Monday, September 20, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – The 35th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of those movies that has production stories just as  interesting as the movie itself.  Before the book was published, actor Kirk Douglas read it and bought the rights to the book and turned it into a play that he took to Broadway.  Despite good reviews and a great cast, the play closed after six months and Douglas went about trying to make a movie out of it.  While traveling Europe, he ran into director Milos Forman and told him that he would send him a copy of the book to see if he would be interested in directing the movie. Forman was excited to work on a Hollywood picture and waited eagerly for the book to arrive.

Cut to ten years later, and Douglas was disappointed that he never heard back from Forman and also because he wasn’t able to find anyone to back the movie.  Across the world, Forman was disappointed as well because the book never arrived and he assumed it was all talk.  Kirk Douglas at that point, finally decided to give up on the project,  giving it to his son Michael who had just started his acting career and wanted to see if he could get the movie made.  After going  through his father’s notes to see which financial backers were interested in the movie in the past, Michael met with Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Records and they hit it off and began looking for a cheap but talented director and in one of those believe it or not scenarios, they settled on the same Milos Forman who had been approached ten years earlier to direct the movie by Kirk Douglas.

It was revealed that although Kirk did send the book to Forman,  the Czech government censors (which was communist at the time) had seized the book which is why he never received it but fate or destiny intervened and now given a second chance, he agreed to make the movie.  Once they found an medical institution that allowed them free reign  of the facility in exchange for allowing actual inmates participate both in front of and behind the camera, the director and the producers started looking for their star.  They offered the lead role first to Gene Hackman and then Marlon Brando, both of whom turned it down.  Forman then wanted to cast Burt Reynolds because he had, “cheap charisma.”  Douglas and Zaentz saw Nicholson in The Last Detail and thought he would be perfect for the role of McMurphy and so they agreed to wait for him to become available.

The role of Nurse Ratched was the last role to be cast and Louise Fletcher had to go through six months of auditions to win it.  The other roles were filled by talented actors for whom many of them this was their first film.  Forman wanted strong actors with distinct features so the audience could tell them apart and remember who they were so he cast Danny DeVito (who reprised his role from Broadway), Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, William Redfield, Sydney Lassick, and for the pivotal role of  “Chief,” Will Sampson who was the hardest role to cast because the actor had to be an extremely tall Indian.

There is a very funny story about the lengths the producers went to to try and cast that role in the documentary on this disc that I can’t do justice to so you will need to watch it.  I’ll just say that involved a car salesman, unsafe plane trips, and a lot of luck.  All of that effort paid off in the end, as the film won the top five Oscars in 1975.  It was the first movie since It Happened One Night in 1934 to take all the major awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Actress).  Now that you have the background story of the decade long struggle to get the movie made, let’s talk about the movie itself…

Film  (5 out of 5 stars)

The film opens at a mental institution early in the morning where everything is quiet and orderly.  That is until a police care arrives to drop off a new patient R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who promptly disrupts the subdued atmosphere by kissing his guard and doing some dancing.  It’s a snapshot of the man’s personality and represents why he is incarcerated in the first place.  McMurphy is a natural born hell-raiser who after being locked up for statutory rape with a girl that had told him she was 18, ended up getting sent to the mental institution because he conned them into thinking he was crazy to get out of working on the prison farm.  He isn’t crazy at all, but by society’s standards during that period he was a non-conforming square peg being forced into a round hole.  Even the medical superintendent doesn’t believe McMurphy is crazy but he has to monitor him for several weeks to confirm the diagnosis before sending him back to the prison farm.

So McMurphy is added to the mental ward that is run with ruthless efficiency by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).  Ratched demands obedience, conformity, and isn’t above using harsh tactics to get what she wants.  Ratched is McMurphy’s polar opposite and he begins a campaign to challenge her policies out of boredom, not realizing the precarious situation that he is in as he believes that he will be sent back to the prison farm once the evaluation is over.  He doesn’t realize that the mental institution and its staff have the ability to keep him there indefinitely if they wanted too.  By the time he learns the truth, it will be too late for him to abandon his battle with Nurse Ratched.

The majority of his fellow inmates all suffer from various personality disorders but none of them are a threat to the public. In fact, most of them are there voluntarily and can leave any time they chose to which infuriates McMurphy who doesn’t understand why any of them stay there instead of  being on the outside living life.  Although he tries to get through to all of the patients, McMurphy focuses on two of them in particular.  The first one is Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), who stutters and has self-esteem issues and the other is “Chief” (Will Sampson), who has been labeled deaf and mute.

It’s not long before McMurphy’s zeal for life becomes contagious and soon he has the patients sneaking out to go fishing or fighting the rigid policies of Nurse Ratched.  The battles start off small and they escalate as the movie goes on, whether it is a vote on if the schedule can be changed so that the patients can watch the world series or whether or not Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) can decide when he gets his cigarettes.  Ratched feeling her control over them slipping, starts taking more forceful steps to maintain her authority including sending patients to receive Electro-Shock Therapy (EST) to make them more docile.

