MEMORY…ABOLISHED (Found in the Connection: Rattling Loose End #144)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
(D. Milos Forman)

I revisited One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on my once-every-two-weeks (whether I need it or not!) day off yesterday. My only previous viewing was on a black-and-white 19″ TV showing an expurgated version for a major network in the late seventies.

Even then, it made an impression, one that kept me at bay for forty years, even though it has been readily available in various home video formats since the early eighties and sitting on my to-watch shelf for a decade.

The impression–and the decade-by-decade avoidance, knowing all the while I would have to confront it some time–was entirely due to Louise Fletcher’s terrifying performance as Nurse Ratched.  Even as a teenager, I saw Jack Nicholson’s fine Randle McMurphy as being a bit by-the-numbers, and all his fellow “crazies” as a touch hyperbolic, if admittedly effective.

I’m sure I am not the only one who missed the subtlety of Fletcher’s performance. The image above is so firmly etched in the culture’s memory, it’s possible to forget entirely (as I had), that this look was more representative–and just as chilling.

In the “Making of” documentary available on the two-disc “Special Edition” DVD I picked up on some sale table all those years ago, Fletcher says that director Milos Forman never gave her any directions on how to play the character except “Keep it real.”

For her, that meant keeping it Southern. My first shock while watching this again was thinking “She’s from the South!” By which I meant Nurse Ratched, but also Louise Fletcher. I say a shock because the novel (by counter culture hero Ken Kesey) and the film (shot in Oregon) are both so identifiably West Coast that an authentic (not Hollywood) Southern accent is far more “foreign” to the setting than, say, an Asian, Hispanic or Swedish one.

But even more shocking was that Fletcher–about whom I knew nothing except that she was Nurse Ratched–was recognizably Southern. I knew there was no way hers was a put-on accent. Put back on, maybe (I could only guess how many acting classes she had taken), but not put on.

All of which deepened the mystery of what is already a mysterious character, one who is never seen outside her hospital (and rarely off her ward), and gives no overt indication of what her outside life might be like. You might assume a lot–that she’s a lonely, frigid spinster, a regular church-goer, a reader of serious books, dedicated to her profession–but it’s all intuited. It’s not in the script. Everything you think you know is suggested by the distance between Fletcher’s tight smiles and the moment when she can no longer force those smiles.

It’s a short distance, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a persona rooted, at least to the depth with which it is played here, in Fletcher’s time (she was born in 1934) and place (Birmingham, Alabama).

It’s unlikely anyone else who had real creative input on the film (Czechoslovakia’s Forman directing; New Jersey’s Jack Nicholson starring; California’s Michael Douglas and New Jersey’s Saul Zaentz producing; New York’s Bo Goldman adapting Oregonian-by-way-of-California Kesey’s novel) understood what she was doing–regionalizing a universal type, as opposed to the usual universalizing of a regional type–but they must have seen how well it was working. (When Nicholson wanted a first name for the Nurse Ratched character, he asked not Forman or Goldman, but Fletcher. “Mildred” she immediately replied. “Perfect,” he said. He uses the name once in the film, to a gentle but devastating effect which Fletcher says caught her–and her character–off guard. I think one of the several Nurse Ratcheds I encountered growing up was actually named Mildred. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one of Fletcher’s was, too.)

It’s not that any one of Nurse Ratched’s obvious or not-so-obvious characteristics couldn’t be found in non-southerners. I’m sure they all have been and perhaps even all in one place. It’s just that the Southern connotation, so delicately applied here, opens up a whole new set of questions.

How did she come here? (Or, How did she come here? Or, How did she come here?)

What has she been through?

What has she seen?

What did she think of what she has seen?

And is what she has seen what made her this way, determined to right the world’s wrongs at any cost?

Not wanting to know the answers to any of these was understandable when Nurse Ratched was a simple monster, floating around in our selective memories–mine and the culture’s.

But now I want to know–almost need to know. Kesey and Forman are gone. Fletcher, so far as I can find, has given only the perfectly sound and reasonable answers you would expect her to give, which don’t really answer any question worth asking.

I need to know, though. (Put the emphasis where you like.)

Otherwise I’m left with only my old, now wretchedly incomplete, understanding.

That it isn’t the monsters you need to watch out for.

It’s the “responsible” people.

The ones who know what’s best for you.

Until a couple of days ago, that was reassuring.

No longer.


December 12-Unfaithfully Yours (1948, Preston Sturges, 4th Viewing)

To find out if Sturges can take off from noir the way the rest of his career took off from John Ford’s movies with Will Rogers. With each viewing,  I feel him inching closer, the way Rex Harrison keeps getting closer to having off his wife’s head–or his own–just because she’s so lovely in every way.

