ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST - Blu-ray review

...a terrific piece of moviemaking--thoughtful, poignant, funny, and uplifting.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"One flew East, one flew West,
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest."

"Five Easy Pieces," "Carnal Knowledge," "The Last Detail," and "Chinatown" had already made Jack Nicholson a star. "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" made him a superstar. Now, to do further justice to a genuine classic, Warner Bros. make the movie available in a new, high-definition Blu-ray box set they call the "Ultimate Collector's Edition." While the picture and sound qualities appear to be the same as in the previous Blu-ray Book edition, at least we can be thankful for the additional bonus items the studio now offers in the new set.

The easy interpretation of Ken Kesey's popular 1962 counterculture novel, upon which producers later based the stage play and the Oscar-winning movie, is to say that only crazies are able to see the world clearly. However, the book's protagonist, Randall Patrick McMurphy, is not crazy. Like Paul Newman's "Cool Hand Luke," McMurphy is an emblem of determined individualism in a world of conformity, a symbol of people's capacity to overcome odds and accomplish whatever goals they set for themselves no matter what the circumstances. McMurphy shows people how to stand up for themselves and be themselves, and the story in its various guises has been an inspiration for several generations of dedicated fans.

Michael Douglas brought "Cuckoo's Nest" to the screen in 1975 after a long and inexplicably arduous battle to get it made. Douglas's father, Kirk, obtained the rights to the novel in the early 1960's and starred in a stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman, but the actor could never get a studio interested in producing it. His son took over trying to get it to the screen in the early 1970's, finally succeeding (by which time his father had grown too old, or too obstreperous, for the main role). Even given that Wasserman's play was altered considerably by Douglas and that the eventual screenplay gutted Kesey's novel of its point of view, changing it from Chief Bromden's to McMurphy's, the movie's history is remarkably saddening when you consider the sheer quantity of junk that finds its way into motion-picture theaters every year. I mean, Kesey's story should have been a natural for the rebellious nature of young moviegoers in the 60's and early 70's, but Hollywood must have thought a nuthouse setting was too far outside the norm for its mainstream audiences. It makes you wonder if Hollywood itself isn't being run by the inmates of the asylum.

Anyway, the younger Douglas found his financing in Saul Zaentz, the head of Fantasy Records in Berkeley, CA. Together, Douglas and Zaentz spotted their director in Milos Forman, the Czechoslovakian filmmaker whose "Fireman's Ball" caught their attention for its sharp-edged humor. Zaentz and Forman would collaborate again on "Amadeus" a few years later and share their second Academy Award for Best Picture.

The main character in "Cuckoo's Nest" is R.P. McMurphy, a boisterous, at first a self-absorbed roustabout serving time for antisocial behavior, fighting, and statutory rape. But it occurs to McMurphy that he might be able to get out of doing hard labor by pretending to be crazy and being sent to a relatively cushy mental institution for "observation and evaluation." The movie, set in 1963, begins with his admittance to the hospital and moves on through his experiences with the patients there and his eventual endeavors to get them to help themselves.

His nemesis at the hospital is the hard-nosed, self-assured Nurse Mildred Ratched. She's the authority figure, more important than the head of the institution because she directly controls the conduct and activity of the patients on her floor. And that includes McMurphy, who finds her exacting regime demeaning, depriving the men on her ward of their very souls. The plot becomes a battle of wills between the tyrannical Big Nurse and the free-spirited McMurphy, with McMurphy betting the other patients that he can eventually get under her skin and make her lose her cool.

From the outset the filmmakers agreed they wanted only the best possible actors for the movie's characters, rather than big-name stars. Director Forman says on the disc's accompanying documentary that he always wanted Jack Nicholson for the character of McMurphy, the actor having impressed him after he saw his energetic performance in "The Last Detail." The filmmakers also discussed the possibility of Gene Hackman as McMurphy, Hackman having recently made an impression in "The French Connection." In any case, Nicholson, initially unavailable, got the job, and he proved the perfect combination of extroverted rabble rouser, con artist, and sympathetic motivator the movie needed. Likewise, the filmmakers made an inspired decision to use Louise Fletcher as the frigid Nurse Ratched. Like Nicholson, she was not the only choice for the part, but she brings to the role an icy calm that makes her presence all the more threatening and her evil all the more insidious.

Also from the beginning director Forman wanted actors who looked as distinctly different from one another as possible. He has said he doesn't like to watch movies where an actor enters the story, goes away for a while, and when he returns you've forgotten who he is. Consequently, for supporting roles Forman chose relatively unknown actors with unusual physical makeups, most of whom we now know well. There's Danny DeVito as Martini, Sydney Lassick as Cheswick, Christopher Lloyd as Taber, Vincent Schiavelli as Fredrickson, and in pivotal roles William Redfield as Harding and Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit. Finally, Scatman Crothers plays the night orderly, Turkle, and Will Sampson plays the huge Native American, Chief Bromden. In the novel, the Chief narrated the story, but the movie relegates him to a lesser job, that of trusted friend to McMurphy, a change that infuriated the book's author, Ken Kesey.

For the sake of authenticity, the filmmakers chose to shoot the entire movie on location in a real mental institution, the Oregon State Hospital being the only one they could find that would allow them the privilege. For an added note of authenticity, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, the head of the real hospital, plays Dr. John Spivey, the head of the fictional one. Furthermore, the filmmakers insisted that all the actors spend as much time as possible with the real patients at the institution, and that they try to remain in character even away from the camera. Obviously, the hard work and dedication paid off.

