The Movies Made Me Do It: Confessions of a Film Actor (Issue #5)

Russell Bradley Fenton
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
6 min readNov 30, 2020
“‘One flew over the cuckoo’s nest’ pictogram movie poster” by Viktor Hertz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975, R — It was November 1996. I had just gotten off for Thanksgiving break. I was really sad. Depressed. Hating middle school. Feeling suicidal. Wanting to fight certain bullies who dissed me on the basketball court or during classes. In my neighborhood video store, I scanned the shelves of films from the 70s. I was really into dramas, especially Academy Award stuff. I began to realize how much good acting there was in them (and wished to be an actor so I could be someone else for a change). And I saw Jack Nicholson’s face on the cover of the video box. He was laughing. Wearing hospital patient attire over his blue collar shirt. Spraying water from a tub at whoever or whatever.

I watched it alone. It only took a few minutes till I was hooked. The music was somber. Kinda folksy-sounding. I don’t remember the instrument, but it brayed and bellowed in a soulful, dreamy way. And the mental patients were all in a daze. Which felt so real, it was scary. I recognized some actors. Whoa, that’s Danny DeVito. Ooh, there’s Doc Brown from Back to the Future. And these actors were all in — I mean, ALL IN — with their performances. I immediately knew their problems. I identified with their fears. And most of all, their sadness was so, so visceral. Then in comes Jack Nicholson, playing R.P. McMurphy, grinning, laughing, and making a whole joke of it.

It was a bit of a shock. Here was a guy who didn’t give a shit. Who put up his middle finger to the rules. And wasn’t afraid to be an asshole, especially if it meant shaking up the place. He just got transferred from a prison work farm for beating up someone, maybe intentionally, maybe psychotically. But I knew I wanted to sit in group therapy with this guy. Because he made sense. And he couldn’t help but cackle or grimace at the sad revelations going around the circle, all lorded over by the domineering Nurse Ratched.

Her face was cold. Her eyes were colder. And her voice was soothing in all the wrong ways. Like vindictive. Even belittling. She would use that overhead intercom like an SS officer announcing orders to imprisoned Jews in a concentration camp. She wanted these patients, specifically these men, to do as they’re told, take their medicine, and stay helpless forever, instead of release their pain and discover their raison d’etre. She defined villainy. She WAS the problem.

I got more and more caught up as the movie went along. The patients were beginning to change. There was eventual growth and a newly instilled sense of purpose, fed by McMurphy. And so many memorable scenes with incredibly relatable moments that defined taking risks, getting uncomfortable, and standing up for yourself:

  • when McMurphy loses a vote to watch the World Series, then twists the loss into a win by ‘pretending’ to watch the game on TV, getting all the others riled up, cheering, upsetting the balance, and pissing off Nurse Ratched, who watches from a distance, as the irritating Muzak plays
  • when he makes a bet with the others to throw a tub through the window in an effort to escape, then fails, then sees their indifference, and ends with, “But I tried goddamn it…at least I did that.”
  • when he DOES escape with the patients, commandeers a boat, and takes them all fishing, out on the open water, without any supervision, and succeeds in snaring a marlin
  • when he organizes an after-hours farewell Christmas party, complete with booze, underage girlfriends, and plenty of cough syrup

That last sequence leads to a moment that will forever stick in my mind: he’s ready to go out the window, escape, and be free of this place. But instead, he stays by the window, waiting for his friend, the stuttering Billy Bibbitt, to break his virginity with one of the girls…and he waits…and the camera holds on his face, while a train, far off in the distance, toots its horn…and right there, I knew that McMurphy would forever chase the idea of being free. I started saying to the screen, “Okay, pack your shit, time to go,” But he doesn’t, and he stays…and he waits…and he falls asleep, and…

When the film ended on a painful rite of passage, I was bawling. All by myself. I hadn’t seen a movie like this that hit me so hard in the gut. I was laughing at the start and was crushed by the end. How could the hero lose? How could this be real life? Why did I hate Nurse Ratched so much? And why are people mentally sick in this world? Isn’t there something better we can do, so we can get people to feel like the heroes of their own lives, instead of the victims?

Fast-forward to the film today:

There’s an obvious undercurrent of misogyny. Women in this film are either mean authority figures with zero compassion or they are uneducated, liquor-swilling girls who pass the time with a charismatic but dangerous felon. Aside from that, it’s a very dudely movie — all males, mostly white, a few ethnic, including the symbolic figure of the story, the Native American known as “Chief,” who pretends to be deaf and mute. Yes, the film is not about Nurse Ratched or why she behaved cruelly to her patients. But these questions in today’s culture can’t be ignored, especially with #MeToo and our current mental healthcare system, thereby rendering One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as dramatically one-sided. I had hoped the pilot to Ryan Murphy’s latest revisionist series Ratched on Netflix would explore some of this, but so far, it seems to celebrate the fact that she was (and still is) a monster. One could argue that we don’t know much about McMurphy’s backstory either in the film: what drove him to lash out at the world and assume being a ringleader was better than being his own leader? We don’t know.

Which leads us to accept (or not accept) the fact that the film boils down to one theme — the idea of conformity — and our struggles with it as human beings. Anyone with compassion for mentally ill people will see the message clearly, despite its dated sense of gendering, coupled with our now evolved sense of understanding (and hunger) for character backstory. This is why television remains the stronger medium today than film: audiences are willing to spend more time getting to know what makes the characters tick. Especially over the course of a series, rather than a two hour film. They want to know when it all started, the where, and the why in this ever-growing age of information.

Nevertheless, I will always look to this movie as a stepping stone in my life. It forced me to remember that you don’t have to throw in the towel, call yourself crazy, and wither away in a hospital. That there is a power within you, within all of us, a voice that stays connected to our soul, or light, or our intuitive side. And it will always whisper to us to change. To grow. And embrace the fears and doubts and insecurities that plague so many at whatever stages in their lives. Running away from them or staying in the cave simply keeps one in the darkness. Until that darkness consumes whatever light remains.

Fun fact: I wanted to direct the stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest during my college days. I was a theatre major, hungry to produce a searing drama and provide a cool showcase for other actors. But I was politely dissuaded by the faculty and staff, because in their words, the play was too male-heavy. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t, because the movie works better than the play, simply because we can see, up close, the pain and discomfort in the patients’ eyes. And the steely demeanor of Nurse Ratched. And poor McMurphy, as he stares up at the ceiling, in his final moments, unable to acknowledge the Chief.

That’s the power of film. That’s why we watch movies.



Russell Bradley Fenton
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

I am a film/TV actor for life, screenwriter in development, and film/TV enthusiast.