One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is arguably the most famous mental institution-based movie ever made. Directed by Milos Forman, the film was nominated for a plethora of Academy Awards; best picture, best actor, best actress, best director and the award for adapted screenplay. It’s one of those films with a special little aura around it; it is at least trying to say something profound.
The film is about R.P. McMurphy, who is sent to Oregon State Hospital because, in his words, “I fight and f*ck too much.” Over the course of the story, McMurphy rages against the hospital’s regime and attempts to bring some sort of disordered sanity into the lives of his new friends. As much as it addresses the darkness which those suffering from genuine mental illnesses can experience, it still feels sanitised in some way – if only by hammering home a feel-good, if bittersweet ending.
Girl, Interrupted (1999), directed by James Mangold, was made much later but is set within the same decade. Though taken from the writings of Susanna Keyson and based on her real life experiences after her diagnosis of borderline personality disorder; Girl, Interrupted seems to deliberately try and replicate the feel of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It certainly feels as if certain set pieces and character types are borrowed from the former in order to hopefully emulate its success. Girl, Interrupted did manage to win a Golden Globe, an Academy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award, but all were awarded to Angela Jolie for her supporting role as Lisa. While these awards rightly celebrate Jolie’s performance (which far outshines that of the frankly overrated Winona Ryder), this doesn’t quite compare to the same level of recognition received by its predecessor. In short, I find it difficult not to watch Girl, Interrupted as a female remake of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Both boast noteworthy cast lists; Cuckoo’s Nest especially has a cast list of now infamous actors all at the start of their careers, barely recognisable by virtue of their youth. Jack Nicholson takes the lead as R.P. McMurphy, Christopher Lloyd plays Taber, Danny DeVito is Martini and Brad Dourif is introduced as Billy Bibbit. Likewise, Girl, Interrupted boasts Whoopie Goldberg as Valerie, Clea DuVall as Georgina, the late Brittany Murphy as Daisy, Angelia Jolie as Lisa and Winona Ryder as the lead character, Susanna Keyson.
One of the most archetypal ’mental institution film’ scenes occur in day rooms, where patients passively sit and, in the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, are relentlessly questioned to the accompaniment of long, lingering shots of hands passing over pained faces and men dejectedly dragging on cigarettes. These scenes point to the film’s origins; Dale Wasserman’s play version of Ken Kesey’s novel, and certainly feel very play-like. Conversely, the women of Girl, Interrupted seem to reply more on the day room TV, most notably the heart-rending sight of Georgina’s (Clea DuVall) tear streaked face as she turns from The Wizard of Oz to share her enjoyment of the film’s finale with the other women around her. The men, meanwhile, are not even allowed to have their day room television on, and McMurphy must imagine a baseball game up for his companions.
There is a sequence in both films where the institution’s occupants escape into the real world. In the case of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the anarchic fishing-trip-cum-prison-break organised by McMurphy is clearly supposed to be a welcome break for his fellow patients, however it becomes clear that many of the basic activities inherent in this trip seem overwhelming to them. The girls of Girl, Interrupted, however, are taken out by Nurse Valerie for ice cream (curious during very snowy weather… who are the inmates here?) The atmosphere during this scene is particularly claustrophobic; Susanna has seen the wife of the man she slept with before trying to hurt herself and being hospitalised in Claymoore. Frustratingly for Susanna, though, the other women are drawing a lot of attention to themselves and the girl’s version of being publically deviant is mainly depicted as sexualised. When Susanna is later cornered by the woman however, the others leap to her aid and show some sisterly solidarity. Both outings are equally disastrous in their own way.
