December 25, 2006

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

You can see that last night we came up with a choice of four movies to watch and -- you should be able to tell from my set of favorite quotes -- we chose "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Is that a Christmas movie? If I had to argue it was, I'd point to the party scene. It's a Christmas party. The music playing is "Jingle Bells," and we see some Christmas decorations, including a little Santa Claus. And you could say -- cornily -- that it's a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, and you could contend that that's Christmasy. Or do you think it's a movie about the triumph of the masculine spirit over the feminine? McMurphy arrives to show all those mere shadows of men how to be men. That's what the book -- which I can't stand -- was about.

IMDB has a lot of interesting "trivia" -- their word -- about the movie. I knew that many of the extras were real mental patients. I didn't know Will Sampson got the role of Chief Bromden because he was the only person they could find who had the two qualities they needed (Native American and physically huge). [NOTE: He wasn't an actor.] I didn't know that Jack Nicholson and Milos Forman (the director) were at odds with each other:
...Nicholson and director Milos Forman had very different ideas about how the narrative should play out; for example, Forman thought that the ward should be in bedlam when McMurphy showed up and Nicholson posited that his character would have absolutely no effect on the mental patients if they were already riled up, which would have negated the purpose of his character and therefore much of the plot. Nicholson and Forman both refused to give an inch, both believing they were right and the other was wrong. The two months that Jack Nicholson disappeared for was more like two weeks, and he didn't disappear. In actuality, Nicholson spearheaded a coup among the other actors and refused to let Forman run rehearsals, running them himself instead.
Wow. Nicholson got it right. Other evidence of how wrong Forman could be: He wanted Burt Reynolds to play McMurphy! But he was right -- I think -- not to want the fishing scene. He thought -- I agree -- it interfered with the claustrophobic atmosphere of the rest of the film. I detested the fishing scene in the book. It's exactly where I stopped reading. I liked the movie McMurphy as an anti-authoritarian, counterculture guy. The McMurphy in the book was Mr. Masculine Energy. Let's fish, let's watch baseball, let's play basketball, let's drink, let's have sex with prostitutes... and isn't the nurse a bitch?

Other evidence of how much credit Nicholson deserves:
Most of Jack Nicholson's scene with Dean R. Brooks upon arriving at the hospital was improvised - including his slamming a stapler, asking about a fishing photo, and discussing his rape conviction; Brooks's reactions were authentic.
Brooks actually was superintendent of a mental hospital. This scene reminded us of the office interview scene in "The Shining," which Nicholson made 5 years later.

Kirk Douglas owned the rights to the book for a long time and wanted to play McMurphy. When I read the book -- which was after I saw the movie and knowing Douglas wanted the part -- I fell into picturing Kirk Douglas. He was much more the sort of person (the author) Ken Kesey had in mind. Nicholson made the movie into something that resonated in 1975. The book was published in 1963... and feels like it.

Ken Kesey was pissed:
Ken Kesey wrote a screenplay for the production, but Forman rejected it because Kesey insisted on keeping Chief Bromden's first-person narration....
[Kesey said] he would never watch the movie version and even sued the movie's producers because it wasn't shown from Chief Bromden's perspective (as the novel is)....

Author Ken Kesey was so bitter about the way the filmmakers were "butchering" his story that he vowed never to watch the completed film. Years later, he claimed to be lying in bed flipping through TV channels when he settled onto a late-night movie that looked sort of interesting, only to realize after a few minutes that it was this film. He then changed channels.
"After a few minutes"... hilarious.

Watching the movie last night, I had to stop and think who Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) was reminding me of. Something about that voice. Then I realized: Condoleezza Rice! Oh, no! So steady, so calm... so infuriating. And I like Condoleezza Rice! Louise Fletcher did a fine job with her role. Has anyone ever won an Oscar for showing so little expression? She was not -- as Nurse Ratched was in the book -- an embodiment of matriarchy and women's repression of men. She was horrible, cold, and controlling, but she also had some humanity. She was in a predicament trying to deal professionally with some very trying individuals. She made all the wrong decisions, but she was recognizably human.

The actors who played those patients did a fine job portraying seriously ill men and making them dramatically effective and immensely entertaining. We felt free to laugh at them a lot without getting the nagging guilty feeling that we weren't showing enough respect for the mentally ill. There's bonus entertainment in the fact that two of them are actors we came to love in bigger roles: Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd.

"If they made this movie today, they'd ruin it with music," I said halfway through. There was scene after scene with no music, other than the occasional record that a character in the movie played. Jack Nitzsche got an Oscar nomination for the score, and his music is memorable and evocative, but I think it only plays over the opening credits and at the very end. There was never any of that sort of movie music that instructs us on how to think and feels our emotions before we get a chance to feel them for ourselves. When Nurse Ratched puts a syrupy, soporific version of "Charmaine" on the record player for the ritual of dispensing the psychotropic drugs, what we feel is in counterpoint to the music. (With all the special features on DVDs today, I wish there was one that let you turn off the score.)

