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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2020

In the decade of the 1960s there was a lot of complaints that came from the actors, directors and film enthusiasts. They clamour for a renaissance of Hollywood films. The movie industry was in a deplorable state, however, good fortune smiled on those who desperately wanted for change (Lev, 2000, p.5). In the 1960s up to the 1970s Hollywood went through a rebirth. It was known as the period of “great artistic achievement based on new freedom and widespread experimentation” (Kramer, 2005, p.1).

One of the best example of “New Hollywood” is the blockbuster entitled One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This film exemplified “New Hollywood” based on unconventional techniques seen in the way the plot, theme, visual style and even the people that worked on the project such as the director, cinematographer and actor in the lead role.

It is rare for a film to enjoy both critical and commercial success (Maltby, 2003, p.180). The Cuckoo’s Nest movie was embraced by the critics as one of the finest examples of Hollywood excellence. It won five major Oscar awards. But more importantly the masses gave their own feedback, giving the two thumbs up sign by voting with their money as they patiently brave the elements to stand in line to buy tickets and see the movie for the second and even the third time.

This was not only beneficial to the studio but also on the main actor Jack Nicholson himself and according to one report, “By 1978, Jack’s share of the Cuckoo’s Nest windfall grew to $15 million, becoming the kind of annuity that just kept on giving … completed on a $4.4 million budget, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest became the seventh-highest grossing movie ever” (McDougal, 2008, p.200).

Jack Nicholson, Milos Forman and Haskell Wexler came to Hollywood just at the right time when the movie industry in the United States was in the cusp of revolution. According to insiders, “The conditions for a revolution in Hollywood certainly seemed to be in place in the latter part of the sixties. There was the decaying regime: a studio system run by aging autocrats whose commitment to standardized technique and innocuous content seemed to make it impossible for genuine film artists to emerge in Hollywood” (Bernardino, 1991, p.1).

Aside from that there was tremendous pressure to change. The bottomline is falling in most studios and this simply means that if it cannot produce a good movie that people will pay to watch then the golden days are over and they will have to learn how to file bankruptcy.

According to film historians, “There was an external crisis: the initial challenge of television followed by the consolidation of its position as the mass medium, a situation which by the end of the sixties had led to truly alarming declines in the box office receipts of American movies” (Bernardino, 1991, p.1).

Aside from that there were the discontented masses, the baby boomers and the educated young adults who are more than willing to break free from social restrictions (Bernardino, 1991, p.1). As a result some of the most spectacular films in Hollywood history were made such as films like The Godfather (1972); The Poseidon Adventure (1973); Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) among others (King, 2002, p.46).

Plot and Theme

This film is a byproduct of “New Hollywood” as evidenced by the plot and theme. One writer even said, “With its narrative emphasis on institutional politics, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, reflects interestingly on the institutional structure of New Hollywood cinema itself” (Morrison, 1998, p.212).

This is seen in the courageous use of material taken from a novel by Ken Kessey. It can be said that this is not the first time that a movie outfit dared to tell the story of mentally ill patients and the intriguing and sometimes frightening scenes inside a mental asylum. However, this is the firs time that a studio tackled the idea that the psychiatrists and the supposedly health experts are the villains and not the lunatics inside the mental institution.

According to the author of the novel the book shows how the said institution was used not to help people but to separate those who are not willing to conform to social rules (Kesey, p.1). This was depicted so well at the end of the movie when the character played by Jack Nicholson was reduced to a “vegetable” reducing what was once a bubbly character into someone who could no longer resist the people bent to subdue him.

The plot and theme of the movie is a perfect example of “New Hollywood” not only because it experimented on visual style, cinematography and other elements of production but more so because the whole story of the movie talks about going against the grain. The whole film is an illustration of how Hollywood used to stifle creativity and ingenuity in the movie industry and how powerful individuals are pulling the string and everyone involved are mere puppets.

“Old Hollywood” was defined using the character of nurse Ratched. The name itself is something that denotes the idea of a rat and a wretched place. A rat is understood to be a creature that cannot be trusted and can easily turn traitor because the “rat” is someone who cannot go against those in authority has to constantly obey rules and conventions.

The story is a revelation of how destructive is a dictatorship and why absolute power corrupts. Movies that came out from “New Hollywood” is also a dagger aimed at the old methods enjoyed by giant studios and directors and producers who became too powerful for their own good.

The theme and plot of the story can be summarized in one statement: “McMurphy never lets rules – or even common sense – stand in the way of good fun” (Fish, 1984, p.10). It is this desire to experience happiness and fulfilment that has inspired the producers and creators of this film.

Finally, the experimentation is also evident in the creation of the plot and theme of the movie. For instance, McMurphy was depicted as the suffering saviour. He seems to be portrayed as the Messiah but at the same time he is the worst example of what a Messiah should be, this is because he is uncouth, proud, and angry (Stone, 2000, p.92). But this ability to go against the conventional way of storytelling and film making sets this film apart.

Visual Style

Just like the other products of its time, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can easily represent “New Hollywood” because of its striking visual style. If one will have an overview of the movies done in the 1950s there is a sense of predictability when it comes to how the director frames the shot and what are the things that are allowed to be within the frame.

One example is the way the characters are framed in the scenes using tight shots. The camera focuses intently on the face of McMurphy and so the audience can feel and experience the nuances of his gestures and mannerisms.

