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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman

If ever there was a role in American fiction suited perfectly for Jack Nicholson, then R. P. McMurphy would be the ideal choice. In fact, I would say that Nicholson's work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the greatest film performance of all time. There are many films where actors become their roles. Robert Downey, Jr. in Tropic Thunder, Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and There Will Be Blood, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, or Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables - but Jack Nicholson doesn't just become McMurphy, but rather, he creates him.

I read Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in high school, actually after falling in love with the film. I cannot imagine anyone else playing McMurphy other than Jack Nicholson. I just can't. In Kesey's novel, when McMurphy said this, or McMurphy said that, I always pictured Jack Nicholson's voice, followed by that energetic laugh and eccentric facial expression.

Apart from Jack Nicholson's performance, Louise Fletcher offers up a stern performance as Nurse Ratched. She doesn't do nearly as good a job as Nicholson, but she is certainly the follow-up of talent in the cast. But that's not to say that the other actors fall flat. The rest of the cast consists of Michael Berryman, Scatman Crothers, Mwako Cumbuka, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, Louisa Mortiz, Will Sampson, Vincent Schiavelli, Mews Small, and Brad Dourif, all of which, however minor their roles, do exceptionally well - especially Lassick and Dourif.

The book is largely different from the film in terms of chronology. Many of the characters in the film play different parts in the book. For instance, a minor character in the film is a main character in the novel, and one relatively important character in the book meets a disturbing demise, which is absent from Forman's movie. But the soul and spirit of Kesey's work is present, which in all honesty, is really the only thing that matters, similar to - I can't believe I'm making this comparison - The Lord of the Rings series; the books were, in some parts, very different, while Jackson was able to recognize and establish the core values of Tolkien's work into the films.

For years, I found the ending of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to be the greatest in film history. While it since has been relocated to the second slot on my list - Whiplash has since taken the top spot - Forman's ability to deliver such an incredibly powerful finale without restoring to sentimentality, but rather pure and honest heartbreak, deeply moves me, though Forman arguably uses melodrama in some areas to further the plot.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is, without a doubt, one of the finest films ever made. Milos Forman has crafted both a faithful and unfaithful adaptation to Ken Kesey's book - perhaps it sits somewhere in the center - but to me it's a rare example of a movie triumphing over its source material that can stand on its own two feet. I revisit One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest every once in a while and I continue to be swept up by its timeless values, its tale of personal gain, loss, oppression and freedom, and its ability to quietly push the boundaries of what it means to win a showdown.