One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (film)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 American psychological drama film[4] directed by Miloš Forman, based on the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. The film stars Jack Nicholson as a new patient at a mental institution, alongside Louise Fletcher as a sadistic nurse. The supporting cast is Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, and the film debuts of Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMiloš Forman
Screenplay by
Based onOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
by Ken Kesey
Produced by
Edited by
Music byJack Nitzsche
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • November 19, 1975 (1975-11-19)
Running time
135 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3–4.4 million[1][2]
Box office$163.3 million[3]

Originally announced in 1962 with Kirk Douglas starring, the film took 13 years to develop.[5] Filming finally began in January 1975 and lasted three months, on location in Salem, Oregon and the surrounding area, and in Depoe Bay on the north Oregon coast. The producers shot the film in the Oregon State Hospital, an actual psychiatric hospital, which is also the setting of the novel. The hospital is still in operation, though the original buildings in the film have been demolished. The film was released on November 19, 1975. Considered by many to be one of the greatest films ever made, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is No. 33 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies list.

The film is the second to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Director, and Screenplay) following It Happened One Night in 1934, an accomplishment not repeated until 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. It won numerous Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards. In 1993, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.



In late 1963, 38-year old Randle McMurphy, previously on an Oregon work farm, is incarcerated for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl, and further arrests for other assault. Malingering, he pretends to be insane to get himself moved to a mental institution to avoid hard labor. The medical ward is dominated by Head Nurse Ratched, a cold passive-aggressive behavior tyrant herself, who intimidates her inmate patients.

The other patients include young, anxious, stuttering Billy Bibbit; Charlie Cheswick, who is prone to temper tantrums; delusional, child-like Martini; the articulate and repressed Dale Harding; belligerent and profane Max Taber; epileptics Jim Sefelt and Bruce Fredrickson; quiet but violent-minded Scanlon; tall, deaf-mute Native American Chief Bromden; and several others with chronic conditions.

Ratched sees McMurphy's lively, rebellious presence as a threat to her authority, to which she responds by confiscating and rationing the patients' cigarettes and suspending their card-playing privileges. McMurphy finds himself in a battle of wills against Ratched. He steals a school bus, picks up his girlfriend Candy and escapes with several patients to go fishing on the Pacific Coast. He exposes them to the outside world and encourages them to discover their own abilities and find self-confidence.

After an orderly tells him that his prison sentence can become indefinite, McMurphy makes plans to escape with Chief. He also learns that he, Chief, and Taber are the only non-chronic patients who have been involuntarily committed; the others have committed themselves and may leave at any time, but are too afraid to do so. After Cheswick bursts into a fit and demands his cigarettes from Ratched, McMurphy starts a fight with the orderlies and Chief intervenes to help him.

McMurphy, Chief, and Cheswick are sent to the disturbed ward after the fight, and Chief reveals to McMurphy that he can speak and hear normally. He has feigned deaf-muteness to avoid engaging with anyone. After being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, McMurphy returns to the ward pretending to be brain-damaged, but then reveals that the treatment has made him even more determined to defeat Ratched. McMurphy and Chief make plans to escape, but decide to throw a secret Christmas party for their friends after Ratched and the orderlies leave for the night.

McMurphy sneaks Candy and her friend Rose into the ward, each bringing bottles of alcohol for the party. He bribes the night orderly Turkle to allow the party. McMurphy and Chief prepare to escape, inviting Billy to come with them. Billy refuses, but asks for a "date" with Candy; McMurphy arranges for him to have sex with her. McMurphy and the others get drunk, and McMurphy falls asleep instead of making his escape with Chief.

Ratched arrives in the morning to find the ward in disarray and most of the patients passed out. She discovers Billy and Candy together, and aims to embarrass Billy in front of everyone. Billy manages to overcome his stutter and stands up to Ratched. When she threatens to tell his mother, Billy cracks under the pressure and reverts to stuttering. McMurphy punches an orderly when trying to escape out of a window with the Chief, causing the other orderlies to intervene. Billy suddenly commits suicide by slitting his throat with broken glass. Ratched tries to control the situation by calling for the day's routine to continue as usual, but her nonchalant reaction enrages McMurphy and he tries to strangle her. The orderlies subdue McMurphy, saving Ratched's life.

Some time later, Ratched is wearing a neck brace and speaking with a weak voice, and Harding leads the now-unsuspended card-playing. McMurphy is nowhere to be found, leading to rumors that he has escaped. Later that night, Chief sees McMurphy being returned to his bed. Chief greets him, elated that McMurphy had kept his promise not to escape without him, but discovers that McMurphy has been lobotomized. After tearfully hugging McMurphy, Chief smothers him to death with a pillow. He then tears a hydrotherapy console free of its floor mountings, just like when McMurphy attempted to do so earlier, and throws it through a window, and escapes as Taber and the other inmates awaken and cheer for him.





