Milos Forman / USA / 1975 / 134 mins
In the history of Hollywood, few producers have had the less enviable task of Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, in convincing studio bosses to throw money at a black comedy set in a psychiatric ward, but by divine providence, the money was forthcoming for Milos Forman’s production and Hollywood never looked back.
Coming off the back of Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and Chinatown, Jack Nicholson stars as oddball Randall McMurphy – a silver tongued rogue and petty criminal who thinks he’s found the easy alternative to prison. Unfortunately for McMurphy, the calm, unyielding head of the ward, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher deservedly bagging an Oscar for her role) is the immovable object to his irresistible force. Complementing the film is a terrific ensemble of supporting actors, who did much to highlight the forgotten voices of mental illness sufferers, locked away and forgotten about.
Stars is probably the wrong word to describe Nicholson’s performance as McMurphy. The viewer may be forgiven for thinking that Nicholson has played McMurphy his whole life, as at first he rebels, then feigns conformity, then rebels against the system again…with tragic consequences for himself. What this production gives us is one of the greatest character studies in Hollywood’s history, a sign that CGI and big budgets don’t always make a blockbuster, and a reminder that Hollywood used to churn out great films by the bushel.