One flew over the cuckoo’s nest is based on a Broadway play, which is based on the same titled book. The story about making this film starts 12 years before it was shot, in 1963 when Kirk Douglas was starring at the Broadway play. Douglas bought the film rights and intended to also star in the film. While touring in Eastern European countries on behalf of the state department, he met Milos Forman who he found ideal to direct the film. He gained Forman’s attention to the project and promised to send him the book, once returning to the States, which he did. But the director never received the novel. Ten years passed and the two men met again. Meanwhile, Forman had become famous worldwide with films such as “Black Peter”, “Loves of a Blonde” and “The Firemen’s Ball” and Douglas had continued his efforts to produce the film, but with no luck. As Douglas was no longer young enough to play the part, in 1971 he turned over the project to his eldest son, Michael. Without Michael knowing that his father had shown interest to Milos Forman directing the film, he later on approached him to take over the job. So, the project was back on and one of the greatest American films went into production.
Apart from Nicholson, who had already made a name in Hollywood and had already gained an Academy Award nomination and William Redfield who had already an active career, most of the cast are actors first appearing on the screen. Also, many of the extras are actual mental patients. In this film, we get to see Danny DeVito in his first major feature role, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif in their first ever feature roles. Louise Fletcher might have had a series of roles before this film, but it was One flew over the cuckoo’s nest that built her career.
The film follows the admittance of R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a small time criminal to a mental institution, and his influence to the patients’ daily life, as well as the relationship with the oppressive head nurse (Louise Fletcher).
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest deals with issues such as mental health, the health system, power and authority and human relationships. The actors’ magnificent performances and the director’s focus on detail make this film a historical treasure worthy of being studied in film schools.
Things were not so great though during shooting. Legend has it that Nicholson and Forman had completely opposite opinions on how the narrative should play out and during production, they spoke to each other through the cinematographer, but faked a friendly relationship when the media and studio personnel would show up to the set.
Author Ken Kesey was so bitter about the way the filmmakers were "butchering" his story that he vowed never to watch the completed film and even sued the movie's producers because it wasn't shown from Chief Bromden's perspective (as the novel is). Years later, he claimed to be lying in bed flipping through TV channels when he settled onto a late-night movie that looked sort of interesting, only to realize after a few minutes that it was this film. He then changed channels.
The film won 5 Academy Awards in all 5 major categories: Best Film, Best Direction, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adopted Screenplay. It broke a record that Capra’s film “It Happened one night” was holding since 1934. It also received 6 Golden Globes, 6 BAFTAs and another 13 awards.
Next week we will look into a film by one of the greatest directors: Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966)
Sources: IMDb, Universal (DVD extras) & HerDudeness-pedia