One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975): Milos Forman’s Best Picture Oscar, Starring Jack Nicholson in Iconic Oscar Role

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

United Artists

Hollywood has usually been careful in treating mental problems onscreen for fear of alienating a large segment of its potential movie patrons. However, one such movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the 1975 Oscar winner, was so popular that it even shocked its producers, Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas, better known as actor.

Please read our review of Milos Forman’s second Best Picture Oscar, Amadeus.

Oscar: Amadeus (1984)–Milos Forman’s Second Best Picture Winner


Preceding the Vietnam War era, though associated with its, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name was first adapted to the stage, and the play is still done in repertory.

Though as directed by Milos Forman, the whole movie was well received by critics, it was Jack Nicholson’s flamboyant performance as Randle Patrick McMurphy, a free-spirited, anti-establishment hero, which made the difference.

Initially, the role was intended for Michael’s father, Kirk Douglas, who had acuired the rights to Wasserman’s play (based on the novel), which had huge success on Broadway.  However, by the time the film was made, Douglas pere was 60 and thus too old to play the part of the rebellious, anti-establishment guy.  In contrast, at the prime of his career, Nicholson was 37 when he made the picture.

The film’s conflict between individualistic, or nonconformist, behavior (represented by Nicholson’s) and the repressive established society, represented by Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), head of the mental ward, was embraced by younger audiences as a timely, relevant, and entertaining in the immediate post-Vietnam era.

The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby singled out the serio-comedic scenes, which he thought were the best in the film, and the fact that director Forman didn’t patronize the patients as freaks but presented them as variations of “ourselves,” as ordinary human beings.

Detailed Plot

Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy (Nicholson) is a recidivist anti-authoritarian serving a short sentence on a prison farm in Oregon for statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. He is transferred to an asylum for evaluation, though he does not show any signs of mental illness.  He hopes to avoid hard labor and serve the rest of his sentence in a more relaxed place.

McMurphy’s ward is run by the rigid Nurse Mildred Ratched (Fletcher), who uses humiliation, harsh medical treatments and strict routines to suppress (and oppress) her patients. McMurphy realizes that they are more fearful of Ratched than interested in living a normal life in the outside world.

McMurphy establishes himself as the leader of a clique that includes Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a insecure young man; Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), a temperamental childish man; Martini (Danny DeVito), a delusional; Dale Harding (William Redfield), high-strung paranoid; Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd), belligerent and profane; Jim Sefelt (William Duell), epileptic; and “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), asilent Native American pretending to be deaf and mute.

The story unfolds as a brutal battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched. When McMurphy’s card games win away cigarettes, Ratched confiscates them and rations them out, motivating McMurphy to call for votes on ward policy changes. He makes a bet that he can escape by lifting a massive marble plumbing fixture off the floor and throw it off; when he fails, he states firmly, ” I tried goddammit. At least I did that.”

McMurphy herds his colleagues aboard a bus, stops to pick up Candy (Marya Small), a party girl, and takes the group sea fishing on a boat.  When he tells them: “You’re not nuts, you’re fishermen!” they begin to feel a sense of worth and determination.

McMurphy learns that Ratched and the doctors have the power to keep him committed in the institution.  During a therapy session, Cheswick’s agitation boils over and he, McMurphy and the Chief begin a brawl. They are sent up to the “shock shop” for electro-convulsive therapy. While McMurphy and the Chief wait their turn, McMurphy offers Chief a piece of gum, and Chief murmurs “Thank you…Ah, Juicy Fruit.” McMurphy is delighted to find that Chief is neither deaf nor mute–he stays silent to deflect attention.

After the electroshock therapy, McMurphy shuffles back onto the ward feigning brain damage, before animating his face and greeting the other patients–he claims the ECT charged him up even more and that the next woman to take him on will light up like “a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars.”

The struggle with Ratched is taking its toll, and McMurphy plans an escape. He asks Candy to bring her friend Rose (Louisa Moritz) and some booze to the hospital, and then invites the patients into the day room for a party; the group breaks into the drug locker, puts on music, and throws a rampage. At the end of the night, McMurphy and Bromden prepare to climb out the window with the girls. McMurphy says goodbye, and invites Billy to escape with them, but the latter declines, saying he is not yet ready to leave. McMurphy then insists that Billy have sex with Candy, and the couple retire into a private room.

Ratched arrives the next morning to discover the ward upended and the patients passed out over the floor. When Billy and Candy are found, the other patients applaud and Billy speaks for the first time without a stutter. Ratched threatens to tell Billy’s mother about his misconduct, and Billy, in total panic, locks himself in the office and commits suicide. Enraged at Ratched, McMurphy chokes her nearly to death.

Ratched, recovering from the injury, wears a neck brace and speaks in a thin voice. The patients gossip about McMurphy’s escape from the hospital, not realizing he had been taken “upstairs.” Bromden sees McMurphy escorted back to his bed, and believes they can now escape together–McMurphy has made him feel “as big as a mountain.” However, he is horrified to see McMurphy’s unresponsive face and lobotomy scars. Unwilling to allow McMurphy to pathetically, the Chief smothers McMurphy to death with a pillow.  He then carries out McMurphy’s plan by lifting the hydrotherapy console off the floor, hurls the massive fixture through the window, and escapes into the horizon.

Like “It Happened One Night,” in 1934, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” won all five major Oscars: Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress. It also became the most widely-seen problem film, grossing over $50 million at the box office, ranking second only to Spielberg’s action thriller “Jaws,” which was also Oscar-nominated, among the year’s blockbusters.


Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson)

Nurse Mildred ratched (Louise Fletcher)

Harding (William Redfield)

Ellis (Michael Berryman)

Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif)

Col. Matterson (Peter Brocco)

Dr. John Spivey (Dean R. Brooks)

Miller (Alonzo Brown)

Turkle (Scatman Crothers)

Warren (Mwako Cummbuka)

Oscar Nominations: 9

Picture, produced by Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas

Director: Milos Forman

Screenplay (Adapted): Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman

Actor: Jack Nicholson

Actress: Louise Fletcher

Supporting Actor: Brad Douriff

Cinematography: Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler

Film Editing: Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman, and Sheldon Kahn

Original Score: Jack Nitzche

Oscar Awards: 5

Picture Director Screenplay Actor Actress

Oscar Context:

In 1975, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” the most nominated (9) film, swept most of the important awards, including Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress. It was the second film in the Academy’s history, after Capra’s comedy “It Happened One Night,” in 1934, to achieve that.

The Best Picture competition in 1975 was rather strong. “One Flew” competed with Kubrick’s masterful adaptation, “Barry Lyndon”; Sidney Lumet’s excellent New York streets drama “Dog Day Afternoon;” Spielberg’s first blockbuster that was also extremely well-acted “Jaws”; and Robert Altman’s cynical epic Americana “Nashville,” considered by many critics to be his best work, which won only one Oscar (for Best Song). The technical Oscars were split between “Barry Lyndon” and “Jaws.”