One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, often considered the apotheosis of mid-’70s social conscience filmmaking, is never less than a successfully biting and acidic hot-box of social discontent measured in a battle-ground of tone that veers within single scenes from malarial ennui to self-righteous anger to social carnival mania. Milos Forman’s film suffers more in relatives than absolutes, however. Successful though it may be, it arrived in a decade of thick-on-the-ground masterpieces of both more vociferous filmic invention and more studied social insight. Even eschewing many of the other “greatest hits” efforts from the decade, Cuckoo’s Next achieves nothing not advanced with more success by a clutch of “deep cuts” – the thorny Jack Nicholson vehicle Five Easy Pieces, the stunning Elaine May grotto Mikey and Nicky, a half-dozen underappreciated Robert Altman films people flip over when championing the merits of MASH.
Still, one can grovel to audiences to experience the myriad delights propping up the American film scene in the 1970s and still appreciate the value of films with more cultural cache simultaneously. I would take any of its fellow Best Picture nominees from the same year – Altman’s sublime tableaux of performance and malaise Nashville, Kubrick’s delectable cinematic parlour trick Barry Lyndon, Spielberg’s sly study of social class masquerading as a delirious thriller Jaws, or Lumet’s sweltering, rough-housed Dog Day Afternoon – before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But that doesn’t render this film valueless, and the film’s own presentiment of wildling bedlam sapped by the calculating hands of authority is intoxicating enough as a chamber piece to ensure Cuckoo’s Nest a lesser place in the canon for a while.
When RP McMurphy (Nicholson) saunters into the asylum that forms the backdrop of this vision of social discontent, he’s clearly more shit-stirring than insane, adopting a screw-loose persona more out of intentional willpower than troubled internal dialectics; he is also, neither to the film’s detriment or benefit, more of a force of nature and a cosmic notion of anarchy than a person in the flesh. As is Louise Fletcher’s dictatorial, syrup-and-oil Nurse Ratched, both of whom initiate a torrid dialectical battleground with little room for middle-ground acquiescence for the cadre of patients torn between the comfort of order and the destabilizing maelstrom of disarray. In the coral reef of ’70s filmmaking, Forman’s film proposes a nation torn between an unstoppable force and an immovable object, grappling with entities they don’t entirely understand and struggling just not to be reduced to ash in the process.
Forman’s style is solid, although a little too literary for the material, struggling although not failing to translate the text upon which the film is based into cinematic strokes. Haskell Wexler’s cinematography is suitably observational but not exactly incisive or evolutionary, striving more for a semi-ascetic conception of unmediated realism. It’s not quite that this version of the story is merely a trumped-up stage play with a divine set of central performances, but Nicholson and Fletcher in all their wonderment do habitually sap the energy from the rest of the film. Partially, this is intentional: the crisp grey halls and stoic white outfits of the orderlies dominate the screen and enervate it, allowing Nicholson to rattle around like a tommy gun within a place constantly working overtime to trample him into submission.
A satisfyingly contemplative adaptation this is then, but it’s also far too measured to function as more than a companion piece to a novel, rather than the vigorous workout on a culture it might have otherwise been. It borrows a certain unstable cadence from the dramatic naturalist works of the ’70s but fails to suggest the sharpened, unstable icepicks propping up those quasi-realist works like a bed of nails; Cuckoo’s Nest is “realist” like them but not really ever jaggedly or challengingly so, in other words. Like many of the film’s characters, then, it is torn between two identities: it sacrifices the resplendence of a self-consciously big, clean Hollywood adaptation and also fails to achieve the truly subjective, clamorous maneuvers of a legitimately intimate, radical work of independent cinema verite fiction.
Again, this is part of the film’s tortured personality, borrowing one style to evoke the rigidity of the system and another to fight back and throw punches. But, much as the film ultimately suggests about the unwinnable trench warfare between oppression and rebellion, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest cannot overcome its confused style to thrive as more than a disparate conglomeration of notable parts. Gestalt this is not, although one would be remiss to suggest anything less than a qualified success out of a film with two of the all-time performances in a decade replete with them. Even if the film’s necessary derangement is half-hog rather than fully-blossomed, give it points for instructing its own failures to intimate harsh truths about a fractured, broken society.
George Roy Hill’s 1973 film exists on the precipice between the flimsy and the redoubtable, the exhausted-for-ideas and the exhaustingly-intoxicated, drunkenly enticing, slobberingly fun. It’s not not a remake of George Roy Hill’s earlier effort Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid either, but Hill’s two films are much like the films of the Marx Brothers or Yasujiro Ozu: pieces of a pie, but no less fresh individually.
It’s an odd Best Picture winner too, but it’s hardly a crime for film lovers to reward a glitzy pop-fantasia in a decade predominantly known for solemn lamentations or caustic diatribes; without a care on its mind, the blithe The Sting reminds that cinema comes in all shapes, sizes, and demeanors. Case in point, The Sting’s most notable gesture is doubly duplicated from both the general corpus of ’30s filmmaking and Hill’s own Cassidy and Sundance, but it’s hard to argue with anyway. Namely, with cinematographer Robert Surtees on retainer, Hill achieves a visual texture, amusingly more than pointedly, that recalls the canopy of Hawksian ’30s pictures rather than any lived-in, naturalistic vision of life in the ’30s. Much like Hill’s Western, The Sting suggests the performative, flexible nature of its characters’ games and masked identities by self-consciously constructing itself as a twinkly, mendacious vision of ’30s life rather than a work with aspirations of nonchalant veracity.
Ultimately, however, The Sting’s vociferous, inflexible commitment to its own essential superficiality is its saving grace rather than its albatross. Hill’s film feels less like an also-ran to the more serious works of ’70s American fiction or a benighted attempt at quasi-stoic sublimity than a raffish riposte to the need for idea or texture in a film when you’ve got pizzaz. And, although The Sting only has pizzaz, it is fluent enough in the art of vivacious entertainment that qualms are quickly lost in the ether of its own cinematic joie de vivre.
With Marvin Hamlisch’s frolicsome, frisky interpretations of Scott Joplin’s lively, improvisational ragtime dotting the landscape of the film and Paul Newman and Robert Redford on their best anti-social behavior, The Sting has the sprightly but laconic, laid-back vibe of both a chill-out picture and a huckster’s long con. A great deal of the film’s pleasure derives from how off-the-cuff it feels in relation to some of the more deterministic ’70s films. It’s a work of feather-light feet and purse-snatching fingers, cheerfully suggesting its own fictional movie-ness and flickering with the rambunctious, never-tied-down sloppiness of Robert Altman’s best motion pictures (although it admittedly ain’t a patch of Altman).
Meanwhile, there’s a deceptively, seductively unorganized visual chaos to the framing that underscores the carnivalesque amusements of a work that is ultimately tricking us by not revealing its own pre-planned machinations throughout. Hardly revelatory, but it nicely intimates the idea of cinema-as-con without, as so many modern films of the same spirit fail to grasp, stressing its own self-important sleight-of-hand