Before the tragedy, before the Chief speaks, before the electro therapy, and the blood, and the alcohol, before all of that, kooky 70s classic One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest delivers this cockle-warming nugget of a movie moment. As the most demented cheerleader you’ve ever seen, Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy sets the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons. Banged up with a posse of (essentially) non-crazy crazy folk, his quest to watch the World Series baseball on the hospital’s communal television cultivates a frosty enmity between himself and the remote, authoritarian Nurse Ratched. Men and their sports, eh?
McMurphy approaches the nurse’s station window, elated at his sudden voting victory to have the television turned on. “The Chief voted!” he yells, triumphant. “Now, will you please turn the television set on?” Behind the glass, the wretched Ratched slides open her window. “Mr McMurphy, the meeting was adjourned and the vote was closed,” she responds with infuriating equanimity. “When the meeting was adjourned the vote was nine to nine.”
Elected the number five greatest movie villain by the American Film Institute in 2003 (and that’s number five to the likes of Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates), Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is the perfect foil to psychiatric patient McMurphy. “Watch her preternatural calm,” notes critic Roger Ebert, “her impassive ‘fairness’, her inflexible adherence to the rules.” Composed where McMurphy is emotional, orderly where he is chaotic, Ratched does not see men when her haughty gaze falls on her patients, she sees sick children in desperate need of domination.
So, how combat such tyrannical rule? Raise hell, of course. Off storms McMurphy, slamming the bench opposite the TV to the floor before hurling himself fitfully into it. And then… a moment of clarity. One of those god-sent flashes of inspiration. That TV screen isn’t blank – look, there, the pitcher pitches, the batter bats. “Koufax is in big fucking trouble! Big trouble, baby!” bellows McMurphy in commentary. The other patients filter in to see what all the fuss is about. “A strike!” rejoices McMurphy, and suddenly the other men are caught up in it all. They listen raptly, seeing the game through him, cheering, whooping. “Koufax’s curve ball is snapping off like a fucking firecracker!” They clap and howl, spurred by the excitement of the non-game, jumping and alive. More alive than they’ve been in years, and all because of this lone, exceptional, riveting nutter.
“You ask me, is McMurphy crazy?” director Milos Forman considers in conversation with Rolling Stone magazine. “I don’t want to know this. Is he a hero? I don’t know this either. A modern hero is very ambiguous.” Ambiguous he may be, tied up in accusations of rape and hot-headedness, but there’s no denying the life he breathes into the tired monotony of constant and efficient hospital dictatorship.
And as the lines blur between his character’s horror and heroism, so do they smudge and smear between Jack Nicholson and McMurphy. Anti-establishment, anti-authority, anti-hero McMurphy is Jack, Jack is McMurphy. “If you get an impulse in a scene, no matter how wrong it seems, follow the impulse,” Jack would later say. “It might be something and if it ain’t – take two!” Such is the philosophy of McMurphy, also. Go with the flow, follow the current, buck the trend, do whatever takes your fancy.
Nurse Ratched watches with a cool detachment as McMurphy whips his supporters into a frenzy. This is what you’ll become, warns Jack, if you conform to mass control; nothing more than an empty, rule-bound shell of a human being. And you should listen to Jack – he got an Oscar for his efforts, after all.
BUT WE DON’T LOVE…
… the fantasy food scene in Hook (1991)
An odd misfire for The Beard, this turgid episode epitomises much of what’s wrong with his saccharine miscarriage of cutesy filmmaking. “You’re doing it,” whispers one of the lost boys. “Doing what?” asks a mystified Robin Williams. “You’re using your imagination, Peter!” Squirm.