The same thing can be said with regards to the tight shot of Nurse Ratched. The visuals provided a complex character. She is soft-spoken and yet everyone is afraid of her. Even McMurphy at one point realized that he has met his match in Nurse Ratched.

It must also be pointed out that use of colour or the absence of it intensifies the meaning of its scene. The first time the audience were acquainted with Nurse Ratched she came in wearing a black coat and then when she was ready to get to work she was transformed into this nurse wearing all white.

This played well with the drab background of the mental institution and this is a good example of how directors in this particular era are not afraid to experiment on different techniques such as the different way they depicted violence. This can be seen in the way the main character was murdered, smothered by a pillow (Horwath, Elsaesser & King, 2004, p.143).


This film is an example of “New Hollywood” because of the director on the helm of film production. Milos Forman is not American-born. This is layered with complex implications. First, he is not tied to the conventional way of doing American films. Secondly, he brought with him the techniques that he had learned in Europe. Finally, he is used to experimentation and trying out new techniques. This is why the feel of the film was different as compared to other products that came out of “Old Hollywood.”


The actor that they brought in to play the part of Randall Patrick McMurphy is no ordinary actor. He is different in the sense that Nicholson exudes this aura of rebelliousness. He is a person who does not seem willing to conform to social norms. There are other actors that can play this part convincingly well but they are actors that are easily identified with the current system.

But by bringing in Jack Nicholson as the actor in the lead role, the audience are immediately forewarned that this fellow will tend to break the rules instead of keeping them. Nicholson was not yet an established actor groomed by the studio. Nicholson is someone who is so talented and yet does not seem to fit in according to industry standards (Conner, 2002, p.6).

Nicholson’s facial features, his mannerisms and his acting was just perfect for the part. It gave credibility to what he was trying to project on the silver screen.

His character is desperately trying to go against traditions and norms and his superb acting allowed him to speak not only to the critiques watching the film but the ordinary people who felt that there is a need to experience freedom and not to be repressed by rules and traditions that has ensnared them for too long. Nicholson’s character is the personification of the challenge posed by those who are sick and tired of the “Old Hollywood” and are willing to stand up against institutional bullies.

A commentary on the character of R.P. McMurphy clarified why this movie exemplify “New Hollywood” and it says: “McMurphy’s sanity takes the ward by storm: none of the patients have met anyone like him … where the other patients were timid and quiet, McMurphy is cocky and loud; where they are unable to do more than snicker, his healthy laughter shakes the walls; where they are sexually repressed, he is self-proclaimed champion lover” (Fish, 1984, p.9).


It was not only the actor and director that exemplify the new way of doing things in the “New Hollywood” it is also the cinematographers. The best example is Haskell Wexler who was the cinematographer of the said movie. Wexler typified the radical changes that were happening within the industry because he is a cinematographer who does not compromise easily when it comes to artistic freedom (Schaefer & Salvato, 1984, p.247).

His desire to experiment can be seen in the way he tried to capture the emotion of the scene using excellent camera work. One of the best example is the tight shot of Nurse Ratched as she lies on the floor after McMurphy tried to suffocate her.

Uncertainty Before Success

There was a tremendous degree of uncertainty when one is trying to do something for the first time. There was nothing like this movie in the history of Hollywood. If one will say that this is unprecedented, it would have been an understatement. A few days after the release here are some of the reactions from critics and moviegoers, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest detonated like a nuclear revelation, touching a universal nerve and elevating Jack to superstardom in the process” (McDougal, 2008, p.198).

The compliments kept coming and another commentary said, “Many theatres defied the usual one-week-in, next-week-out trend and extended the film for months … the movie opened in Stockholm on February 26, 1976, and didn’t close until eleven months later” (McDougal, 2008, p.198).


It is rare for a film to enjoy both commercial and critical success. The movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was able to accomplish this rare feat. The reason given is that it is the by-product of “New Hollywood” and the proof also that the movie going public is looking for something new.

This film exemplified “New Hollywood” because of the theme, visual styles, actor, director and cinematographer. Together they collaborated to create something unprecedented. The result was spectacular, it is one of the films that saved Hollywood and ushered in a new era in film making.


Bernardoni, J., 1991. New Hollywood. NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Conner, F., 2002. Hollywood’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Lucky Breaks, Prima Donnas, Box Office Bombs and Other Oddities. VA: Brassey’s, Inc.

Fish, P., 1984. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.

Horwath, A., Elsaesser, T. and King, N., 2004. The Last Great American Picture

Show: New Hollywood Cinema. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Kesey, K., 1962. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. New York: Penguin Books.

King, G., 2002. New Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction. New York: I.B. Tauris.

Kramer, P., 2005. The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars. UK: Wallflower Press.

Lev, P., 2000. American Films of the 70s: Conflicting Visions. TX: University of Texas Press.

Maltby, R., 2003. Hollywood Cinema. MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Morrison, J., 1998. Passport to Hollywood: Hollywood Films, European Directors. New York: State University of New York Press.

McDougal, D., 2008. Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Movie Star in Modern Times. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Schaefer, D. and Salvato, L. 1984. Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers. CA: California University Press.

Stone, B., 2000. Faith and Film: Theological Themes at the Cinema. MA: Chalice Press.

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