In 1975 I found One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest grotesquely overrated. I still find it so, but age has either improved it or perhaps changed me. My basic quibble with the film is that it’s part and parcel of the movies’ unfortunate tendency to romanticize mental illness—to keep feeding the notion that the mentally ill are somehow magical and better than so-called “normal” people. (It would be interesting to know just when and where this idea took root. It may have been with Mary Chase’s play Harvey in 1945, which was filmed in 1950.) In all fairness, Forman’s film is hardly the worst example of this, but “crazy as cute” constantly creeps in around the edges.
That said, the film boasts at least three terrific performances: Jack Nicholson as the convict who cons his way into a mental hospital, Brad Dourif as the most fragile of the inmates and Will Sampson as the largely silent Native American. (No, I don’t think Louise Fletcher’s performance is all that great.) The film is also well made and has several outstanding set pieces, and whatever one thinks of the rest of the film, the ending is terrific. When all is said, though, it’s really Nicholson’s manic energy that keeps the film afloat—and which propelled it to its immense popularity. For that performance and the climactic sequence alone, it’s a movie worth having.