One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Order and Chaos in Society

Year: 1975

Run Time: 133 Minutes

Director: Milos Foreman

Writers: Lawrence Hauben (screenplay), Bo Goldman (screenplay), based on the book by Ken Kesey

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson

By Erica Richards 

A life goal of mine is to see all of the Oscar Best Picture Winners. It seems crazy, but many people have done it! Sometimes I get a weird reaction when I tell someone that, but others think it is an admirable goal for a true cinephile. The reality is, I am just an Oscars nut. I love it. I look forward to it every year. 

So, of course, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has been on my list for a while; it is one of only three films to have won the Big Five at the Oscars. For you non-Oscar fanatics out there, the Big Five is the coined term for a film that has won all of the five major awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay (original or adapted). “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is based on Ken Kesey’s famous novel from 1962 of the same name, of which I purchased at a used bookstore for $2 and still have yet to read. I’ll get around to that one day, too. All of this being said, there were super high expectations going into this first viewing. 

I am still trying to decide if my expectations were fully met, however, that is beside the point. The point is, this film reflects how the mentally ill are treated in regards to society. While the themes of the film are clear, there is still a lot of gray area otherwise. Just in the same way that mental health is not black and white, understanding the human mind and behaviors is also gray. The conflict felt by trying to understand the two main characters, Nurse Ratched portrayed by Louise Fletcher, and Randie McMurphy portrayed by Jack Nicholson is immense: who is good and who is evil?

Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

 Nurse Ratched’s (unfortunately pronounced “ratchet”) has an extremely distinct hairstyle that could be perceived as angel wings or devil horns depending on how you perceive her. The black coat and hat she wears to enter the ward every morning contrasts her crisp white, clean nurse uniform and calm demeanor. Through her patience and unwavering perseverance, it is believable that she truly desires to help these patients at the ward. This is an important friendly reminder that just because a woman has a strong presence does not automatically make her an evil bitch. Let societal perceptions go to the wayside.

McMurphy is clearly different from the other patients immediately upon his arrival at the ward. He exudes a rebel persona with a frat boy outlook. At first, he only cares about himself and how he can use his stay at the ward to benefit personally, rather than going to prison. Visually, his clothing is always different from the other patients, usually colorful and less uniformed than the white hospital scrubs the other patients wear. 

While the themes of the film are clear, there is still a lot of gray area otherwise. Just in the same way that mental health is not black and white, understanding the human mind and behaviors is also gray.”

Sometimes his clothing reflects his fraud, a bold colored shirt under his assigned white ward shirt he eventually does wear, posing as a patient to avoid prison. Let go of the preconceived notions of the bad boy, too, because McMurphy is just as easily misunderstood as Nurse Ratched. 

While yes, McMurphy is extremely self-centered and disruptive, he builds meaningful relationships with his ward buddies over time and seeks to truly make a difference in their lives. For any viewer, it is difficult to not fall for his charm. McMurphy desires for his new friends to have meaningful life experiences. But—not before he judges them in the same way society does, too.

Jack Nicholson and Lan Fendors in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Simply put: Nurse Ratched is order, McMurphy is chaos. 

The scene that purposefully yet subtly encompasses how society disregards those with mental health issues happens when McMurphy tries to convince Nurse Ratched to let the group watch the World Series. McMurphy knows the World Series will be on television and in his selfish intentions, he wants to watch the game. Nurse Ratched challenges him, and poses that if they want to change the carefully thought-out schedule there should be a vote, majority decides. She also attempts to explain to him that some of the men depend on the schedule and if it gets disrupted, it could cause an uneasy feeling.

In his natural response, McMurphy has no qualms about disrupting the order and normalcy of the schedule, nor the men it could affect, solely to fulfill his desire to watch the world series. The vote option is presented. In this first vote, only McMurphy and two others vote to watch the game—so, it’s a no-go. McMurphy verbally bashes the men with phrases like, “come on, be a good American,” as if it is a duty to society to watch the World Series.

Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, and Delos V. Smith Jr. in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

“While yes, McMurphy is extremely self-centered and disruptive, he builds meaningful relationships with his ward buddies over time and seeks to truly make a difference in their lives. For any viewer, it is difficult to not fall for his charm.”

Nurse Ratched, clearly satisfied with her victory, she offers a triumphant smirk at the defeated McMurphy as she explains the obvious to him that three votes are not enough to change ward policy. McMurphy assumed a group of men would be on the same page about the importance of access to sports in their life, and the camera reflects the realization of his foiled plan, slowly zooming in as the disappointment grows.

The next day, a second vote on the World Series goes differently. McMurphy thinks he has outsmarted Nurse Ratched as the camera follows this change, panning across the semi-circle where all the seated men raise their hands in McMurphy’s favor—or so he thinks. She is confident in her response of “only nine votes” and McMurphy laughs at her because he considers this to be the entire group. Nurse Ratched reminds him that there are more men in the group, those not seated in the semi-circle, who rather find themselves in the background of the room are just as much a member of the voting body.

Jack Nicholson and Will Sampson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Their placement in the scene as well as in society is forgotten by most, but not to Nurse Ratched. Nurse Ratched considers all of the men as equals in the ward. Whether they are nonverbal, elder, handicapped, they are still people who should be considered. McMurphy displays his disapproval because he believes these individuals are useless, they have no ability to comprehend what the semi-circle group of nine is discussing. Therefore, they should not be involved in his plan because they ruin his desired outcome. This is a reflection on how society treats individuals with mental and physical illnesses: they do not matter.

“The biggest lesson “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” teaches us is that there is not always one way to treat those with mental health issues. We, as a society, must try our best every day to approach people in the way that is best for them.”

Nurse Ratched and McMurphy are opposites who believe their process is what is best for everyone at the ward. Who is correct, according to society? The biggest lesson “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” teaches us is that there is not always one way to treat those with mental health issues. We, as a society, must try our best every day to approach people in the way that is best for them and with the best intentions and offering understanding and inclusion.

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