"One of the criteria of casting was that we couldn't afford to have a prick in the company," said director Milos Forman on the making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. (Jack Nicholson, we can only assume, hadn't achieved official prickdom at that point in his career.)
The 1975 Academy Awards recognized Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel with its top five Oscars--best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor (Nicholson), and best actress (Louise Fletcher)--at a time when young, innovative filmmakers with low budgets were changing the face of the industry. According to some critics, this collapse of studio-driven tradition in the late '60s and '70s under the true-to-life longings of a new school of writer-directors (Scorsese, Coppola, et al.) marked the last great phase of American cinema, and Nest is a razor-sharp, still-glowing ruby in that dusty crown. Unlike the dated rebellion of Easy Rider or the arch paranoia of Network, Nest has withstood years of scrutiny with all its abrasive, hilarious, touching integrity intact.
In conjunction with The McKinney Avenue Contemporary's member exhibition Madness at the MAC, the multi-media art space will screen One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on Wednesday, August 5. Dallas can always use new venues for art-house and repertory films--the MAC, with its ongoing identity crisis, included. (Later this month it continues the theme with the plodding, Sting-starring psychodrama Brimstone and Treacle.)
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The trite way to describe Nest could be, as in the MAC's press release, that "this film explores the quality of life in mental institutions." As if it's a Nova documentary on Sunday-afternoon public television. Another way to describe it is: Nicholson, as low-rent thug Randle McMurphy, looking for a little R&R, scams his way into a supposedly comfy asylum, only to find himself surrounded by scared-silly patients, a tyrannical nurse, and perverse house rules that secure an existence that's anything but sane. He goes on to become a quasi-savior to the other patients (a superb cast including Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, and Christopher Lloyd) and gets burned in the process of finding his nobler self. It marks the apex of Nicholson's career (preceded by such gems as Chinatown and Carnal Knowledge, and followed by his growing penchant for scenery-chewing in The Missouri Breaks and The Shining).
Forman, conversely, has maintained his fascination with the questionable redemption of even more questionable individuals, but Nest remains his most subtle yet powerful victory.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest shows at the MAC Wednesday, August 5, at 7:30 p.m. General admission is $5; $3 for MAC members. For info, call (214) 953-1212.