Such are my scattered thoughts on Christmas morning about "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," watched on Christmas Eve.


Anonymous said...

As chance would have it, I quite recently ran across an article that said Lily Tomlin was the first choice for Nurse Ratched. Don't know if it was true.

Ann Althouse said...

David: Yeah, writing this post, I was thinking Ratched/wretched... and thinking it cool that I just wrote about wretchedness yesterday. We were in fact drinking Kir Royales while watching the film.

Anonymous said...

Who does Nurse Rached remind one of? I've always thought Nancy Pelosi. Separated at birth, in fact!

Anonymous said...

Wouldn't watching a movie without the score that the director intended make it a completely different movie (as well as a completely different type of movie)? It's like saying "I wish DVDs had an option where I can choose to watch this scene from a different camera angle." I agree that'd be cool, but I think it would fundamentally change movies. When you say "There was never any of that sort of movie music that instructs us on how to think and feels our emotions before we get a chance to feel them for ourselves." it sounds like you're describing a bad use of music, not the use of music altogether. Is that right?

Laura Reynolds said...

In my profile I listed this movies as one of my favorites. I think its all about Nicholson. Some things are better without any backstory.

Odd that Kasey never watched it.

Gahrie said...

One of the things that disturbs/intrigues me about movies is all of the extra footage lying around. For instance, if you watch Cheech and Chong's Next Movie on TV, the movie is no longer about marijuana, it is about diamonds. (and incidently makes no sense - why try to show a movie like Next Movie on TV if you have to mangle it to do it?)

Then you have the DVD-induced phenomena of "added scenes" and "director's cuts". Sometimes it can be disconcerting (and meaning/message changing) to be re-watching a movie and be suddenly confronted with a scene you have never seen before.

Lastly you have the Lucas spawned idea of returning to your earlier works, and not only re-cutting the film, but actually re-shooting footage. (Star Wars cantina scene for example..of which there are now three different versions!)

I can only see this aspect of movies getting stronger in the future. What might this mean for the medium of film in the future? Which version of the film will be the authorative one?

Ann Althouse said...

I'll bet a lot of directors hate the music that was slopped all over their film. I'd like to see a "director's cut" that included a more sophisticated use of music. Why not alternate music tracks? Really, the music in movies today is what keeps me out of the theater... music and overdone sound effects. I think they are in part catering to young people who have ruined their hearing with loud music ... or just ruined their tast for any subtlety. (You young people today! No, really, I just hate what has happened to music in the movies.)

cf said...

When I first saw it I sympathized with Nicholson's character, Now, like the movie's producer ,Saul Zaentz. I have more sympathy with the hospital administration.
In any event, Nicholson is a brilliant actor and in this role he shines..even when you don't know about his unusual role in the direction of the film.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

A great movie (never read the book), but I think of it as emblematic of the larger failure of 60's style rebellion. The with-it reaction to the movie is to cheer the rebellion of the patients and to harbor adolescent grudges against the authority of Nurse Ratched. The reality is that the forced closures of most state-run mental institutions resulted in the wave of homelessness in the 80's. As with urban renewal and welfare, the liberal solution resulted in even greater problems which could then be blamed on heartless conservatives.

But what are mere details when it feels so good to fight the power?

Kirby Olson said...

"Matriarchy" is a term that's tough to define. Most mythologists think that it originated with a man named Bachofen -- a Swiss jurist and friend of Friedrich Nietzsche. In his spare time he wrote a 1400 page book called Mutterrecht. There is a bowdlerized version in English from Princeton UP that it is claimed was edited by a feminist cabal in the 70s.

If you go back to the original, Bachofen claimed that matriarchy was a system in which female images were worshipped but that the principle was PROCREATION. In point of fact, Bachofen argued that in matriarchy it was ALWAYS a male tyrant who ruled, and that personal desire of the most powerful was the only principle.

It's strange that 70s feminists came to use the term "matriarchy" as synonymous with "rule by women" as the Nurse Ratched character might symbolize. Perhaps it was the bowdlerization that led to this usage, but even in the thirties some writers use the term "patriarchy" in a derogatory sense (as the rule by male tyrants).

Bachofen used the idea of "sky gods" positively, and said that it meant the rise of law and order (ten commandments) which applied to everyone universally. He argued that women were always better off under patriarchies because the rule of law offered them some protection.

Bachofen said that matriarchies were distinguished by their use of the moon rather than the sun as the chief symbol, and that night rather than day was privileged.

It's a fabulous book but you have to read German. Well, I have a complete translation into French which is also quite good.

Since you are a right-leaning blog diva, as well as a feminist, you could do a lot of interesting damage by using the terms as Bachofen intended.

Matriarchy: a society in which night, the moon, and women are the chief symbols, but they are invariably run by male tyrants.

