As much as I love looking back at movies I personally liked at the time of their release or at least the time that I first saw them, there's nothing more irresistible than revisiting a so-called venerated "classic" that you haven't seen in years. More often than not, of course, they live up to your initial impressions, or expectations of greatness. But occasionally, you discover that time hasn't been kind to them, whether it's because the movie first connected with audiences at a certain moment in the zeitgeist, or its techniques were subsequently adopted or ripped off by too many other movies, or, in some cases, it really just wasn't that good to begin with. But the great virtue of double-dip releases on DVD and Blu-ray – if there is one – is that we're given a chance to check out films we once loved and see if they live on as great artistic achievements.
Speaking of which, Warner Home Video released 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' last week in a new Blu-ray set that features a number of feature-length documentaries as well as interviews with key members of the cast and crew, and just for fun, a deck of playing cards, albeit not ones as filthy as those McMurphy uses in the film. Having first seen it in college, I was perhaps appropriately impressed by its iconic status, Jack Nicholson's historic performance and Milos Forman's award-winning storytelling. But is the movie as powerful and effective now as it was in 1975, when it was first released?
The Facts: Released November 19, 1975, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' became a huge hit and a major award-winner to boot. Forman's film earned more than $100 million against its $4.4 million budget, was nominated for nine Academy Awards, and won four, including for Best Picture, Director, Actor (for Nicholson's performance as McMurphy) and Actress (for Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and Adapted Screenplay (by Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman).
Additionally, it won all six of the Golden Globes for which it was nominated, and six of the eight BAFTA Awards for which it was nominated. And the film currently enjoys a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
What Still Works: If you're looking for a better performance by Jack Nicholson, you aren't likely to find many worthier candidates than his turn in 'Cuckoo's Nest.' With the disadvantage of a career of iconoclast performances under his belt, Nicholson's turn as the anarchic McMurphy may seem more than slightly clichéd, but if you watch closely, he offers a fairly remarkable array of subtle details and shades that make the character multi-dimensional and sophisticated, even when he's at his dumbest. There are several shots of Nicholson reacting to situations in the ward that shift in compelling, unusual and often harrowing ways to reveal the turmoil bubbling beneath his supposedly transparently disruptive surface.
Further, Nicholson's eccentricities never seem like legitimate psychosis or mania as much as a certain kind of sociopathy, an impulse to interrupt and destroy a semblance of order, albeit more because of boredom or impatience than any sort of deeper psychological disorder. But the film's depiction of his "treatment" of his so-called condition feels sadly authentic to both mental health facilities during the time of the film's release, and the sort of natural, perhaps tragic balance of control and resistance found in any hierarchy where one party wields some degree of absolute power.
In that capacity, Louise Fletcher is almost terrifyingly unlikeable as Nurse Ratched, and sort of miraculously so by maintaining an eerily calm demeanor when dealing with her charges. Her behavior becomes infuriating early on, but it's defined in subtle measures that undermine the confidence and rehabilitation of the patients, perhaps unknowingly, while she maintains control (as we see it more clearly) in order to reinforce her own self-worth and preserve her sense of authority.
While it's arguable that the dimensions of some of the other patients are slightly broad, the combination of Forman's direction and the performances of the ensemble (which includes Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif) make them equally compelling, complicated, and sympathetic figures, even (or perhaps especially) when they succumb to the extremes of their own internal disorders. We are deeply affected by what happens to all of the characters, both in terms of what they do and how their behavior reflects the influence of McMurphy, and they congeal into a sort of fractured family whom we care about, whether they're suffering from personal indignities or reacting to the containment of their would-be leader.
What Doesn't Work: While the film is beautifully-shot and its story well-told, there's a sort of indisputable sense in retrospect that this film is similar in many, many respects to 'Cool Hand Luke,' which obviously took place in a different setting. But both films seem representative of the challenge to authority that was taking place in American culture during the late 1960s and '70s, only this one has the veneer of being an expose on the poor treatment and conditions patients received at mental health facilities. That doesn't make it sensationalistic, but its collective familiarity within the annals of film history lessen its impact, and furthermore, its downer-upbeat ending now seems like a sort of non-cliché cliché, whether or not such was the case at the time of its release.
What's The Verdict: 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is a great, moving film, but watching it some 35 years later, when it has been held up in the context of other films before and after that were similar, it feels like a significant artistic achievement but no longer a particularly historic one. Certainly Nicholson's performance would make this one of his defining roles, and the film made director Forman's name as well, but at this point, 'Cuckoo's Nest' feels like the sort of movie that is mandatory viewing for all aspiring cinephiles albeit to see where the sorts of iconoclast characters in modern movies were not only started, but codified. As such, it's indisputably entertaining and emotionally affecting, but its place in cinema history no longer seems as singular or sharply defined as it perhaps did when it was first released.