I am an advocate for mental health. To me, it is just as important as a person’s physical well-being. Through the ages, we have read and witnessed the tortuous treatment many were put through all in the name of medicine and doctor “knowledge.” Absolutely frightening. I am lucky enough that I do not have mental issues, but I have seen, up close and personal, the effects of breakdowns and outbursts. Friends, students, and my dear husband have suffered before my eyes. It boggles my mind how all of us maintain a steady outlook and can adjust to life’s everyday dilemmas. Anger, depression, frustration, victim, and outrageous behavior become a common occurrences when the brain fails to process correctly.

How does one cope? How can a “sane” person help those in need? It was only a few decades ago when barbaric treatment was the norm. Mental health still has a stigma to all who admit their condition. We have a long road ahead to realize how we “feel” is a priority. The sad thing is most are judgemental. Wanting to know the “why” is not always possible. It just is. It is no different than discovering cancerous cells or having a failed organ in your body. Shit happens to us all. How we deal with it makes all the difference. This is not the case for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Unsettling and disturbing as it might be, this film is a masterpiece and sheds a light within very dark minds. 

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST was based on a novel by Ken Kesey and was performed on Broadway for over a year. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to bring this script to the screen. He had full intentions to portray R.P. McMurphy, but too many years passed, and Kirk was too old for the role. Cue Jack Nicholson. Michael Douglas took over as producer along with Saul Zaentz. The film opened in 1975, and at the Oscars in 1976, OFOTCN swept the top awards winning Best Picture, Best Actor, (Jack Nicholson) Best Actress, (Louise Fletcher) Best Director, (Milos Forman), and Best Adapted Screenplay. Winning these five Oscars hadn’t happened in over forty years.   

The film is tough to watch. The cast has said it was difficult to create as well. The location used was Oregon State Hospital. Over seventy inmates at this facility became extras used throughout the movie. The cast lived in the hospital to be able to get the “feel” of being in a mental institution. Both Louise and Jack witnessed a patient going through electric shock treatment. It was a brutal schedule. Many of the ensemble had counselors standing by to help them process their “crazy” days. The role of the Chief (Will Sampson) was impossible to cast, but the director found a park ranger who fit the character description perfectly. He had no acting experience. Nurse Ratched was extremely hard to create. Louise Fletcher had to refrain from showing any emotions in all her scenes. She never could smile or laugh at the chaos surrounding her. She was said to hate it, especially around Jack and all the off-the-wall zaniness. She did get them all back one day by making an entrance wearing nothing but her panties. Now that would have made a great blooper reel.   

Cameras were told to roll continually, especially during those group sessions. The timing, the pacing, and the emotional highs and lows were brilliant. The cast melded together as one unit and often did not “break” even when the scene had ended. It was Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, and Danny DeVito’s first feature film debut. The “poker” games and the imaginary World Series baseball game stood out as a highlight. Their fishing boat getaway took a week to film and gave everyone extreme nausea, with the exception of Jack. Danny DeVito says he still feels seasick whenever he remembers being on that boat.   

What made ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST so brilliant was the caliber of acting skills between Jack and Louise. They were a match made in hell. Their push/pull, act/ react moments were phenomenal. One eyebrow raised, one steely glance, head toss, or smirk was all it took. The innuendo and four facial expressions were genius. I hated Nurse Ratched, and yet Murph was not the perfect protagonist either. He was the catalyst that drove this ensemble to sadness, giddiness, and greatness. It was impossible to turn away, even when the unthinkable occurred. Kudos. Bravo. This film still haunts my thoughts and dreams. This is the markings of an extraordinary film and piece of art.   

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST gave the ending away in the title, yet it still compelled audiences to watch, learn, and remember. It is inconceivable to simply label this film a dark comedy. Sometimes, it felt inhuman to laugh or smile at someone’s pain. It was ahead of its time, pointing fingers at our outdated, antiquated mental health system. It was a stunning, electrifying wake-up call. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is a shocking classic that begs the question…who really is sane? It is available to stream on Showtime.   

Esta Rosevear

Esta Rosevear has been a Theatre Arts teacher and director for 35+ years, published Children’s author of the Rebecca series, and is passionate about playing her violin, walking, gardening, and reading murder mysteries.

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