There are also other scenes of transgression; in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy organises a going away party; in Girl, Interrupted, they sneak into their doctor’s office and wander around the basement. In both, the patients gain access to their files. The girls in Girl, Interrupted sit with their records, study them and read them aloud, seeing themselves through the perspective of the establishment. The men in Cuckoo’s Nest mainly stare at their records, dumbfounded and perplexed. During these scenes of transgression, there are also sexual experiences; poor Billy Bibbit manages to lose his virginity and Lisa must use her feminine whiles against an orderly in order to get access to their records. In both films, the women are presented as fairly sexualised creatures, aside from the women in power. In Girl, Interrupted, Vanessa Redgrave plays a calm, motherly Dr Wick, who is a far cry from Cuckoo’s Nest’s Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, who I’m afraid I mainly dislike just because of the Exorcist II movie). Ratched is scary because she doesn’t seem to know she is being cruel and vindictive, she has become programmed by the institution to believe that she is acting in everyone’s best interests.
There are also suicides. Having seen Scum (1979) only a short amount of time before I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the first time, I originally watched Billy Bibbit’s death as a rip-off of Davis’ suicide. Having allowed the memory of British Borstal-based Scum to fade (which I didn’t enjoy all that much anyway), I have come to appreciate the acting and directing of the scenes surrounding Billy’s frustrating and heart-breaking demise. Brad Dourif really should have got the Oscar for best supporting actor in this film. Five words: “Please don’t tell my mother.”
Daisy’s suicide in Girl, Interrupted is eerie, if no less easy to see coming. Susanna gradually realises that something is wrong and creeps closer to the bathroom door to the sounds of Skeeter Davis’ End of the World on constant replay. Susanna’s reaction is shocked grief, whereas Lisa is more callous and calculating; she goes through Daisy’s pockets as she is hanging there in the bathroom. The other men on the ward in One flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest don’t seem to know what to think. Only McMurphy acts; an act which will seal his fate for good.
What happens when you watch this particularly niche genre of film is that, despite yourself, you start to try and play detective and try to diagnose the characters, to work out what sort of mental trauma ails each of them. Both films also go to that ‘striving for an Academy Award’ place of ugliness and degradation, but still keep it glossy enough to appeal to a mainstream audience. The men are for the most part depicted as a mixture of brooding and child-like. The women are stoic; their tears are silent and they seem more detached from their endless suffering.
The use of flashbacks in Girl, Interrupted gives more of a sense that there is hope and life outside of the institution, whereas in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, we must piece back-stories together and the outside world; the real pasts of these characters, their real futures, seem like more of an abstract concept.
In the end, both main characters make their escape. Susanna is allowed to leave, but Lisa, after a total breakdown, must remain behind. R.P. McMurphy is lobotomised (oop… sorry, spoiler alert) and the Chief’s ‘merciful’ suffocation of him is dealt with in the film as its own form of escape. The Chief (Will Sampson) then makes his own physical escape from the institution, and the men woken by his noisy getaway seem to almost escape vicariously by watching him go (as seen by Christopher Lloyd’s violently satisfied facial expressions at the film’s close).
I think that both of these films are very well made and very watchable and despite myself I also enjoy some of the more sugar-coated aspects. These can also been seen in a film such as K-Pax (2001) where ‘is-he-isn’t-he-an-alien ‘Prot (Kevin Spacey) attempts to teach patients to ‘cure themselves’ by looking for signs such as the ‘bluebird of happiness’. These films create miniature ‘journey’ stories for individual patients, who go through great mental trauma but come out stronger and ultimately unscathed; so rarely is this really the case. It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) also takes on this sort of it’ll-all-come-right-in-the-end ethos (in which Zach Galifianakis’s character Bobby also steals a phrase which McMurphy delivers to Billy Bibbit about “bird-doggin’ chicks.” ) A film such as Manic (2001,the same year as K-Pax) gives a more realistic if less encouraging picture, where change is slow, hard and rarely permanent.
It is difficult to avoid the cliché when making these types of films; and it’s worth nothing that in most cases the original books manage to do a much better job of doing so. As an example, the ending of the film version of Girl, Interrupted (emphatically not the same as the book) “Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is.” Oh please, like we didn’t figure out that one on our own.