One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie that only 1975 could produce
In 1975, The Human Kindness Day Concert Series – an annual outdoor festival to celebrate humanity and our love for each other – was marred in crime and violence as more than 500 robberies, 600 injuries, 150 hospitalized individuals (including one who lost an eye) took place, thus forever ending the event. The year was marred in weird behavior, strange crimes and unexplainable culture shock. The bizarre, riotous year of 1975 is the only time in our cinematic history that a movie (released on November 19th, 1975) could have been made with such a disregard for what people think, or who would protest its merit.
Today is the anniversary of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Most people were trying, in 1975, to make sense of an economy that had gone from the charmed single bread-winner days of the 1960s to a demand for a 2 income family. A war was finally ending in Vietnam, without the sounding brass of victory, or the “welcome home” to our troops. An increase in drug use across the land was becoming a permanent fixture among rich and poor. 1975 was a lost year in the center of a lost decade, a year away from our bicentennial and a lifetime away from commonality or common decency toward each other.
The oddity of the year carried over into our entertainment, as “All in the Family” was our number 1 TV series – a show centering on the generational differences of a family and the divisions that often aren’t solved. And while dance music tends to be happy and free, disco seemed to be only a release from the pain, with heavy metal growing in its shadows, both a rebellion against what was going on in a very mixed up year. Differences of opinion were as different as the music and demands for tolerance, on either side, were a chasm that seemed to be growing with no regard for anyone else.
At the box office, the most peculiar of novels from 1962 had made its way onto the big screen. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” became the movie of the year. The dark drama with shades of eerie comedic overtones was based on the novel by Ken Kesey and starred Jack Nicholson. The supporting cast of Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson and Danny DeVito was nothing short of remarkable, but the idea of it becoming a film in any other year than 1975 is virtually inconceivable.
AFI lists the film at number 20 on its 100 best movies, winning all 5 major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Director and Screenplay.
The capacity of a film to tell a significant tale such as this, without watering down the ball of confusion it besets, or trying to “correct” the cultural ethics, the dilemma of ethnical identities, or the cringe-worthy moments of the characters, is something that Hollywood would never do today, for fear of backlash from various groups, or simply an inability to understand the absurdity associated with genuine reality.
One of the primary strengths within the film, for which it makes no apology, is the incoherency of the characters and their mental insanity. There is no one who is particularly likable or deserving of praise among the characters, rather a group of societal failures, people in severe anguish who have been locked away by others who can no longer care for them, along with delusional and anxious patients prone to issues of rage and aggression.
The cluster of the patients are people we don’t want to see, or look at. It’s people we avoid eye contact with, for the most part, for fear of what they will do, or say. Even the calmest of characters in the film, the person we should have been able to trust, Nurse Ratched, becomes our most hated of characters. The breakdown of society’s most basic of principles, being kind to each other, evinced to be of no consequence in the film.
In 1975, this film worked because our cultural evolution had reached a point of defeat. While Jaws had been a blockbuster success by scaring people at the theaters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show had debuted a month before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Monty Python and the Holy Grail had been the summer’s comedy hit. But the weird movies of the year, like Nashville, Death Race 2000, French Connection, Tommy, Race with the Devil, Shivers, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino and dozens of obscure, freakishly and morally diluted movies were taking over the traditional box office hits and B movies were making an impact, particularly at drive-in theaters. Nothing was off limits and no subject was too strange to tackle.
The demented series of events that year hit low and high. Only a month earlier, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, a member of the Manson Family, attempted to assassinate President Gerald Ford. There had been 2 assassination attempts on his life in 1975. A month after the film, the LaGuardia Airport bombing in New York City occurred, killing 11 and causing serious injury to 74 others. The bombing was never solved. At the time, it was the single deadliest attack on U.S. soil since 1927.
A year of upheaval led to one of the most intriguing films of our lifetime. The backward behavior and anti-establishment motivation of the year was wrapped up in a movie that, at any other time, couldn’t not been released. It exemplified the worst in mankind, yet still found a light at the end of the tunnel, although they had to make their own tunnel by going through a brick wall.