Even after undergoing EST, McMurphy returns even more determined to fight Ratched for his fellow patients dignity and their right to a real life on the outside.  Of course, his defiance triggers the final battle between the establishment that Ratched represents and McMurphy’s rebellious side who wants to upset the status quo.  This battle is a not only practical one that will determine whether he will either be sent back to prison camp or be left in the mental institution, but it’s also a philosophical and spiritual battle as well.  Whichever one of them wins, the loser’s reality and beliefs would necessarily have to change as there can only be one winner in this scenario.

The entire cast of this movie is amazing, especially Jack Nicholson in a role he was born to play, and the great Louise Fletcher has the unenviable task of representing the banal side of evil who will do anything to stay in control but only because she wants to “help” the patients.  Both of them won well-deserved Oscars for these roles I can’t imagine anyone other than them playing these parts.  This movie is both an indictment of the medical community and a commercial movie.  It’s also a snapshot at medical practices at the time as at that point it was common practice to administer EST on any new mental patient regardless of their affliction because they didn’t yet realize what effect it would have.

This movie’s message has resonated with many people since its release, some because of the anti-authority message, others because it it shed a light on mental institutions, and for some of the patients where the movie was filmed, it actually helped several of them to conquer their afflictions and successfully return to society.  In fact, one of the patients was released and then went back to work at the same institution as a staff member where he’s worked for 27 years.  This is a great movie and if you haven’t seen it yet you should.

Video (3 out of 5 stars)

The movie has 1080p resolution (1.85:1) and I’m sure it’s better than previous releases, but it still has parts of the movie where there is a definite lack of sharpness or detail.  There are some scenes that look better than others, but expectations should be realistic as this movie is over 30 years old and was filmed in a drab white institution and there’s only so much that can be done without overdoing the DNR so much that the people look like they are made out of wax.  There was some slight noise in the picture but skin tones were warm and realistic and purists will be happy to note that there is light film grain throughout the movie.

Audio (2 out of 5 stars)

This kind of movie really doesn’t need a big 5.1 surround mix as it a dialogue driven movie but this has a 5.1 surround mixone even though only the front speakers are used.  I don’t believe the surround or the LFE speakers were even utilized.  In any case, the dialogue was clear and Jack Nitzsche’s strange hybrid of a score is presented well.  I appreciate the effort of the studio to offer the 5.1 track, but it really didn’t add anything to this movie.

Special Features  (5 out of 5 stars)

This is where this box set shines!  It’s nice to see a “collector’s edition” that isn’t just a couple of trailers and some EPK material added to a bare bones release.  Warner Brothers did it right by not only giving you some really good features on the disc itself, but also in supplementary extras that really round out this set.  Let’s take a look at them…
Special Features on the Disc:
  • Completely Cuckoo – A feature-length documentary about the making of the film that included the author of the book as well as everyone involved in making the movie with the odd absence of Jack Nicholson.  There are rumors that Nicholson and Forman never got along so maybe that’s why he didn’t participate.  The picture quality on this is mediocre but I’m glad it was all included.
  • Full-length commentary by director MiloŇ° Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz – One of the best and informative commentary tracks I’ve heard.  They talk about the challenges they faced, life on the set and the antics of the actors.  Very enjoyable!
  • Brand new interview with producer Michael Douglas – I’ve always been a huge fan of his work as an actor and also as a producer.  He deserved all the acclaim he received for this movie.
  • Deleted Scenes – Eight scenes in all and many of them could have easily gone into the movie and worked.  There are additional scenes of medical testing done on McMurphy and the others.
  • Original Trailer
Bonus Extras:
  • Collectible Book – A very interesting and informative book that covers the history of the project and of everyone involved.  A lot better than most other collectible books in other sets.
  • Playing cards
  • Replicas of the various posters for the movie
  • Character photo cards – These come in a envelope made to look like a patient’s record log along with Doctor and Nurse comments on it.

Final Thoughts  (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The only thing that prevented me from giving this set 5 stars is the audio/visual quality which is probably about as good as it’s going to get.  Other than that, the movie is fantastic and the bonus features on the disc are great, and the entire package of ancillary extras are superb as well.  If you are a fan of the film you should definitely pick up this high quality box set and enjoy it.  By the way, one last note on the playing cards…if you are hoping to get McMurphy’s deck of naked women, be prepared for sadness as these cards have pictures of the cast instead.

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  1. I'm ashamed to admit I've never seen this.

  2. That's ok. Everyone has some classic movies they need to catch up on. Now that you've been reminded about it you can make sure you see it! Thanks for reading the review!