“I’d like to keep him on the ward. I think we can help him.”
Response to Peary’s Review:
In Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the Best Picture award to John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King instead, but preserves the Best Actor award for Nicholson, noting: “Never known for low-key performances, Nicholson was perfectly cast as this man who pretends to be mad and who, if we equate rebellion with abnormality, may in fact be so” given that he “certainly fits in better with the mental patients than with those who run the asylum.” Peary writes: “How Ratched detests this man with the lunatic grin and laugh, who sees through her, who makes her blush with his crude language…, who makes himself a thorn in her side but pretends innocence…” Despite this, Peary argues McMurphy “is probably Nicholson’s sweetest, most caring character” given that “fighting Ratched for the other patients’ minds and souls, he manages to improve their outlooks on life.” Unfortunately, he fails to see Ratched “for the dangerous witch she is. Only too late does he realize that Ratched will do anything to maintain authority in her world.”
Balancing out Peary’s perspective is DVD Savant, who asserts that the film’s very concept is problematic because “from the evidence we see McMurphy is the author of all his own problems and a genuine menace to society”, someone “who would bring down disaster almost anywhere he went”. DVD Savant refers to him as a “thoughtless rebel” who “goes up against Nurse Ratched to flatter his own ego” and actually puts the patients at risk during the “unscheduled day trip on the fishing boat”. With that said, he’s no fan of Ratched either, instead sharing how “Louise Fletcher’s layered performance lets us know that the McMurphy-Ratched personality clash brings out the worst in both of them”: “McMurphy becomes more reckless and cocky, while Ratched harbors a powerful resentment behind her veneer of professionalism” and “takes out her rage on the weaker of the patients”. Ultimately, this is a brutal cat-and-mouse tale, with institutional power winning out, but not before we are shown both sides of the picture: while the men find solace and comfort in their constraining environment (and taking anarchic risks isn’t necessarily the right or best course of action), they have at least been taught to question, laugh, and speak up.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)