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“Cuckoo’s Nest” Turns 35

During November 1975, Gerald Ford was the president, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, Generalissimo Francisco Franco died in Spain (and is still dead), and Jack Nicholson was known more for being one of America’s finest actors than as the number one Los Angeles Lakers uber-fan.

The film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was released on November 19, 1975, which makes it 35 years old this week. It starred Nicholson at his anti-authoritarian best in the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, a habitual petty criminal who chooses to serve the remainder of a prison sentence in a mental hospital, thereby avoiding hard labor. McMurphy quickly comes into conflict with dictatorial nurse Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher, who employs threats, intimidation, and more evil forms of manipulation to control the patients. McMurphy constantly challenges Ratched’s authority, becoming a rabble-rouser for the patients by leading them in loud card games, demanding to watch the World Series on television, smuggling booze and prostitutes inside the facility, and even “escaping” with the patients for an impromptu fishing trip.

McMurphy eventually learns that he jumped from the skillet into the fire by leaving prison when Nurse Ratched begins harsher forms of “treatment” for him to make him more docile. After a series of electroshock treatments, he is eventually lobotomized, leaving him in a vegetative state. As an act of mercy, he is euthanized by his friend Chief, a silent 6-foot-7 Native American who the staff believes to be deaf and mute.

The film was a brilliant adaptation of the 1962 novel of the same name written by counter-culture pioneer Ken Kesey. Kesey based the book on his own experiences of working at a mental health facility in Menlo Park, California while studying at Stanford University. While there he became a guinea pig in a CIA-funded study of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on humans. His experience in the study placed him squarely on the path of chemical enlightenment, making him a leader of the psychedelic movement.

The book was adapted for the screen by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman and directed by Milos Forman. Louise Fletcher became Nurse Ratched after a host of Hollywood A-list actresses passed on the role. Several familiar faces appear in the film, including patients Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito, who would later team up again for many years on Taxi. Brad Dourif made his screen debut as a stuttering patient named Billy, and was awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

The movie was filmed at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, which was also the setting for the novel. (No one but me will ever find this interesting, but I visited this facility a few years ago when I was doing research for a project I was working on called America at a 45-degree Angle, where I explored the U.S. along the 45th parallel. It just so happens that the Oregon State Hospital (now closed) rests directly on top of the 45th parallel, placing it halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. … See, I told you no one but me would find this interesting.)

The film went on to sweep the “Big Five” Academy Awards that year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay), something that has only happened two other times in history.