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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Special Edition

Warner Brothers Home Video

Starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher

Written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman
From the novel by Ken Kesey

Directed by Milos Forman

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                   

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is not only one of the best films of the 1970s — winning the top five Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay) back in the day when those little golden bookends meant something — it is one of the most socially significant movies yet made about the late-20th century counterculture movement.

Based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, Milos Forman's 1975 film stars Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, an erratic and violent, but fully functioning, sociopath who is transferred from a prison work detail to the Oregon State Mental Hospital for evaluation of his behavioral health. In the ward, McMurphy's confidence and charisma immediately enchant his timid and unstable fellow patients, but his careless nonconformism also butts him up against the iron will of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who rigidly controls the happenings in her wing and doesn't take to challenges of her authority.

While McMurphy is often romanticized as a hero of the free spirit, neither Kesey's story nor Forman's film shy away from the character's darker edges, painting a complete picture of the complex paradoxes tearing at the 1960s youth movements. While the cruel severity of Ratched's stern villainy often obscures McMurphy's serious character flaws, making him seem, by contrast, like a liberating angel, he is really a selfish, reckless and dangerous criminal rogue, incapable of operating within a society without causing damage and chaos at every turn.

Nevertheless, within Ratched's totalitarian system, McMurphy's rule-breaking is a tonic for the other inmates. It's important, however, that many them are self-imprisoned, voluntarily in the hospital, hiding from the outer world because they lack the very bold qualities that, unrestrained, have resulted in McMurphy's incarceration. Ratched's dominating approach is not aimed at healing her patients, but rather at controlling them through routine, and the central power struggle between her and McMurphy has little to do with their welfare and takes a heartbreaking toll on the most fragile caught between the two irreconcilable extremes.

Nicholson is in peak form, never offering a better display of his versatile, vulgar charms, and Fletcher also does well not to overplay Ratched's unflinching command. Fleshing out Forman's vivid and realistic film is an excellent supporting cast of previously unknown performers filling the hospital's cots, including Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and, most affecting, Brad Dourif, whose terrific performance is so indelible it doomed him to a career typecast as a nutcase. Taking on the pivotal part of Chief Bromden, Will Sampson — a former forest ranger and accomplished artist — continued acting to tackle such worthy roles in other films as Indian at Trading, Indian Chief, and Harlon Two Leaf.

*          *          *

Warner's two-disc release of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — replacing their earlier one-disc version — offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from an almost-flawless source-print and terrific remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital audio on Disc One. Forman is joined by producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas for a thoughtful commentary track, and all three also contribute to the disc's wonderful 48-minute documentary The Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest on Disc Two. Although many of the same stories are related in each feature, all of the contributors are eloquent and affectionate, making the extra features in this set rare examples of value-adding DVD content. Also appearing in the documentary are screenwriter Bo Goldman, Fletcher, DeVito, Schiavelli, Dourif, and Lloyd, along with more cast and crew. Conspicuous by his absence is Nicholson, who has appeared on previous commentaries for the mediocre likes of As Good As It Gets, and it is disappointing not to be exposed to his undoubtedly colorful recollections on this experience.

Disc Two also includes a trailer and eight brief, scratchy deleted scenes that are little more than outtakes from early in the film, including more interaction between the hospital's orderly staff and the patients and some improvisation from Nicholson.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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