The title comes from a nursery rhyme read to Chief Bromden as a child by his grandmother, mentioned in the book:

Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.



In 1962, Kirk Douglas's company Joel Productions announced that it had acquired the rights to make Broadway stage and film adaptations of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Douglas starring as McMurphy in both the play and the film, Dale Wasserman writing the stageplay, and George Roy Hill directing the film based on Wasserman's play. Jack Nicholson had also tried to buy the film rights to the novel but was outbid by Douglas.[6] Wasserman's 1963–1964 Broadway stage adaptation successfully opened, but Douglas was unable to find a studio willing to make it with him.[5]

Kirk Douglas hired Miloš Forman to direct after meeting him in Prague during a tour of the Eastern Bloc. Avco-Embassy Pictures optioned the film in 1969, but Forman was prevented from directing the film by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the "normalization" period in which the Soviet Union forced Czechoslovakia to reverse most of its Prague Spring liberalization reforms. Forman and Douglas fell completely out of contact after the Czechoslovak StB put Forman under strict surveillance. It also intercepted a copy of the novel Douglas sent to his home in Prague, which meant he was unable to read the book.[5]

Wasserman subsequently sold his film rights to Douglas in 1970, but then delayed the film for several more years with lawsuits.[5] In 1971, Kirk Douglas's son Michael Douglas convinced his father to allow him to produce the film, as he was drawn to the novel's "one man against the system" plot due to his involvement with student activism at the University of California, Santa Barbara.[2] Douglas optioned the film to director Richard Rush, but he was unable to secure financing from major studios.[7][8] In March 1973, Douglas announced a new deal in which he would co-produce the film with Saul Zaentz as the first project of Fantasy Records' new film division.[2][5][7]

Zaentz, a voracious reader, felt an affinity with Kesey, and so after Hauben's first attempt he asked Kesey to write the screenplay.[2] Kesey participated in the early stages of script development, but withdrew after creative differences with the producers over casting and narrative point of view; ultimately he filed suit against the production and won a settlement.[9] Although Kesey was paid for his work, his screenplay from the first-person point of view of Chief Bromden was not used. Instead, Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman wrote a new screenplay from a third-person perspective.[5]

Hal Ashby was hired to replace Rush as director in 1973, but he was also replaced by Forman after he successfully fled to the United States. Although Douglas and Zaentz were unaware that he had been his father's first choice to direct, they began considering him after Hauben showed them Forman's 1967 Czechoslovak film The Firemen's Ball.[5][2] Douglas later said the film "had the sort of qualities we were looking for: it took place in one enclosed situation, with a plethora of unique characters he had the ability to juggle."[2]

Although Forman was suffering from a mental health crisis and refused to leave his Hotel Chelsea room in New York City for months, Douglas and Zaentz sent him a copy of the novel. Although Forman was not aware that the novel was the one which Douglas's father had hired him to direct in the 1960s, he quickly decided that it was "the best material I’d come across in America" and flew to California to discuss the film with Douglas and Zaentz further.[6] They quickly hired Forman because, in Douglas's words, "Unlike the other directors we saw, who kept their cards close to their chest, he went through the script page by page and told us what he would do."[2] Forman wrote in 2012: "To me, [the story] was not just literature, but real life, the life I lived in Czechoslovakia from my birth in 1932 until 1968. The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not".[10]



Although Kirk Douglas allowed his son to produce the film, he remained interested in playing McMurphy. However, Ashby and Forman felt Kirk Douglas was too old for the role and decided to recast him. This decision would strain relations between Kirk and Michael Douglas for many years, although Michael Douglas claimed it had not been his decision to recast him.[11][12] Gene Hackman,[13][14] James Caan,[15] Marlon Brando,[13][14] and Burt Reynolds[16] were all considered for the role of McMurphy. Ashby wanted 37-year-old Jack Nicholson to play McMurphy, but Douglas was unsure if he was right for the role and Forman’s first choice was Reynolds.[17] All four turned down the role, which ultimately went to Nicholson.[18] Nicholson had never played this type of role before. Production was delayed for about six months because of Nicholson's schedule. Douglas later stated in an interview that "that turned out to be a great blessing: it gave us the chance to get the ensemble right".[2] Nicholson did extensive research for the role and even met patients in a psychiatric ward to watch electroconvulsive shock therapy to prepare for the role.

