Watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again, I feel sorry for Nurse Ratched

Fans of the film's hero often forget the reason he ended up in prison in the first place was the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. 

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I got a mild shock from returning this week to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on the occasion of its re-release. It isn’t quite the film I remembered it to be. Of course, the plot is intact: adapted by Bo Goldman and Laurence Hauben from Ken Kesey’s novel, it shows the liberating chaos visited on one ward in a mental institution by Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who is transferred there from prison for psychiatric evaluation. The ward is in the grip of the genteel, quietly tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), and the anti-establishment McMurphy loosens that grip—or tries to—by nudging his timid fellow patients toward outright rebellion. 

Nicholson stays just this side of over-the-top; he knows precisely how much grandstanding he can get away with as McMurphy before it becomes the sort that actors do when they’re not being directed any more. Don’t take my word for it. Compare this performance with the indulgences he was permitted in The Departed, a little more than 30 years later. In that film, he seems to have no idea how he affects everything else in the movie: how it capsizes it. Whereas his work in Cuckoo’s Nest, no matter how berserk it becomes, is always for the good of the film. In his long, mysterious close-up after the end of the impromptu ward party, he appears intensely satisfied. I wonder if that’s how he looked when he saw the movie for the first time. It couldn’t have been far off.

He should certainly have been proud of how he energised his co-stars, including the exceptional Brad Dourif, who made his debut as the stammering, sheepish Billy Bibbit. When I interviewed Dourif in 2002, he recalled his experience on the film. “I tried to make Billy wide open,” he said. “He wanted to be part of everything, and that made him scarier and more vulnerable. It was a fantastic set. Nicholson was at the top of his game, improvising, so fast on his feet. He galvanised all of us.” 

But the shock, for me, was seeing how one particular element of the film now appears fortified. Fletcher, as Nurse Ratched, has often been regarded as the villain of the piece but in fact her steady-eyed, level-headed performance produces an effect far more complicated and real than this might suggest. Ratched is steadfast in her belief that what she is doing is right — that in denying the men their freedoms, and curbing their independence, even in reducing Billy to a gibbering mess just as he seems at his most lucid, she is absolutely doing the best she can for her patients’ welfare. It’s a fantastic idea, faultlessly executed, which makes the film knottier and also more enduring. How hokey Cuckoo’s Nest would look, and how much easier Ratched would be to dismiss, if she were worthy of nothing but our hisses and boos. The woman that Fletcher plays is frightening precisely because of her normality and her conviction; how can you overcome someone who doesn’t think she is doing anything unspeakable?

Credit where it’s due: Forman had regarded the character as the personification of evil but it was Fletcher, the actor, who took it in another direction. After casting her, he said: “I slowly started to realise that it would be much more powerful if she doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”

A friend admitted to me that she always felt a teensy bit sorry for Nurse Ratched. Having seen the film again, I agree. It isn’t only that she is pitted, more or less single-handedly, against McMurphy’s rabid and sometimes rancid masculinity. Please don’t forget, after all, that the reason he ended up in prison in the first place is the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. How does he try to explain it? By claiming that his victim said she was 18 — that old chestnut. He then uses a piece of leering, taboo slang to describe the allure of the child’s genitalia. What a hero! Funny how that detail always seems to get forgotten when fans are making their lists of the most inspiring rebels in cinema.

When McMurphy finally gets his hands around Nurse Ratched’s neck in the film’s explosive climax, she looks understandably terrified — and, more than anything, confused. The world-view by which she has defined her entire life has collided with its exact opposite. What could be scarier than that? It is to the film’s eternal credit, though, that both McMurphy and Ratched can co-exist equally, with their own competing priorities, without the audience being asked to choose between them. In 1975, the movie must have seemed quite the rabble-rouser. The years have had a sobering effect.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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