Saturday, 5 August 2006

WATCH THE BIRDIE

I've been busy preparing to give my Entertainment Review on tomorrow’s edition of Michael Parkinson’s Sunday Supplement (BBC Radio 2, 88-91 FM) 11.30 am...

This week's offerings include the DVD of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, re-released in a stunningly-restored, two-disc version with the now-obligatory ‘extras’: commentaries, documentaries, ‘cut scenes’, trailers and so forth…

Made in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is as compelling as I remember it from the last time I saw it - twenty or more years ago.

Based on Ken Kesey’s novel - which just happens to be one of those Penguin '100 Greatest Books', the story was adapted first for the stage as a vehicle for Kirk Douglas who had bought the rights in the novel on publication.

Douglas spent several years trying to get a film made without success until 1975 when it finally went into production with Kirk's son, Michael Douglas, as producer and a screenplay by Bo Goldman, who would go on to write The Rose, Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black.

At the time, they could only afford to sign one ‘name’for the picture: Jack Nicholson, star of, among other films, Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown, giving what is arguably the finest performance of his career as Randle P McMurphy, a violent criminal sent for assessment to a mental institution that is the nest of ‘cuckoos’ of the title.

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this,” says McMurphy, but is he? While the staff attempts to find out, he is raising hell and creating mayhem among the other inmates: providing a catalyst for change among a group of men who have lost the will to think or act for themselves.

Shot on a shoe-string budget in the claustrophobic, pale-sun-lit wards and corridors of a real hospital in Oregon - with the intuition’s director playing the head 'head-doctor' who shares some extraordinary improvised scenes with Nicholson - the film is directed by Milos Forman (later to direct Amadeus) and is centered on a story told almost exclusively through character rather than incident.

The tedium of institutional life is captured in long pauses, pregnant silences and relentless close-ups: not just of Nicholson - wild-eyed and insanely grinning (before he turned that look into pastiche in The Shining) - but also of the rest of the extraordinary ensemble cast.

For, although Nicholson is the unquestioned star, the rest of the players - including then 'unknowns' Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif and a half-a-dozen other compelling character actors - turn in startling performances as the resident “crazies”; while icy, softly-spoken Louise Fletcher plays Nurse Ratched, the women whose scary control-freak level of management initiates many of the funniest confrontations in the film as well as the ultimately tragic dénouement.

“Which one of you nuts has got any guts?” McMurphy asks the other patients, shortly after his arrival. Through him they discover that they have the guts not just to imagine themselves doing things they didn’t think they could ever do but then, for better or worse, actually doing them

Funny, devastating, deeply moving and - despite the mounting catastrophes of the finale - richly life-affirming, this five Oscar-winner was, and remains, a masterpiece.

I think I may be ready to read the book now...

6 comments:

Ian said...

This is one of my favourite films too. I remember going to see it twice when originally released, and then rushing to buy the book - which was just as enjoyable, if rather different from the film because it had more of an emphasis on drugs.

I hadn't heard about this re-release from any of the usual resources, so was surprised to see you were reviewing it. It turns out that this is actually the same release that came out in 2002 - except the price has been dropped from full price to around a tenner (less online) - a real bargain at that price and in the stores on Monday. A "must have" if you're a DVD collector.

Brian Sibley said...

Thanks for the update on the re-release details, Ian...

What is fascinating about this particular DVD, but which (as you note in many of your excellent DVD reviews) is not always the case, is that the restoration/re-mastering is superb.

In fact, watching the accompanying documentary - which includes clips from an older, duller and muddier print of the film - makes you realise just how good a job they did in restoring the original lighting and sharpness and which adds so much to the film's intensity.

If only all DVD re-issues were done as well...

Graveh said...

I had planned on buying the original $5 version, but held out in hopes that a newer, more robust re-release would come out. I STILL haven't bought it yet, thanks to Blockbuster Platinum membership, so it's practically mine due to free rentals. The first time I saw it, I could not believe all the kookoos who turned out to be major stars later on down the road...
Top 5 best movies all time...

Jonathan said...

Brian, I caught your review this morning quite by chance while working, and after stumbling across your blog by similar fate, just wanted to say how refreshing you were.

None of the egomania or hyperbole that can sometimes be heard from others; just relaxed and astute opinion.

I wanted to hear more.

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you, Jonathan! Most kind...

* blushes modestly *

What a wonderful thing the blogosphere is! How else would I have ever discovered the brillaint comic imagery on yourterrific website and sketchblog?

You are a formidable talent!

Jonathan said...

Thanks Brian. Just had a peek around your site; interesting variety of work you've done.

Will certainly look out for you in future.