'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' Still Resonates 40 Years Later

Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' is, in some ways, the essential film document about the 1960s counter-culture.
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“A little dab'll do ya.”

As Jack Nicholson's Randle Patrick McMurphy is being strapped in and lubricated for a vicious (perhaps retaliatory) session of electroshock therapy, he still has time for a quick wiseguy remark. Though not released until 1975 (and, therefore, celebrating its 40th anniversary this week) Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is, in some ways, the essential film document about the 1960s counter-culture.

More than the jamtacular Woodstock documentary or the plot-resistant Easy Rider — which introduced mainstream audiences to Jack Nicholson, who eventually rode his way into leading man roles like this — Cuckoo's Nest works as both an allegory about greater society as well as being a cracking good yarn in and of itself. It swept the five top Academy Awards, winning nods for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress (Louise Fletcher) and Adapted Screenplay (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman), a trick accomplished only once before (It Happened One Night in 1935) and once after (The Silence of the Lambs in 1991).


One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is based on a stage adaptation (starring Kirk Douglas and featuring Gene Wilder!) of Ken Kesey's landmark 1962 novel. Though narrated by an observant, enormous American Indian who pretends to be deaf and mute, its focus is a low-level criminal – a brawler and gambler who may or may not have consorted with a woman under the age of consent. He's faked insanity (or has he?) so he can sit out a jail term in what he thinks will be the relative comfort of a mental hospital. But it's there, in a stark institution rife with metaphor, where he confronts social control in its most gruesome form: the sadistic Nurse Ratched.

Kesey was inspired to write the book after working the graveyard shift as an orderly in one such asylum. Also, and very importantly, he had taken part in CIA-backed experiments with psychoactive drugs like LSD-25 (known as Project MKUltra.) The frequent use of what many consider mind-enhancing substances mixed with the young writer's natural anti-establishment attitude, resulting in this legendarily rabble-rousing, slightly naughty David vs Goliath tale.

Ken Kesey Further Bus Photo

Kesey's 'Further' Bus. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

But by the time the movie was shot, author Ken Kesey had changed professions somewhat. Off the money he made from the publication of the book, he started sponsoring the famous Acid Test happenings and drove cross country with his groupies (a.k.a. the Merry Pranksters) in his psychedelic school bus known as “Furthur.” Had there not been royalties from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, there may never had been a Grateful Dead, the house band during Kesey's heyday who traveled with him. (Kesey and Jerry Garcia both sired children with the same woman, “Mountain Girl,” and everybody was cool with it, man.) By the 1970s he wasn't just a novelist, he was a rockstar guru philosopher (and, for a spell, a fugitive from the law.)


The cultural movement knows as the Czech New Wave came to a crushing halt when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague in 1968. While its central figure in theater, Vaclav Havel, eventually became the first post-Communist president, his cinematic equivalent, Milos Forman, came to Hollywood to make award-winning films.

Milos Forman's parents were Protestants killed in concentration camps during WWII, but he later found out that his true biological father was Jewish, and had survived the war. A childhood like this plus a censorious government made for the perfect mindset to direct the paranoid, anti-authoritarian One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. (That, plus his Czech masterpiece, The Fireman's Ball, proved he could keep a drama cinematic even if it was basically all filmed in one room.) He was the perfect hire by the film's producer, a yet-to-establish himself actor named Michael Douglas, whose father owned the story rights from back when it was at stage production. For years, Kirk Douglas wanted to play the lead, but by now he was a bit too old.

When shooting began, Ken Kesey quickly disassociated himself. He was unhappy that The Chief was no longer the narrator and disagreed with casting Jack Nicholson. He has never seen the film, and also considers his second, longer, denser and more experimental novel of individuality, Sometimes a Great Notion, to be his masterpiece. (That had already been made into a movie, directed and starring Paul Newman, but it was a shadow of the book.)


Jack Nicholson Photo Gallery: Cuckoo Time. Nicholson in a scene from the 1975 Milos Forman film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Nicholson in a scene from 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.' (Photo: Getty Images)

Jack Nicholson had already established himself as a fine bad boy actor by this time (see Carnal Knowledge, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail) but the dangerous-yet-still-charismatic McMurphy was the part he was born to play. He wasn't a shoo-in, though. Milos Forman considered Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman first. Rumors persist that during much of the shooting, the director and star did not speak to one another, due to artistic differences. When they had to communicate, the cinematographer worked as a middle man. Whatever method they used, it worked.

The ensemble was no joke, either. Recognizable faces are all over this film, and for many it was a first role. Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif are part of the ensemble, as are some you may not know by name (Vincent Schiavelli, William Redfield, Scatman Crothers) but if you saw them you'd shout, “Oh, that guy!” Other less familiar people in the background? Actual workers of the Oregon State Hospital's psychiatric center.

What's amazing is how One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest was Louise Fletcher's first major role. She's perfect as the implacable force of authority who, as our own perception gets warped, slowly starts to loom as more and more evil as time goes on.

The film was scored by legendary rock producer Jack Nitzsche, and if you listen to too much of it you'll be checking into a lunatic asylum yourself. It mixes the weird resonance of stroked wine glasses and a bowed saw with country guitar. At first it's funny, then it's creepy, then it makes you mad. Later, the soundtrack uses the ultra-schmaltzy strings of Italian lite-music maestro Annunzio Paolo Mantovani, another one that'll turn you batty.


While the psychiatric methods on display in the film are significantly outdated (thankfully) the themes of social control and freedom still resonate. It's definitely one to watch if you haven't gotten to it yet, but not recommended if you are about to head into a job or class or family function where someone's gonna tell you what to do. If there happens to be an enormous stone plumbing fixture and a window through which to hurl it, look out!