Wednesday, February 15, 2006

50. The Head Bull-Goose Loony

Was it only me, 18 years old and really dumb, or did the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) not seem like actors but actual mental cases? I watched it again last night, and Christopher Lloyd (Taber) and Danny DeVito (Martini) and Sydney Lassick (Cheswick) seemed raw-boned and consistently twitchy, institutionalized men to the core. Watching it the other day, I still get those little pangs of fear: Careful, Jack, those guys are crazy. That open dorm, with nutcases snuffling and snoring all around you; and that silent Indian; and the cold glances of the orderlies. Dank. That's the word.

But Nicholson's McMurphy hesitates only one moment, a reflex, then he dives right in, glad-handing, grinning, the Birth of the Jack, hand-made right before your eyes as the naked-girl card deck spreads itself out on the table and invisible baseball builds to delirium. For a while, we love hanging out with him, talking dirty and savoring the tang of it in our mouths. He makes us feel strong and carefree, stuck in the muck but what the fuck; and never bullying--although often measuring--he sizes us up, shakes his head, and looks for the angle. And he always finds it, and we don't have any more cigarettes, he's got em all, but nobody cares.

Except, of course, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher in a career-destroying performance, her Citizen Kane, a masterpiece of stolid certainty and cold calculation). To allude to the novel, she's the machine's maintenance crew, keeping the tubes clear and the wires uncrossed. The film asks us to hate her because Mac does; and we feel the awful correctness when he strangles her--a final scene of alarming realism; I think I heard somewhere that Nicholson squeezed a bit too hard--and isn't there a world of meaning there, a goes-around-comes-around demolition of the dream of freedom? Both Nicholson and Milos Forman would forge careers out of the urge to break on through to the other side, and emerge clean and smiling. But they keep running into missed opportunities and cold shoulders--variations on Ratched, from Salieri to the Overlook Hotel, from Andy Kauffman's cancer to Schmidt's lost highway.

Through it all both seem to remember Smilin' Jack, and the bone-deep bravado that gave me so much hope, even unto loss and death, back in 1975, and still does, while that saw plays on the soundtrack, satiric and sweet, a Penny for the Old Guy, mad and smothered and free.

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