December 12-Emma (1996, Douglas McGrath, 3rd Viewing)

Because I’ve been wondering if Gwyneth Paltrow’s star-making performance–distributed by Harvey Weinstein’s company either just before or just after he tried to molest her (I haven’t been able to get the timeline straight even in the context of assuming everybody who is now on the record remembers everything just the way it was)–holds up.

It does.

And everything good around it, which is just about everything, is still good.

I watched it the first time as a rental. That was right after I saw Paltrow interviewed on Charlie Rose. Surrounded by snakes she was. Jane Austen must have seemed like a godsend. Any Jane Austen. But especially Emma, who is loved and valued to exactly the extent she keeps her mean streak cloaked under velvet manners. I think this might become a favorite.

December 13-Blast of Silence (1961, Allen Baron, 2nd Viewing)

To see if I missed anything the first time around. I don’t think so. This is a good, solid little noir which has gained enough of a reputation to merit a Criterion release. I’ll probably watch it again–it might make a great early sixties New York double bill with The Apartment.  But my old problem will always arise: outside Patricia Highsmith, I’m just not that interested in psychopaths. Not even the ones who are trying to convince me they want to go straight.

December 14-Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen, 1st Viewing)

I’m treating this as a first viewing even though it might be a second…and the first may not have been that long ago. I’m too tired to look it up, but if this is a second viewing, I might have revisited it to see if Richard Burton can get past that blonde wig.

There’s something a bit off about the whole exercise and that no-doubt-period-accurate wig (I can’t conceive another reason to make Richard Burton, of all people, look like Little Lord Fauntleroy) exemplifies the picture’s stagnant, occasionally ornery nature. The history’s not bad. The sets are often magnificent and there are individual scenes that work well.

Still, it’s missing something.

It’s too bad Land of the Pharaohs, released the previous year, wasn’t a hit. Joan Collins might have spiced this right up.

December 14-Body Double (1984, Brian DePalma, 1st Viewing)

Because I saw it for a buck in a local thrift shop and I was in the mood for some DePalma I hadn’t seen.

I won’t be in the mood for this again anytime soon. I’d rather have my chest drilled, like one of DePalma’s victims. That shot above is the best thing in the movie. One could be fooled by it into thinking this might be worth two hours of your time.

Don’t be fooled.

December 17-Point Break (1991, Kathryn Bigelow, 3rd Viewing)

For the action scenes, which just keep coming. They’re among the best in modern cinema and have proved to be Kathryn Bigelow’s real calling card even as she’s moved on to Oscar bait high concept stuff.

And for Patrick Swayze’s performance as a sociopath with enough real charisma to make you understand why a fellow danger jockey like Keanu Reeves’ Johnny Utah might fall for him even after the mask has come all the way off.

Plus a bunch of real life surfers who give you a tantalizing look into a culture that’s a long way from Dick Dale or Endless Summer.

Besides, there’s not really a higher concept than surfing bank robbers.

December 18-Cheyenne Autumn (1964, John Ford, Not Quite Umpteenth Viewing)

I guess I’ve seen this about half-a-dozen times now. For me and a Ford film, that’s just getting started.

It’s an odd, late entry in the Ford canon. Like a lot of his less-than-great films it divides people, sometimes bitterly.

I’m not in the “hidden masterpiece” camp, but I keep coming back to it.

Every time, I think it won’t work: That Richard Widmark not being John Wayne and Carroll Baker not being Vera Miles and Mike Mazurki not being Victor McLaglen and baby-faced Sal Mineo not making much of an Indian is just too much working against it even before the flat ending.

But, every time, I see so many good things in it–the long opening sequence, as fine as anything Ford ever did, the haunting shot of Karl Malden’s decent-but-blustering fort commander contemplating the carnage wrought by his own incompetence before he wanders into the snow, Mazurki’s “Cossack” scene, where he turns out to be pretty damn close to Victor McLaglen after all–I know I’ll always come back.

Late Ford, old Ford, sick Ford, conflicted Ford. It’s still Ford.

December 20-Black Rain (1984, Ridley Scott, 4th Viewing)

Because there aren’t enough Kate Capshaw movies, not even ones where she’s underutilized. And because, come to think of it, there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play a good guy, even if he’s a good guy with some more than rough edges…meaning there aren’t enough movies where Michael Douglas gets to play scenes no other actor of his generation could play so well and which happen over and over here.

And because only Ridley Scott could make modern Tokyo look and feel like an underworld.

If not the Underworld.

December 20-Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, Rian Johnson, 1st Viewing)

Because it’s showing at the mall and it’s that time again. (More, perhaps, in next month’s At the Multiplex. For the record, after a close run during the first hour, I enjoyed it.)

December 21-The Man Who Never Was (1956, Ronald Neame, 3rd Viewing)

Because better a just-going-to-seed Gloria Grahame (already…by 1956!) playing an almost good girl with a broken heart than no Gloria Grahame at all.

And for a lovely ending, of which the modern world, where we can dream anything we like, did not turn out to be worthy.

Great poster, though.

Til next time….