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How has One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest stayed relevant?


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Since it hit cinemas back in 1975, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), is consistently voted one of the best films of all time. Jack Nicholson’s role as Randall Patrick McMurphy is arguably his greatest role of all time, leading to his first Academy Award for best actor. 

Directed by Miloš Forman and produced by Michael Douglas, based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, It’s been 43 years since One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was released, so what makes it so enduring? And how does it manage to stay relevant in 2018 when so many other films have failed and remained of their time. 

Cuckoo’s Nest follows McMurphy a prisoner, who has been moved to a psychiatric hospital after pretending to be mentally unwell. What follows is McMurphy’s stark realisation that life is not easier inside the hospital, and he won’t remain ‘sane’ for long.

Cuckoo’s Nest was a revolutionary film back in 1975, it centred around mental illness something that had rarely been covered on screen. Unlike films before it, it handled life inside a psychiatric hospital realistically and was never derogatory and mocking of the patients. To really get a feel of what life was like, the cast including Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito stayed inside a real psychiatric facility and lived among the patients. 

Nicholson witnessed a patient undergoing electroconvulsive therapy first hand, which meant that the harrowing scene in which his character is subject to the horrendous practice is extra moving. 

Another revolutionary plot point in Cuckoo’s Nest was the use of female authority figures. Louise Fletcher starred as the formidable Nurse Ratched, the main antagonist to McMurphy’s character, a nurse who is instrumental in all the terrible practices that go on inside the hospital. Towards the end of the film, the audience is shown a terrifying fight scene between McMurphy and Ratched. 

The tension had been brewing from the very first scene in which they met, and instead of going down the sexual chemistry route where many other film makers would have gone, Cuckoo’s Nest stays true to the novel and has McMurphy grab Ratched by the throat in an unsuccessful attempt to end her life. Ratched survives, but the attack leads to the eventual demise of McMurphy.

The most important part of Cuckoo’s Nest is the fantastic ensemble cast. Lead by Will Sampson as the deaf and mute Chief Bromden who, despite saying almost nothing at all, is one of the most captivating actors on the screen. It also gave us the film debut of Brad Dourif who played, the young and tortured soul Billy Bibbit. Dourif went on to receive several nominations for best supporting actor for his first ever on-screen role, and after witnessing his heartbreaking portrayal of internal turmoil and suffering it’s not hard to see why.

It might be a classic and multi-award winning, but that’s not what makes Cuckoo’s Nest so special. It’s a film that has true heart at it’s core, studying the complex mental illness of men - something that is still a taboo subject over 40 years later. It’s sad that it’s still so relevant, and that men still struggle to manage their mental health in a bid to fight against toxic masculinity. It’s a fight that is still very much on going, but One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest opens your eyes to a much ignored section of society and gives it a voice. 

Regent Street Cinema hosted a Psychology at the Movies screening followed by a Q&A with psychiatry experts.

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