When Cuckoo's Flew Over
For many Boomers, Jack Nicholson’s performance as Randall McMurphy in the movie One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest was a seminal film moment of the 1970's. In the Milos Forman opus, Nicholson plays a free spirited drifter locked up in an asylum in the U.S. Pacific Northwest of the late 1950's. Expressing the human yearning for freedom, Nicholson leads his emotionally destroyed co-inmates in a bid for liberation from the regime of drugs and shock therapy applied by Nurse Ratched.
Most of the patients embrace McMurphy’s defiance yet lack his courage to rebel. In the end, McMurphy’s encouragement frees only Chief, the mute Indian. But Nicholson’s character is lobotomized for his troubles. Last we see him. McMurphy is a drooling husk of his former self with lobotomy scars on his forehead (in an act of mercy, Chief suffocates him with a pillow.)
To liberal audiences in the ‘70's, Nicholson’s insouciant charm symbolized the fight against The Man in the era of Vietnam and Richard Nixon. Channeling R.D Laing’s psychiatric work, the film preached that adapting to the world’s cruelties, not rejecting them, is the real insanity. Watching the hapless inhabitants of the ward, we were meant to believe that locking up mentally unstable people is cruel and unusual punishment.
Certainly that was the take of the author of the 1962 book upon which the movie was based. Ken Kesey was an early hippy, an enthusiastic consumer of hallucinogenics and a precursor of the moral relativism about to sweep America culture in the 1970's. His influence was only amplified by the book and, 13 years later, the movie (Kesey apparently wanted Gene Hackman, not Nicholson, for the McMurphy role).
Audiences in the ‘70's loved the film and so did the Oscars. Nicholson won Best Actor, Louise Fletcher (Ratched) won Best Actress, Forman won Best Director and producer Michael Douglas won Best Picture for the property his famous dad Kirk had optioned years before.
What Coming Home did for the anti-war movement, Cuckoo’s Nest did for psychiatric revisionism in pop culture. It helped cement the campaign to reduce institutionalization for mental patients (which had been going on since the ‘60's). Where once they were housed in institutions such as 999 Queen Street West or the Douglas Hospital in Montreal, they were suddenly outpatients, free in the community.
Unfortunately, many ended up sleeping on subway grates or in alleys of major cities. Instead of the deadening boredom of psychiatric wards they were turning up dead of drug overdoses or predatory violence in the mean streets. All in the name of their civil rights — or “freedom” as Kesey saw it.
The issue of better treating the mentally ill has been revived of late in the debate over mass shootings in the U.S. Many of those incidents not politically motivated share the component of mental illness. Loners who have somehow fallen through the holes in the mental-health net or who cannot be institutionalized have committed unspeakable crimes.
U.S. president Barack Obama has chosen to frame the issue in terms of gun control, but many believe it is more a psychiatric issue. They’re asking should society revisit the civil liberties of those with mental issues? Should we rely on outpatient as the proper way to treat the mentally ill? Who gets to decide the societal benefit of taking people off the streets for their own good?
At this point the discussion is drowned out by the very public gun debate. But it has taken on momentum.
The irony of Nicholson’s performance is that the accepted liberal notion of the film was not the meaning its director Milos Forman had for the film. Forman saw the film as an allegory for a sane person living within an authoritarian state. In Forman’s case it was his take on the Soviet Union’s oppressive grip on his artistic freedom and on his native country of (then) Czechoslovakia.
The kind of grip on speech that big-government progressives love to wield in their quest for a more-perfect state. Their calls for increased government regulations around hate speech and health care are precisely the opposite of what Forman intended in his critique of the over-bearing state. But good liberals never let the facts get in the way of a favourite narrative.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy @NPBroadcaster