I saw Milos Forman‘s Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest at least a couple of times when it opened in November ’75. I knew the play pretty well as I’d played Dr. Spivey in a Stamford Community Theatre production a couple of months earlier. I’d always admired Ken Kesey‘s play and particularly the metaphor of rebellion behind it, but I couldn’t quite love the film. Liked it, admired the construction and the ensemble performances, didn’t love it.
Maybe I just wasn’t all that aroused by Jack Nicholson‘s Randall P. McMurphy. I know what the consensus view is, but to me Jack seemed to be mainly playing himself while flirting with McMurphy. I would’ve loved to have seen Kirk Douglas’s 1963 Broadway stage version.
I can tell you that after those two viewings of Forman’s film I never saw it again…not once. And yet I’ve seen Nicholson’s other seminal ’70s films over and over — Chinatown, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, Carnal Knowledge, The Passenger, The King of Marvin Gardens, etc. So why have I avoided Cuckoo’s Nest all these decades? Mainly, I think, because it’s essentially about terms of confinement.
McMurphy triggers a rebellion but he’s a sloppy Spartacus, and he winds up lobotomized and dead. And for what? The right to sneak prostitutes into the ward and get everyone drunk? Is McMurphy a champion of free will or isn’t he? He blows at least a couple of chances to escape Nurse Ratched’s control during the second half but he just hangs around.
I’ve just never felt much rapport with films that focus on prisoners and life sentences. That includes The Shawshank Redemption. One exception: Robert M. Young‘s Short Eyes.
I did a 20-minute interview with Ken Kesey at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival. We met upstairs at Burgie’s on Main Street. (Remember Burgie’s?) Kesey was talking to journalists about The Source, a Chuck Workman documentary about the hip movement of the ’50s and ’60s in which he appeared. I got a rise out of Kesey when I told him about my Spivey. He grinned faintly. “So you played Spivey, eh?” We batted the ball around and then the next guy took over.
I walked outdoors to a second-floor balcony area that looked down upon Main Street. Kesey’s son Zane — heavyish, late 20s or early 30s — joined me. Down below were hordes of festivalgoers, all looking and behaving like typical industry types from NY or LA. Zane, who lived on or near his dad’s farm in Pleasant Hill, Oregon, looked down and said, “Where are all the fat people?” He was joking but critiquing. “This isn’t real America,” he was more or less saying. “These people are too lean too hip looking, too well-dressed.”