Helping to define the landscape of 1970s cinema, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from director Miloš Forman is undoubtedly one of the greatest films of the late 20th century, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher among an impressive ensemble cast of greats. Winning five Academy Awards in 1976 including Best Director, the coveted Best Picture and Best Actor awards for both Fletcher and Nicholson, Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s iconic novel remains a cinematic classic.
In the film, Nicholson stars as R.P. McMurphy, a criminal who pleads insanity and is admitted to a mental institution where he finds a more oppressive regime than he’d initially realised, led by the intimidating Nurse Ratched. Determined to break the inmates free of their tormentors, he rallies the eclectic cast of characters to fight against the system and seize back control, leading the likes of Danny DeVito’s Martini and William Sampson Jr’s Chief Bromden to liberation.
A fascinating exploration of state control vs individual freedom, Forman’s film would spark debate across the world thanks to its pioneering attitudes to mental health and such institutions. The film’s legacy has imprinted itself onto popular culture, with the character of Nurse Ratched appearing in the likes of Spaced, Futurama and even in her own origins TV series on Netflix. It was the iconic 1975 film that would spark such interest, a production that in and of itself swirled with media interest.
5 stories from behind the scenes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest:
Jack Nicholson and Milos Forman had a major falling out
Friction began to mount between Jack Nicholson and Milos Forman during the production, with both the actor and director expressing very clear creative intentions as to how the protagonist should be portrayed.
One day, Jack Nicholson appeared with a large bushy beard on set, thinking it would be appropriate for the character of R.P. McMurphy, but it’s fair to say that Forman didn’t agree. The pair disagreed to such an extent that they even refused to communicate with each other, asking questions through the film’s cinematographer, Bill Butler. Nicholson even refused to take part in the DVD’s bonus features created years after the film’s production.
The iconic fishing scene was a nightmare to film
In one of the most heartwarming and stressful moments of the film, Jack Nicholson’s character takes the ragtag bunch of patients out on a fishing trip, breaking them out of the institution in the name of freedom.
Though the scene is a marvel to behold, it was also a nightmare to film, with the entire cast (aside from Nicholson) getting seasick from filming and the whole sequence taking a full week to complete. It wasn’t even a scene that Forman was particularly fond of at all, with the director keen to keep the dramatic tension within the walls of the mental ward. Irrespective, the scene made the cut and remains one of the most memorable moments.
Sydney Lassick suffered a mental breakdown on set
Among the cast of supporting actors who play the patients in the film including Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick plays Cheswick, a character who experiences a psychological breakdown in one specific scene.
Though, this scene may have been more real than it appears with Lassick suffering a serious mental episode during the filming of the same scene. Cast and crew members had long been concerned about the actor’s erratic behaviour on set, though when this culminated in the film’s emotional breakdown between the McMurphy and Chief, Sydney Lassick had to eventually be physically removed from the set.
The author didn’t like the film at all
Released in 1962, author Ken Kesey wrote the original One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest novel from his own experiences volunteering at a mental health facility in California and was ultimately unhappy about the adaptation from Miloš Forman.
Displeased with many of the changes from the book, Kesey was particularly frustrated with the focus on McMurphy when the book centred more on the role of the Chief. As a result, Kesey sued the production wanting 5% of the film’s gross profits and $800,000 in damages with the author even claiming he has never seen the film in its entirety. The author eventually settled on a financial agreement.
Many of the scenes in the film were filmed without the actor’s knowledge
A truly impressive filmmaker, Miloš Forman is responsible for some of the greatest movies in all of cinema, including Loves of a Blonde, Amadeus, and of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Eager to make the film a realistic emotional immersion, Foreman often led his actors to complete unscripted, improvised group therapy sessions in which each performer would develop their character. This led to the director capturing footage of the actors during such sections without making them aware, before including these improvised moments in the film itself.