One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 Best Picture Academy Award winning American film directed by Milos Forman. Its allegorical theme is set in the world of an authentic mental hospital, a place of rebellion exhibited by an energetic, flamboyant, wise-guy anti-hero against the Establishment, institutional authority and status-quo attitudes. Expressing his basic human rights and impulses, the protagonist protests against heavy-handed rules about watching the World Series, and illegally stages both a fishing trip and a drinking party in the ward - leading to his own paralyzing lobotomy.
Jack Nicholson's acting persona as the heroic rebel McMurphy, who lives free or dies, had earlier been set with his performances in Easy Rider (1969) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). The mid-70s baby-boomers' counter-culture was ripe for a film dramatizing rebellion and insubordination against oppressive bureaucracy and an insistence upon rights, self-expression, and freedom.
The role of the sexually-repressed, domineering Nurse Ratched was turned down by five actresses - Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Ellen Burstyn, and Angela Lansbury - until Louise Fletcher, in her film debut, accepted casting only a week before filming began. Actor James Caan was also originally offered the lead role of McMurphy, and Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were considered as well. The entire film was shot in sequence, except for the fishing scene (shot last).
When Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) gets transferred for evaluation from a prison farm to a mental institution, he assumes it will be a less restrictive environment. But the martinet Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) runs the psychiatric ward with an iron fist, keeping her patients cowed through abuse, medication and sessions of electroconvulsive therapy. The battle of wills between the rebellious McMurphy and the inflexible Ratched soon affects all the ward's patients.
It surprised everyone by becoming enormously profitable - the seventh-highest-grossing film ever (at its time), bringing in almost $300 million worldwide. The independently-produced film also swept the Oscars: it was the first film to take all the major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress) since Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), an accomplishment not repeated until 1991 by The Silence of the Lambs. It was nominated for nine Academy Awards in total: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson with his first win after losing the previous year for Chinatown (1974)), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler), Best Director, Best Editing, Best Picture, Best Score (Jack Nitzsche) and Best Supporting Actor (Brad Dourif). "Cuckoo's Nest" beat out tough competition for Best Picture by Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Robert Altman's Nashville (1975).
The film's unauthorized screenplay (by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman) was restructured and adapted from author Ken Kesey's 1962 popular, best-selling novel of the same name so that it would appeal to contemporary audiences.
The novel by Ken Kesey was originally dramatized on Broadway (an adapted play by Dale Wasserman) beginning in 1963 with actor Kirk Douglas starring in the lead role as McMurphy and Gene Wilder as stuttering Billy Bibbit. Kirk Douglas bought the rights to the novel, but couldn't convince film studios to produce the film. Many years after its short theatrical run, Douglas transferred the rights to his son, actor/producer Michael Douglas, who co-produced the United Artists film with Saul Zaentz. Michael Douglas had considered playing the starring role, but by the time of the film's production, he judged himself too old.
Kesey had derived most of the novel's secondary characters from real-life psychiatric ward patients at a VA hospital (in Menlo Park, CA) where he had once worked in a night job in the late 50s. In the novel, McMurphy was a stocky redhead with a grotesque gash across his cheekbone and nose. And 6' 8" tall, 'mute' native American Chief Bromden, a paranoid schizophrenic, narrated the story and was the central character in the novel, ranting about hallucinatory images of an all-powerful, all-seeing bureaucratic 'harvesting machine' Combine designed to foster complete social integration. Those who were non-conforming would be relegated to a correctional facility for repair or removal. Kesey was so incensed by the change in the perspective of the story-telling and other changes in the script that he sued the producers.
The film's title was derived from a familiar, tongue-twisting Mother's Goose children's nursery rhyme called Vintery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn: Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn, Apple seed and apple thorn; Wire, briar, limber lock, Three geese in a flock. One flew east, And one flew west, And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.
The ones that fly east and west are diametrically opposed to each other and represent the two combatants in the film. The one that flies over the cuckoo's nest (the mental hospital) is the giant, 'deaf-mute' Chief.