One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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The depiction of the mentally ill is not an easy task for filmmakers. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film that both intrigues the audience with its gritty content and repels them with sexism and racial and gender politics. Since the film’s 1975 release, it has provoked debates about electroshock therapy, the lobotomy as a therapeutic agent, and the efficacy of mental institutions in general. The portrayal of the main character, Randle Patrick McMurphy, was a coup d’état for Jack Nicholson, earning him an Academy Award in 1976. It is notable that One Flew took the category of Best Picture and Louise Fletcher, aka Nurse Ratched, also walked away with the Best Actress golden statuette.

Audiences seem to be drawn to films about psychiatry. Hollywood has been capitalizing on the “horrors” of mental illness, asylums, and the callousness of psychiatric workers for decades. Therefore, it is easy to understand why screenwriters would be eager to adapt a book that critiques the psychiatric institutions of the time. The details of abuse and brutality captivated audiences and gave rise to questions about the fundamental issue of where to draw a diagnostic line between social deviance and true mental illness.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001) began writing One Flew in 1960 after completing a graduate fellowship in creative writing at Stanford. Kesey had been working the night shift in the psychiatric unit of Menlo Park Veterans Hospital and he came to believe many of the patients were not insane, they simply did not fit into the conventions that society demanded. The book was an immediate success for Kesey and we see his countercultural Beat Generation beliefs reflected in the chaos of the fictional Chronic and Acute ward. 

The theme of Nurse Ratched as a disturbed tyrant who seeks to emasculate the men in her charge is the main focus of this film. Ratched seeks to deny the patients many of their fundamental rights. She talks to grown men as if they were children and expresses great disgust when the men express any kind of normal sexual desires. Ratched uses hate as a way of manipulating the African American orderlies and seems to get a perverse satisfaction out of being the master of her personal fiefdom, the 34-B men’s ward.

One Flew addresses the definition of normal behavior. From the beginning of the drama, McMurphy behaves in a sly and criminal manner but not in a way that can be classified as insane. McMurphy even calls himself a “goddamn marvel of modern science” in his intake interview. After a breakout fishing trip with his fellow inmates, one of the institutions psychiatrists clearly states he does not believe McMurphy is insane. He’s a slick trouble maker but his numerous acts of compassion towards his fellow inmates, however misplaced, can be interpreted as justification that he is not paranoid or sociopathic.

One Flew is a film that continues to fascinate audiences with its shocking portrayal of a 1960’s American psychiatric hospital. The work dissects the horrors of asylum life and the torturous procedures that were inflicted on patients under the guise of therapeutic treatment. It is a film that reminds us the discipline of psychiatry will always be haunted by its past.

                                            Works Cited

Meloy, Michael. 2009. “Fixing Men: Castration, Impotence, and Masculinity in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 17 (1): 3–14. doi:10.3149/jms.1701.3.

Zaentz, Saul, Michael Douglas, Miloš Forman, Bo Goldman, Lawrence Hauben, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, et al. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest Two-disc special ed., Widescreen. Burbank, Calif: Warner Home Video, 2002.