WARNING: Spoilers ahead with no spoiler-text. Proceed at your own peril.
Yesterday I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time in quite some time. It’s a great adaptation of a great book; it’s well-written and well-directed and every single actor nails every single note; and it’s fun to see so many recognizable (at least to me) faces–Nicholson obviously, but also Danny DeVito, Vincent Schiavelli, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, even Angelica Huston for a few seconds–back when those faces were younger. And every time I watch it, I do so with joy in my heart knowing that it’s the favorite movie of one of my two favorite football players of all time, Jim McMahon.
I turned the movie on with the intention of killing 15 or 30 minutes before heading out. But when I got to McMurphy’s first meeting with Dr. Spivey–just after we’ve been introduced to the inmates and Nurse Ratched–something clicked. I had to watch the whole thing straight through with this new perspective. And when the movie was over, I thought that perhaps I was finally old, or too ornery, or that my heart had shrunk three sizes too small.
What clicked was how stupid it was of the hospital administration to accept McMurphy, who was quite transparently feigning mental illness, instead of sending him right back to prison. Normally, you watch the movie and understand from the very beginning that McMurphy is pulling a fast one (or at least trying to). Normally, you accept it, just as the doctors seem to accept it, and settle in to enjoy his antics and cheer him on as he rages against the system. But this time, I figured that if the doctors had made a mistake by admitting McMurphy, then that might mean he was… the bad guy.
So I watched the movie under the assumption that McMurphy–not Ratched–was the villain. And lo and behold, I no longer saw him as the free spirit who was trying to have a good time and enrich the lives of those around him. I saw him the way Ratched did: disruptive, maybe even a bit sociopathic. Watch McMurphy through a critical lens and you start to focus on all the harm he causes: the deception that got him into the mental institution; the possibility that he took up the spot of somebody who genuinely needed mental help; the openly deliberate attempt to aggravate Nurse Ratched; the agitation of the real patients; the young nurse he scares nearly to death; the broken glass during the cigarette scene; the thinly-veiled racism and the not-at-all-veiled sexism; the stolen bus; the stolen boat; the fact that the doctors and orderlies had no idea where their patients were during the fishing trip; the fact that the cops and the Coast Guard had to spend their time looking for McMurphy and the patients; the fact that McMurphy managed to get his sentence extended; and, of course, the party that trashed the ward, cost a few people their jobs, cost Billy his life, and ultimately cost McMurphy his mind and his own life. Oh yeah, and since McMurphy inspired Bromden’s escape, we can tack on the cost of a marble plumbing fixture being torn out of the floor and thrown through a window, plus the cost of a manhunt for a schizophrenic giant.
And after surveying all the misery McMurphy caused, I had to wonder whether it was worth a few moments of fun. At the end of the movie, I actually felt great sympathy for Nurse Ratched.
Don’t get the wrong idea: I get the movie. I’ve seen and loved it many times, and I like the book (written from the Chief’s point-of-view, which isn’t captured in the movie). But every so often it’s fun to ignore what an author or a director wants to tell you, and instead focus on what’s actually there, and do with it what you will.