Oscar: Best Picture–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Milos Forman’s quintessential feature, which swept the Oscars in 1975, is required viewing for fans of star Jack Nicholson, here at his very best, as well as for spectators interested in the New American Cinema of the 1970s.

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.

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.

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


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.”