Jack Nicholson shimmers as the wacky Randle McMurphy in Milos Forman’s screen adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic. For someone who has seen his later work first (As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt), because it was more recent, these earlier films (The Shining, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) are a revelation. The actor displays a wide range of skills as the lively McMurphy who cannot abide the restrictions of institutionalized care. His tendency to introduce a bit of vim to the dull state of affairs reminded me of Nicole Kidman’s platform scene with Stephen Dillane in The Hours:
If I were thinking clearly, Leonard, I would tell you that I wrestle alone in the dark, in the deep dark, and that only I can know, only I can understand my own condition. You live with the threat, you tell me. You live with the threat of my extinction. Leonard, I live with it too. This is my right. It is the right of every human being. I choose not the suffocating anesthetic of the suburbs, but the violent jolt of the capital. That is my choice. The meanest patient, yes even the very lowest, is allowed some say in the matter of her own prescription. Thereby she defines her humanity. I wish for your sake, Leonard, that I could be happy in this quietness. But if it is a choice between Richmond and death, I choose death.
(Dialogue between Virginia and Leonard Woolf in the movie)
My favourite Nicholson scene would be the one when he is administered the electric shock for the first time. The man surpasses himself in demonstrating the physical trauma that a patient goes through during the procedure.
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched starts off as a benign administrator juggling therapies for the ward. It is a mark of her acting prowess that she slowly dips into the villainous matron who oversees one and all.
She takes Billy (Brad Dourif in a striking debut) on a guilt trip after discovering him with a woman. Rage burning in her eyes, she retains the calm persona so torturous to the viewer. Silent, restrained devilry is the hardest cross to bear.
The novel, which the film is adapted from, is a scathing reminder of how institutionalized care deadens those who are in most need of cheer. And what the subversion that comes with authority can achieve.