light-hearted and comedic films, such as the hilarious Fireman's Ball (at which nothing goes according to plan, not even the beauty pagent, in which there are no contestants so the elderly firemen drag unwilling girls off the dance floor), so he injects much humor in the early minutes of this much more serious film. Also nominated for Oscars® was the terrific supporting performance of Brad Dourif, the cinematography of Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler, editing of Chew, Klingman, and Kahn, and the music of sometimes Rolling Stones member Jack Nitzsche.

Filmed for just over 4 million, it grossed 112 mil in the U.S. alone. Cuckoo's Nest also won six British academy awards, or BAFTA's, and 28 awards overall. The awards page at IMDB

On a personal note, I've had a hard time putting together a review of this film, as my own father was diagnosed schizophrenic during the Korean War, his second war as a navy aircraft mechanic. He was flown back to a V.A. hospital, and also given electroshock treatment and reduced to a shell of his former self, never again being able to use his engineering degree and reduced to doing menial jobs until his death at 46 from cancer, likely caused from witnessing atomic tests in the Pacific from the decks of U.S. ships without any protection. After the diagnosis, he was discharged from the navy and my family never received any compensation from the government, so it's hard for me to join the flag-waving patriotic bandwagon no matter what war we wage.

Note: Kesey's own LSD-driven lifestyle was the subject of Tom Wolfe's excellent novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in which Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters drove around the U.S. in their bus freely giving out acid when it was legal. The psychedelic bus' destination was labeled as "Further", and Wolfe's novel is a touching ode to a bygone era of freedom, self-expression, and naive optimism.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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