One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the 1975 American drama film was directed by Milos Forman and based on the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckooo's Nest by Ken Kesey. The 1963 stage adaptation of the book is also entitled One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.
The film was the second to win all five major Academy Awards, (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay) following It Happen ed One Night in 1934, an accomplishment not repeated until 1991 by The Silence of the Lambs.
In 1963 Oregon, Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a recidivist criminal serving a short sentence on a prison farm for statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl, is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation. He hopes to avoid hard labour and serve the rest of his sentence in a more relaxed environment. Although he is anti-authoritarian with a history of violence, McMurphy exhibits no overt signs of mental illness.
McMurphy's ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients. McMurphy finds that they are more fearful of Ratched than they are focused on becoming functional in the outside world. McMurphy establishes himself immediately as the leader; his fellow patients include Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), a nervous, stuttering young man; Charlie Cheswick (Sidney Lassick), a man disposed to childish fits of temper; Martini (Danny De Vito), who is delusional; Dale Harding (William Redfield), a high-strung, well-educated paranoid; Taber (Christopher Lloyd), who is belligerent and profane; and "Chief" Bromden (Will Sampson), a silent six-foot-seven Native American believed to be deaf and mute.
McMurphy's and Nurse Ratched's battle of wills escalates rapidly. When McMurphy's card games win away everyone's cigarettes, Ratched confiscates the cigarettes and rations them out. McMurphy calls for votes on ward policy changes to challenge her. He makes a show of betting the other patients he can escape by lifting an old hydrotherpay console—a massive marble plumbing fixture—off the floor and sending it through the window; when he fails to do so, he turns to them and says, "But I tried goddammit. At least I did that."
McMurphy steals a hospital bus, herds his colleagues aboard, stops to pick up Candy (Marya Small), a party girl, and takes the group deep sea fishing on a commandeered boat. He tells them: "You're not nuts, you're fishermen!" and they begin to feel faint stirrings of self-determination.
Soon after, however, McMurphy learns that Ratched and the doctors have the power to keep him committed indefinitely. Sensing a rising tide of insurrection among the group, Ratched tightens her grip on everyone. During one of her group humiliation sessions, Cheswick's agitation boils over and he, McMurphy and the Chief wind up brawling with the orderlies. They are sent up to the "shock shop" for electroconvulsive therapy. While McMurphy and the Chief wait their turn, McMurphy offers Chief a piece of gum, and Chief murmurs "Thank you". McMurphy is delighted to find Bromden is neither deaf nor mute, and stays silent to deflect attention. After the electroshock therapy, McMurphy shuffles back onto the ward feigning Catatonia, before humorously animating his face and loudly greeting his fellow patients, assuring everyone that the ECT only charged him up all the more and that the next woman to take him on will "light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars."
But the struggle with Ratched is taking its toll, and with his release date no longer a certainty, McMurphy plans an escape. He phones Candy to bring her friend Rose (Louisa Moritz) and some booze to the hospital late one night. They enter through a window after McMurphy bribes the night orderly, Mr. Turkle (Scatman Crothers). McMurphy and Candy invite the patients into the day room for a party; the group breaks into the drug locker, puts on music, and enjoys a baccanalian rampage. At the end of the night, McMurphy and Bromden prepare to climb out the window with the girls. McMurphy says goodbye to everyone, and invites an emotional Billy to escape with them; he declines, saying he is not yet ready to leave the hospital—though he would like to date Candy in the future. McMurphy insists Billy have sex with Candy right then and there, and Billy (and Candy) agree. They retire to a private room. The effects of the alcohol and pilfered medication take their toll on everyone, including McMurphy and the Chief, whose eyes slowly close in fatigue.
Nurse Ratched arrives the next morning and discovers the scene: the ward completely upended and patients passed out all over the floor. She orders the attendants to lock the window, clean up, and conduct a head count. When they find Billy and Candy, the other patients applaud and, buoyed, Billy speaks for the first time without a stutter. Nurse Ratched then announces that she will tell Billy's mother what he has done. Billy panics, his stutter returns, and he starts punching himself in the groin; locked in the doctor's office, he kills himself. McMurphy, enraged at Nurse Ratched, chokes her nearly to death until orderly Washington knocks him out.
Some time later, the patients in the ward play cards and gamble for cigarettes as before, only now with Harding dealing and delivering a pale imitation of McMurphy's patter. Nurse Ratched, still recovering from the neck injury sustained during McMurphy's attack, wears a neck brace and speaks in a thin, reedy voice. The patients pass a whispered rumor that McMurphy dramatically escaped the hospital rather than being taken "upstairs".
Late that night, Chief Bromden sees McMurphy being escorted back to his bed, and initially believes that he has returned so they can escape together—which he is now ready to do since McMurphy has made him feel "as big as a mountain". However, when he looks closely at McMurphy's unresponsive face, he is horrified to see lobotomy scars on his forehead. Unwilling to allow McMurphy to live in such a state—or be seen this way by the other patients—the Chief smothers McMurphy with his pillow. He then carries out McMurphy's escape plan by lifting the hydrotherapy console off the floor and hurling the massive fixture through a grated window, climbing through and running off into the distance.
The film went on to win a total of five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Jack Nicholson (who played McMurphy), Best Actress for Louise Fletcher (who played Nurse Ratched), Best Direction for Milkos Forman, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman. The film currently has a 96% "Certified Fresh" rating at Rotten Tomatoes,
The film is considered to be one of the greatest American films. Ken 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. Kesey himself claimed never to have seen the movie, but said he disliked what he knew of it, a fact 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".