Danny DeVito was the first to be cast, reprising his role as the patient Martini from the 1971 off-Broadway production. Chief Bromden (who turns out to be the title character), played by Will Sampson, was referred by Mel Lambert (who portrayed the harbormaster in the fishing scene), a used car dealer Douglas met on an airplane flight when Douglas told him they wanted a "big guy" to play the part. Lambert's father often sold cars to Native American customers and six months later called Douglas to say: "the biggest sonofabitch Indian came in the other day!"[2]

Jeanne Moreau, Angela Lansbury, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda all were considered to portray Nurse Ratched before Lily Tomlin was ultimately cast in the role.[5][6] However, Forman became interested in recasting Tomlin with Louise Fletcher, who had a supporting role in the film, after viewing her film Thieves Like Us (1974). A mutual acquaintance, the casting director Fred Roos, had already mentioned Fletcher's name as a possibility. Even so, it took four or five meetings, across one year, for Fletcher to secure the role of Nurse Ratched.[19][5] Her final audition was late in 1974, with Forman, Zaentz, and Douglas. The day after Christmas, her agent called to say she was expected at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem on January 4 to begin rehearsals.[20] Tomlin subsequently left the film to replace Fletcher in Nashville (1975). In 2016, Fletcher recalled that Nicholson's salary was "enormous", while the rest of the cast worked at or close to scale. She put in 11 weeks, grossing US$10,000 (equivalent to $57,000 in 2023).[20]

Forman also considered Shelley Duvall for the role of Candy; coincidentally, she, Nicholson, and Scatman Crothers (who portrays Turkle) all later appeared as part of the main cast of The Shining. Bud Cort was considered for the role of Billy Bibbit before Brad Dourif was cast.[21]



Prior to commencement of filming, a week of rehearsals started on January 4, 1975, in Oregon shortly after Nicholson concluded his previous film The Fortune (1975).[5] The cast watched the patients in their daily routine and at group therapy. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher also witnessed electroconvulsive therapy being performed on a patient.[2]



Principal photography began on January 13, 1975, and concluded approximately three months later.[5] The film was shot on location in Salem, Oregon, the surrounding area, and the coastal town of Depoe Bay, Oregon.[5][22][23]

The producers decided to shoot the film in the Oregon State Hospital, an actual mental hospital, as this is also the setting of the novel.[24] The hospital's director, Dean Brooks, was supportive of the filming and eventually ended up playing the character of Dr. John Spivey in the film. Brooks identified a patient for each of the actors to shadow, and some of the cast even slept on the wards at night. He also wanted to incorporate his patients into the crew, to which the producers agreed. Douglas recalls that it was not until later that he found out that many of them were criminally insane.[2]

For the group therapy scenes, Forman and his cinematographer Haskell Wexler used three cameras to record all shots for the scene simultaneously. Although this was unusual for the time and more expensive, it allowed Forman and Wexler to capture the actors' authentic reactions to each other.[2]

As Forman did not allow the actors to see the day's filming, this led to the cast losing confidence in him, while Nicholson also began to wonder about his performance. Douglas convinced Forman to show Nicholson something, which he did, and restored the actor's confidence.[2]

Haskell Wexler was fired as cinematographer and replaced by Bill Butler. Wexler believed his dismissal was due to his concurrent work on the documentary Underground, in which the radical militant group the Weather Underground were being interviewed while hiding from the law. However, Forman said he had terminated Wexler's services over artistic differences. Douglas also claimed Wexler wanted to get Forman fired in order to direct the film himself, and was fueling the cast's distrust of Forman and lack of confidence in their own performances. Both Wexler and Butler received Academy Award nominations for Best Cinematography for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, though Wexler said there was "only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn't shoot".[25]

According to Butler, Nicholson refused to speak to Forman: "...[Jack] never talked to Miloš at all, he only talked to me".[26]

The production went over the initial budget of $2 million and over-schedule, but Zaentz, who was personally financing the movie, was able to come up with the difference by borrowing against his company, Fantasy Records. The total production budget came to $4.4 million.[2]



The film premiered at the Sutton and Paramount Theatres in New York City on November 19, 1975.[27] It was the second-highest-grossing film released in 1975 in the United States and Canada at $109 million,[1] one of the seventh-highest-grossing films of all time at the time.[27] As it was released toward the end of the year, most of its gross was in 1976 and was the highest-grosser for calendar year 1976 with rentals of $56.5 million.[28]

Worldwide, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest grossed $163,250,000. It was the highest-grossing film released by UA up to that time.[3][27]


The performances of Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher received widespread critical acclaim, earning them Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively.