Patriarchy: a society in which the sun, day, and men are the chief symbols, but they are run by PRINCIPLES of law and order.

In matriarchy, women are whores and never anything more.

In patriarchy, marriage between a man and a woman is very center of the society, and women have equal protection under the law.

Bachofen was a Protestant Swiss: his legal thinking is rather fascinating, and might interest you. He traces societies through the evolution of marriage.

The worst societies use women in common, or are societies in which the male tyrant has access to all the women. These are matriarchies (where desire is the only rule in place, and so the strongest tyrant runs the joint).

The best societies are ones in which women and men choose one another in singular marriage and follow a system of law that applies equally to everyone (patriarchies).

Merry Christmas!

michael farris said...


haven't read Bachofen but later thought tended to coflate the ideas of patriarchy/matriarchy with patrilineal vs matrilineal societies.

In patrilineal societies, the identity of the biological father is important. In matrilineal societies the identity of the father is less important.

The more patrilineal a society is the more it's going to concentrate on trying to make sure that fertile and/or married women have as little opportunity to stray as possible. The easiest way to do that is restrict their movements and contact with men that could cuckold their husbands as much as possible. Not every patrilineal group does this that consistently, but the societies that are most restrictive to women are all strongly patrilineal, often to the extent that wives are not considered family members till they give birth to a (preferably male) child (and maybe not then).
Women's primary emotional intimacy comes through male children and the husband wife relationship is a business partnership that may or may not develop into bonds of affection.

When descent is reckoned primarily (or entirely) through women there tends to be something closer to equality. Men usually ultimately run things but women aren't sequestered or limited in their movements and often have considerable power. In these societies, the primary male figure in childrens' lives is the mother's brother.

There's also some identification with the concept the Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede calls 'masculine' or 'feminine' cultures. Basically cultures tend to focus around either a set of 'masculine' values like competition, ambition and display or 'feminine' values like human relationships, nurturing, taking care of the environment. Among modern countries, Japan is the most masculine and Sweden the most feminine.

michael farris said...

After living in central europe (Poland) for several years (and some run ins with bureacracies) I happened to catch OFOTCN on tv and thought that Nurse Ratched didn't seem so bad after all. She's certainly a pushover compared to some folks that stand behind counters and make your life miserable here in this part of the world.
(OTOH once I learned the system, the bureacracy here wasn't so bad and now actually seems reasonable compared to US bureacracy)

For a long time I had a different interpretation of the character based on Forman's central european origins: She has a job and that's just what she'll do, no matter what. Sometimes she's right and sometimes she's wrong but she's always carrying out what she perceives as her duty to the letter and any collateral damage is not her concern.

But Forman's concept of the hospital in bedlam makes me question that (bedlam? I wonder what that might mean to him).

JorgXMcKie said...

As far as butchered movies go, is it even possible to get a copy (tape, DVD, whatever) of 'Blazing Saddles' as it was shown in theaters? I can't stand to watch it on tv (Lily von Ssssssschhh . . . now, c'mon!) and no copy I've seen doesn't leave out things.

My wife and I watched several episodes of Laurie and Fry's "Wooster and Jeeves." Now, there's comedy. It was one her Christmas presents, and I don't think I've ever seen her more pleased with a gift.

Kirby Olson said...

The Finns would probably concur that Sweden is the most feminine. Their soccer rivalry is continuous. Funny thing: the Japanese love Swedish and Finnish hockey players.

Probably all these ideas are silly about male vs. female but thanks for giving me a peek at the current state of things, Michael.

I love Bachofen. He's such a fabulous writer. He's what the anthropologists call a "unilinear evolutionist" -- traces everything through marriage rites/rights.

I can't remember what he says about gay marriage. This was the 1860s though so probably not much.

According to his terminology both Nurse Ratched AND McMurphy would be matriarchs, and desire and principles amount to the same thing: tyranny. That was the central 60s viewpoint: no matter what you did the leader would always be a tyrant.

I think it's possible on the other hand to have principles. Or else why even both with law?

I don't htink it matters who runs things as long as the principles are fair. If it's Thatcher or Blair, or Hillary or McCain, as long as the people running the show respect the laws, it's fine with me.

Anonymous said...

What did you think of Sometimes a Great Notion? Better book than Nest? Obviously the movie wasn't of the same caliber, but not bad. It did, after all, star Lee Remick - Sex Goddess.

BTW, your recent Bloggingheads appearance made for the best episode that site has posted to date. Please do more.

Merry Christmas.

Kev said...

Re the soundtrack issue: I'm not a big fan of the concept of using movies or TV shows to sell songs, but there's little doubt that a lot of new artists have been launched by having their songs played on The O.C. (or Dawson's Creek before that, which may have been where all that started).

However, I do believe that film score music of the kind written by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, etc., "saved" classical music from the rather avant-garde path it was taking in the 20th century. I'll discuss that at more length if anyone cares, because I always intended to write a blog post on the subject and never got around to it.