Worst Best Picture: Is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Better or Worse Than Crash?

one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1975 winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it better than Crash?

The five major Oscars (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture) combined are called the “Big Five.” Only three movies have ever won all five: It Happened One NightThe Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Those three, if we’re still working from a thesis where the Academy knows everything, are in rarefied air. Gone with the Wind only got 4/5, because Clark Gable lost. Annie Hall managed the same 4/5, since Woody Allen is a lot of things, but Best Actor is not one of them.

That’s all some basic-level Oscar trivia, but I mention it because I want to point out how special this one is in film history. The Silence of the Lambs should make every top 20 list of Best Picture winners, regardless of era. It Happened One Night is certainly the best of the first few, and probably deserves inclusion in that same top 20. Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly a classic in its own right, but do we remember it the same way?

The tricky part about movies like this is that they’ve been redone to death. There’s no remake of Cuckoo’s Nest (insert “get-off-my-lawn” style rant about remakes in 2014) but the style and the tropes have been emulated so much that the movie will feel familiar even the first time you watch it. You need to come at Cuckoo’s Nest with as fresh a perspective as you can. Disregard everything you know about mental health. Throw out every mental hospital in a movie you’ve ever seen and forget who Jack Nicholson is today.

Jack plays Randle McMurphy, a mental patient who doesn’t actually have anything wrong with him. He realizes too late that his gamble of an insanity plea after being arrested is not the easy way out he expected. McMurphy intends to make the best of a bad situation, then, by either ruining the process for the staff in the hospital or being such of a pain in the ass that they decide to release him. These initially seem like good plans, as McMurphy is built as the kind of guy who can grease any wheel needed, be it with charm or with stubbornness.

He meets his match with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the archetype that’s been lifted most often for other things. She’s cold and terrifying, but her real power isn’t in how she controls the easily controllable, but in how she breaks the will of those who aren’t used to having their will broken. She effectively can control anyone they put in the hospital, and she represents a stronger antagonist than any gun-toting psychopath in a handful of the rest of these. Nurse Ratched is one of the iconic characters in film for a reason. Fletcher is icy, but not ridiculous. You’ll often see a character like this played so over the top that she’s less scary and more “menacing,” but that’s not what they’re going for here. She’s supposed to be a terrifying figure, sure, but the real fear is that she controls your freedom and she controls whether you even have the right to ask for it. AFI ranked her the #5 villain of all time — right behind Darth Vader and The Wicked Witch of the West — but she’s so much more than just a villain.

Both of them fight to control the hearts and minds of the rest of the ward, since majority rule at least appears to be important within their tiny world. McMurphy has to escalate his antics to get under her skin, while she has to exert more control to stamp out what he’s capable of. The beauty of the whole situation is that she doesn’t lock everyone down and rule by fear, she’s found a way to make the patients generate their own fear on their end. It’s troubling, and it’s a scary look into a process that is always a disaster, but was surely even more of one in the 70s.

The Best Part: McMurphy vs. Ratched is one of the all-time great psychological battles in film, and the best part is that they’re essentially working the same angles. Both of them have each other figured out, and they go to work on the other patients with the same tools of manipulation. It’s when Ratched really amps up that the movie starts to hum.

The Worst Part: I’ve never liked the scene where they steal a boat. Early on in his tenure, McMurphy engineers a temporary escape for the entire ward, and they all steal a boat for the day to go fishing. There’s an importance to this scene, because the patients have all told McMurphy that they don’t even want to return to the outside world, and the trip is his attempt to show them that they actually do. It’s funny as well, but it’s just too much for me. The tone of everything else seems much more “believable” than ten mental patients stealing a boat.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Crash won two of the “Big Five” Oscars, but did not win for directing or either acting award. Cuckoo’s Nest would probably still be a memorable adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel without Nicholson and Fletcher’s all-time performances, but with them it occupies a space very few other movies in history can. Even if you assume you know what it is, you should check it out. The specifics are impossible to explain, but I will say that there’s more in a blank stare from Louise Fletcher than there is in Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.


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