Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the silver screen. There’s no question about it. He’s done so much great work for so long it’s sometimes hard to believe one actor could be that impressive so frequently.
So what was his greatest role of his legendary career?
You could argue J.J. Gittes in Chinatown or Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men. Solid stuff. But for my money it’s Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
R.P. “Mac” McMurphy is belligerent, resentful and lazy. But he’s not mentally ill.
And when he faked mental illness to be moved from a prison work camp to a mental institution he expected to serve the rest of his time in comparative comfort and luxury. He was mistaken.
Waiting for him at the hospital is the quiet but resolute Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher). I must admit I have always thought her name was Nurse Ratchet. I’d even seen this movie before years ago but I never paid attention to her name tag. Miss Ratched. Not Miss Ratchet.
Randle exudes confidence. Sometimes it’s nothing more than bravado but it makes the other patients more confident. It gives them an incentive to try to stand up for themselves.
The quintessential McMurphy moment comes after claiming (and failing) to be able to lift a heavy control panel in the tub room. He tells the men, “But at least I tried.”
Ratched runs a tight ship. She controls the patients on her ward through routine and passive-aggressive group therapy.
Thus begins a battle of wills between McMurphy and Ratched. It’s a chess match and the pieces on the board are the other patients on her ward.
Billy Bibbit, Cheswick, Martini, Harding, Taber, Sefelt and the “Chief.”
The two go back and forth.
McMurphy runs a secret card game with cigarette stakes.
Ratched confiscates all their cigarettes.
McMurphy steals a bus and takes the patients on a fishing trip.
Ratched refuses to let them watch the World Series.
McMurphy pretends he’s watching the game on the television anyway inciting the other patients into a rooting frenzy.
There’s no love lost between the two and in the end only one can come out on top.
There is something so mesmerizing about this film. It starts with the unstoppable Jack Nicholson. He’s absolutely spectacular. But it doesn’t stop with Jack. The ward is a character actor paradise.
Sydney Lassick as Cheswick
Christopher Lloyd as Taber
Danny DeVito as Martini
A few years later those last two would go on to work together on some little TV show.
William Duell as Sefelt and William Redfield as Harding are also excellent.
In a less crowded film just about any one of them would have been up for best supporting actor, especially Lassick. But it was Brad Dourif who was singled out for his performance as stuttering patient Billy Bibbit. He was great but Lassick was the standout in my opinion.
The pacing of the film is so riveting. Some of the subject matter is heavy but other moments are more lighthearted. It ebbs and flows between the two so naturally I was perpetually engaged. Marvelous film.
It was a big hit at the box office, #2* that year behind mega-blockbuster Jaws.
Not only was it commercially successful but on Oscar night it won best picture and became only the 2nd film ever to sweep the Big Five.
- Picture – Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz (producers)
- Director – Miloš Forman
- Actor – Jack Nicholson
- Actress – Louise Fletcher
- Screenplay – Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman
The first film to accomplish this feat was It Happened One Night (1934). But as great as this film is, it kinda lucked into the Big Five sweep.
Louise Fletcher is excellent in this role. But when you watch the film you don’t think “best actress winner.” Nominee? Sure. Winner? Well…
So why did she win the Oscar? The answer is actually quite simple. She deserved it.
It was a weak year in the best actress race. Fletcher’s competition consisted of…
- Isabelle Adjani (The Story of Adele H.)
- Ann-Margret (Tommy)
- Glenda Jackson (Hedda)
- Carol Kane (Hester Street)
It wasn’t exactly Bette Davis vs. Greer Garson.
The category suffered from it not being a terribly strong year for actresses across the board. I searched high and low but couldn’t find any actresses who were obvious snubs that year. So, here’s the lesson kids. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
For those keeping score at home the 48th Academy Awards marked Al Pacino’s 4th consecutive year being nominated. He is one of only two actors to ever achieve that feat. The other is his Godfather co-star Brando who was nominated each year from 1951-54. However, Brando took home an Oscar during that stretch (On the Waterfront). Pacino’s remarkable streak ended without any wins.
*When it was first released The Rocky Horror Picture Show was largely ignored by the public. But due to its strong cult following, over the decades since its box office total has surpassed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.