Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a drifter and petty criminal who pretends to be mentally ill in order to get out of work duty in prison.
He is sent to a mental ward ruled by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who regiments the lives of the patients without helping them at all.
McMurphy sees the absurdity of the situation and becomes the patients’ symbol of nonconformity and rebellion. Much of the film thereafter has a comic tone, but the results of McMurphy’s actions are ultimately tragic.
Nicholson was born to play the role of fast-talking R.P. McMurphy, the free-spirited fighter of the system.
For a while it is McMurphy’s energy that dominates the film: When the TV set is switched off he improvises a manic commentary on the World Series for the other inmates. In a basketball game between the male nurses and the inmates, he strategically uses the huge Indian (Will Sampson) to win the game.
The audience was incredibly lifted and amused by such instances, which makes the eventual fate of McMurphy (lobotomy for his attempted murder of Nurse Ratched) all the more horrifying.
But the film ends on a triumphant note. In a sense picking up the torch that McMurphy has let fall, the Indian takes the marble stand from the washroom that McMurphy had earlier tried to lift, hurls it through a window, and runs for freedom
Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman adapted the script from the original novel by Ken Kesey. For many years, Kirk Douglas owned the rights to the novel, and when he grew too old to play the rebellious McMurphy, he passed the project on to his actor/producer son Michael, who cast Jack Nicholson in the role.
The film was shot in the Oregon State Hospital in Salem.
Cuckoo’s Nest won five Oscars in 1975: Best Picture; Best Script; Best Director; Best Actor (Nicholson); and Best Actress (Fletcher).
Danny De Vito