The book, the play, and the movie have all been accused over the years of misogyny, a hatred of or disrespect for women, which seems a little unfair. The story focuses on a group of men living together under trying circumstances, so we might expect for all practical purposes that they would often refer to women as sexual objects. And most films center on a male as the bad guy, so it only seems fair that an occasional film like this one use a female as the antagonist. Besides, there are still more female nurses in the world, and symbolically the female authority figure is a convenient representation of the matriarch against whom the boys rebel.

Critics have also denounced the story for portraying a drunken libertine, McMurphy, as a hero and portraying a woman doing her job, Nurse Ratched, as a villain. But Kesey never intended McMurphy to be a hero; he's an antihero in the best possible sense, just as Nurse Ratched is no ordinary heavy. McMurphy can't help himself, whether acting selfishly or selflessly, because he's basically a good man with bad faults. Likewise, the cold-blooded Nurse Ratched is a good woman who believes firmly that what she's doing is in her patients' best interest, oblivious to their real needs, something like the totalitarian societies she symbolizes. She would never admit to the evil lying within her icy self.

Among the highlights of the film, look for sequences involving the World Series, a fishing trip, a basketball game, electroshock therapy, a climactic Christmas party, and a heart-wrenching finale, all tied together by Jack Nitzsche's haunting musical score. "Cuckoo's Nest" is a terrific piece of moviemaking--thoughtful, poignant, funny, and uplifting.

Video:
In this new Ultimate Collector's Edition, Warner Bros. offer the movie on a dual-layer BD50 rather than a BD25 as they did for the earlier Blu-ray Book edition, again using a VC-1, 1080p transfer taken from a digital master created from restored elements. However, the actual video encode appears to be the same, WB using the extra space on the BD50 for additional bonus documentaries.

Anyway, you'll find no lines, scratches, or age marks here. Yet, despite this, given that director Foreman filmed entirely on location and went for as realistic a style as he could get, the WB video engineers probably didn't have the absolute best video with which to work. For the high-definition Blu-ray transfer the video engineers seem to have tried to mitigate the film's slightly grainy appearance, and in the process they may have softened the picture a little too much. In comparing the BD image a few years ago with an upscaled image from WB's latest DVD mastering, I found that in scene after scene, I had difficulty telling many of them apart. In medium and long shots, the Blu-ray had a distinct advantage in clarity and object delineation, but in facial close-ups, the grainier standard-def picture appeared to have as much or more detail, the BD being a bit smoothed over.

What we get on the Blu-ray disc, then, is a picture quality that varies from crystal clear and razor sharp to somewhat soft and blurred, almost from shot to shot. Fortunately, colors remain fairly natural, and there is nothing that cries out as desperately bad. Still, as I say, the source material may not have always been the best, even cleaned up.

Audio:
Now here's the thing about the audio: Even though Warner Bros. now offer a bigger slate of language choices, they still give us only a regular, lossy, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the disc. I have no idea why they chose to release an "Ultimate Edition" and not provide lossless DTS-HD Master Audio or Dolby TrueHD sound. Maybe because the soundtrack has little to do, being about ninety-five percent dialogue, WB figured it was pointless to offer it in a lossless format. Film studios move in mysterious ways.

In any case, the Dolby Digital 5.1 continues to deliver a reasonably decent sound, widely dispersed in the front channels, with good transient impact. Note, however, that the filmmakers shot almost entirely on location, and just as the video sometimes differs in quality, so can the sonics differ from scene to scene, the indoor audio often sounding constricted, nasal, pinched, and even muffled, revealing the aural limitations of the actual hospital rooms used throughout the production. Whenever the musical track kicks in, the stereo spread increases dramatically and the sound stage opens up, but there is still never much information directed toward the rear speakers except in the isolated case of a helicopter fly-by.

Extras:
For this "Ultimate Collector's Edition" Blu-ray box set, Warners carry over many of the extras from their earlier Two-Disc Special Edition DVD and Blu-ray Book sets, and they add a ton of peripheral items to the mix. First, on the disc itself, there's an excellent audio commentary by director Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. Next, there's an eighty-seven-minute documentary, "Completely Cuckoo," that includes interviews with almost everybody associated with the making of the film. (The Blu-ray Book contains only an abbreviated version.) Then, there is another, briefer documentary, "Asylum: Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill," that includes recent interviews with Dr. Dean Brooks, the real-life hospital administrator who played the head of the institution in the movie, and Michael Douglas, who co-produced the film. After that, there are eight additional, deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.

The extras on the disc conclude with thirty-three scene selections; English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, Turkish, and other spoken languages; French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and other subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.

In addition to the Blu-ray disc, the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" box contains a fifty-two page commemorative hardbound book, filled with pictures and text; a reproduction of the original press book; a deck of playing cards with McMurphy's picture on the back and characters from the film on the face (if you were hoping for the girlie cards McMurphy used in the movie, no such luck); four small reproductions of original theatrical posters; and a whole collection of photo cards.

Lastly, for those of you with limited shelf space wondering if you have to make room for the big box, the disc itself comes in its own foldout cardboard container, a kind of Digipak, that you can place on your shelf if you haven't room for the box.

Parting Thoughts:
For a motion picture that no studio wanted to produce, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" did all right for itself. Not only did it become one of the top box-office attractions of 1975, it swept all five of the most important Oscars of the year, winning for Best Picture, Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher), Best Director (Forman), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman). Finally getting the film made was as much a triumph over adversity as McMurphy's selfless final decision in the story. It's an all-around great show, and for the ultimate collector, the "Ultimate Collector's Edition" ain't a bad deal, either.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
10
Film Value
10