(Originally published by the Daily News on Nov. 20, 1975. This story was written by Kathleen Carroll.)
One patient tells the attendant he feels rested after a night spent chained to his bed. Others in the typically grim mental ward appear just as contented. They accept their daily medication – and restrictions – without a whimper. It’s certainly better than facing what might be out there beyond the locked windows.
Or so they think until – like a bolt of lightning – R. P. McMurphy makes his appearance. He has feigned insanity to escape a work farm, and the patients know immediately they have found a leader in this hell-raiser.
Right away, he takes on the symbol of authority, the formidable Nurse Ratched and it becomes a battle against an intractable system, the kind of one-sided confrontation that automatically inflames us all.
With such an anti-establishment hero as McMurphy, it is no wonder that Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” has such appeal for the so-called rebel generation. It later became an unsuccessful Broadway play, starring Kirk Douglas, and Douglas spent many disheartening years trying to turn it into a movie. Eventually he gave the project over to his son, Michael, for which we can all be eternally grateful.
For it was the younger Douglas who realize that there was one actor who was simply born to play McMurphy, namely Jack Nicholson; just as there was one director, Milos Forman, who could provide the necessary mix of cutting “M.A.S.H.” – style comedy and sobering realism.
And so we have waited more than 10 years for the film version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and all doubts that a film could be made of Kesey’s novel vanish the minute Nicholson explodes on the screen in a performance so flawless in timing and character perception that it should send half the stars in Hollywood back to acting school.
Nicholson could always be relied on to supply a certain rakish charm. Here he actually becomes the brash, outspoken McMurphy, delighting us with his impudence and defiance. He also manages to expose yet another, less noticeable layer of McMurphy – his deep compassion for his fellow human beings, which acts as a balance for his otherwise violent nature. It is a performance of dazzling complexity and energy, the kind of perfect triumph that happens in those rare times when the right actor meets the challenge of the right role.
That the remainder of the cast is equally brilliant is a tribute not only to their talent, but to Forman’s ability to draw such natural responses from everyone. One must mention Louise Fletcher as the icily determined, hopelessly misguided Nurse Ratched, William Redfield as the ward’s fussy intellectual, Will Sampson as the Indian chief – a gentle giant – and Brad Dourif as the painfully tongue-tied victim of Nurse Ratched’s heartlessness.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the best film therapy one can recommend.