There is a Hollywood legend that some years ago a screenwriter, frustrated by the ignorance and lack of imagination of the MBA types now manning desks at the big studios, began circulating a screenplay.
He hadn’t written it. It was actually the screenplay for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the film that in 1976 won Oscar for picture, actor, actress, director, and screenplay. The scribe changed the title and the names of the characters, but basically it was Milos Forman’s original screenplay.
Not only did none of the suits to whom he submitted the script recognize it as that of a major award-winning film, but none of them thought it had any commercial potential – although one fellow suggested it might have possibilities if a happy ending were tacked on in which the mental patient McMurphy doesn’t die, but rather kills his nemesis, Nurse Ratched.
The point of this tale, which is probably apocryphal, was that 20 years after Cuckoo’s Nest Hollywood had become too conservative and unimaginative to recognize the film’s genius.
Actually, getting Cuckoo’s Nest made the first time was no walk in the park.
Ken Kesey’s best-selling novel had become a Broadway play starring Kirk Douglas, who purchased the film rights and struggled for years to find the financing for a movie. The studio bigwigs pointed out that no movie about mental illness had ever been a hit.
Eventually burned out, he gave his son Michael Douglas permission to pursue the project.
Milos Forman, who would win his first directing Oscar for Cuckoo’s Nest, was living in New York’s Chelsea Hotel at the time, pondering how as a Czech refugee from Communism he might break into the American movie industry.
“One day I got a package from California,” he recalled in his memoir Turnaround. “Inside was a book I’d never heard of, written by an author I’d never heard of, accompanied by a letter from two producers I’d never heard of. When I opened the novel and started to read, it gripped me immediately. I had no idea that the book had been not only a best-seller but a publishing phenomenon, yet I saw right away that this was the best material I’d come across in America.”
Ken Kesey’s novel is about a petty criminal, McMurphy (played in the film by Jack Nicholson) who feigns madness so that he can spend time in a psych ward rather than a prison cell. A born rabble rouser, McMurphy encourages the fearful patients to rebel against the autocratic rule of the pill-pushing Nurse Ratched.
For his defiance of authority, McMurphy pays the ultimate price.
Forman saw in the novel a fable about the eternal conflict between the individual and the institution.
“We invent institutions to help make the world more just, more rational. Life in society would not be possible without orphanages, schools, courts, government offices, and mental hospitals – yet no sooner do they spring into being than they start to control us, regiment us, and run our lives.”
Forman learned that lesson first hand in his native Czechoslovakia, which he fled in 1968 after the liberal “Prague Spring” was crushed beneath the treads of invading Soviet tanks.
Producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz (a music empresario whose big moneymaker was Creedence Clearwater Revival) were looking for a writer/director who was ambitious but cheap. They offered Forman a deal that paid little up front but included points on the profit, a clause that ended up working in the immigrant’s favor.
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The movie was shot largely in a real working mental institution in Salem, Oregon. The hospital’s director, Dr. Dean Brooks, overlooked the years of animosity between his profession and a film industry bent on depicting the most horrific mental health abuses. Instead Brooks welcomed Forman with the caveat that his patients be given jobs on the set. He believed the experience would be helpful in their treatment.
Forman was delighted with this arrangement. Not only were the patients conscientious and dedicated workers, but they gave the cast members – among them then-unknowns like Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, and Christopher Lloyd – models on which to base their on-screen characters.
Dr. Brooks ended up playing himself in the movie.
From the beginning Forman envisioned Jack Nicholson as McMurphy, but doubted he could get the extremely hot actor to participate in what was going to be a relatively low-budget production. But he called Nicholson, who replied that he had tried to buy the film rights to Kesey’s book but was outbid by Kirk Douglas. In fact he was eager to play the role.
For Nurse Ratched Forman cast against type. Figuring that an actress who immediately came off as pushy and controlling would reveal her character too soon in the movie, he went with the sweet, gentle Louise Fletcher. Beneath her good manners he sensed a core of steel.
But even with a major star like Nicholson aboard, Cuckoo’s Nest couldn’t find financing. Finally producer Zaentz used one of his own companies, Fantasy Records, to underwrite the $4 million project.
It was money well spent. The film grossed $140 million in America and $280 million worldwide. Moreover, it picked up more important Oscars than any movie since It Happened One Night four decades earlier.
Forman won the Oscar for best director (he would win again a few years later for Amadeus). And suddenly he was one of the hottest names in Hollywood.
“I’d directed a Hollywood movie that had made a lot of money, so I’d shed the reputation of an artsy European director who liked to work with nonactors and whose sense of humor was too cutting for apparatchiks, sentimental producers, and corporate lifers. The best scripts were sent to me, and all my phone calls were answered. I’d made lots of money.
“Everything in my life had turned around.”
Other films in the series “Mondays with Milos”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- September 10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Rated R
- September 17: Ragtime (1981) Rated PG
- September 24: Hair (1979) Rated PG
- October 1: Amadeus (1984) Rated PG
- October 8: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) Rated R
- October 15: Loves of a Blonde (1965) Not Rated
- October 22: Man on the Moon (1999) Rated R
- October 29: Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.