Critics praised the film, sometimes with reservations. Roger Ebert said: "Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a film so good in so many of its parts that there's a temptation to forgive it when it goes wrong. But it does go wrong, insisting on making larger points than its story really should carry, so that at the end, the human qualities of the characters get lost in the significance of it all. And yet, there are those moments of brilliance."[29] Ebert later put the film on his "Great Movies" list.[30] A.D. Murphy of Variety wrote a mixed review as well,[31] as did Vincent Canby in The New York Times: "A comedy that can't quite support its tragic conclusion, which is too schematic to be honestly moving, but it is acted with such a sense of life that one responds to its demonstration of humanity if not to its programmed metaphors."[32]

The film opens and closes with original music by composer Jack Nitzsche, featuring an eerie bowed saw (performed by Robert Armstrong) and wine glasses. On the score, reviewer Steven McDonald: "The edgy nature of the film extends into the score, giving it a profoundly disturbing feel at times–even when it appears to be relatively normal. The music has a tendency to always be a little off-kilter, and from time to time, it tilts completely over into a strange little world of its own"[33]

The film won the "Big Five" Academy Awards at the 48th Oscar ceremony. These include the Best Actor for Jack Nicholson, Best Actress for Louise Fletcher, Best Direction for Forman, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. The film has a 93% rating at Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 115 critics, with an average rating of 9.1/10. The website's critics consensus reads: "Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are worthy adversaries in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Miloš Forman's more grounded and morally ambiguous approach to Ken Kesey's surrealistic novel yielding a film of outsized power."[34] The film has an 84 rating on Metacritic.

Kesey claimed never to have seen the movie, but said he disliked what he knew of it,[9] which was confirmed by Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote: "The first time I heard this story, it was through the movie starring Jack Nicholson. A movie that Kesey once told me he disliked."[35]

In 1993, the film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry.[36]

The Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa cited this as one of his 100 favorite films.[37]


Pantera singer Phil Anselmo released a music video called "Choosing Mental Illness" with his band Philip H. Anselmo & The Illegals. It pays tribute to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The music video shows scenes recreated from the film with Anselmo playing McMurphy and the rest of the band playing other characters from the film, and Nurse Ratched played by actor Michael St. Michaels.[38]

The film has been referenced several times on The Simpsons, including an episode where Homer is committed to an insane asylum and meets a man who believes himself to be Michael Jackson. In an episode from the fourth season of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, titled "Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack," Danny DeVito's character Frank Reynolds is part of subplot that directly parodies the film.

Danny DeVito's role in the parody is significant since he was cast in the original film as the character "Martini". In the episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, a reference is made to DeVito's original role with a character in the parody named "Martini". Additionally, the 1975 film featured Will Sampson as Chief Bromden. In the parody, Tim Sampson, son of Will Sampson, plays "Chief" in mirroring his father's role in the film.[1]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards[39] Best Picture Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz Won
Best Director Miloš Forman Won
Best Actor Jack Nicholson Won
Best Actress Louise Fletcher Won
Best Supporting Actor Brad Dourif Nominated
Best Screenplay – Adapted from Other Material Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman Won
Best Cinematography Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler Nominated
Best Film Editing Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman and Sheldon Kahn Nominated
Best Original Score Jack Nitzsche Nominated
American Cinema Editors Awards Best Edited Feature Film Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman and Sheldon Kahn Nominated
Bodil Awards Best Non-European Film Miloš Forman Won
British Academy Film Awards[40] Best Film Won
Best Direction Miloš Forman Won
Best Actor in a Leading Role Jack Nicholson Won
Best Actress in a Leading Role Louise Fletcher Won
Best Actor in a Supporting Role Brad Dourif Won
Best Screenplay Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman Nominated
Best Cinematography Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler Nominated
Best Editing Richard Chew, Lynzee Klingman and Sheldon Kahn Won
Chicago International Film Festival Best Feature Miloš Forman Nominated
César Awards Best Foreign Film Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Director Miloš Forman Won
Best Foreign Actor Jack Nicholson Won
Directors Guild of America Awards[41] Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Miloš Forman Won
Golden Globe Awards[42] Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Jack Nicholson Won
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Louise Fletcher Won
Best Director – Motion Picture Miloš Forman Won
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman Won
New Star of the Year – Actor Brad Dourif Won
Golden Screen Awards Won
Grammy Awards Best Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or Television Special Jack Nitzsche Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Director Miloš Forman Won
Kinema Junpo Awards Best Foreign Director Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[43] Best Film Won[a]
Nastro d'Argento Best Foreign Director Miloš Forman Won
National Board of Review Awards[44] Top Ten Films 3rd Place
Best Actor Jack Nicholson Won
National Film Preservation Board[45] National Film Registry Inducted
National Society of Film Critics Awards[46] Best Actor Jack Nicholson Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[47] Best Actor Won
Best Supporting Actress Louise Fletcher Runner-up
Online Film & Television Association Awards[48] Hall of Fame – Motion Picture Won
People's Choice Awards[49] Favorite Motion Picture Won
Sant Jordi Awards Best Foreign Actor Jack Nicholson (also for Carnal Knowledge and The Passenger) Won
Writers Guild of America Awards[50] Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman Won

In 2015, the film ranked 59th on BBC's "100 Greatest American Films" list, voted on by film critics from around the world.[51]

American Film Institute

See also



  1. ^ Tied with Dog Day Afternoon.


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