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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD Review

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest movie poster One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Theatrical Release: November 20, 1975 / Running Time: 133 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Milos Forman / Writers: Ken Kesey (novel); Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman (screenplay)

Cast: Jack Nicholson (Randle Patrick "R.P." McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Nurse Mildred Ratched), William Redfield (Dale Harding), Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit), Will Sampson (Chief Bromden), Sydney Lassick (Charlie Cheswick), Christopher Lloyd (Max Taber), Danny DeVito (Martini), Vincent Schiavelli (Fredrickson), Josip Elic (Bancini), William Duell (Jim Sefelt), Dean R. Brooks (Dr. John Spivey), Nathan George (Washington), Marya Small (Candy), Dwight Marfield (Ellsworth), Delos V. Smith, Jr. (Scanlon), Peter Brocco (Col. Matterson), Mwako Cumbuka (Warren), Scatman Crothers (Turkle), Louisa Moritz (Rose), Mimi Sarkisian (Nurse Pilbow), Lan Flendors (Nurse Itsu), Kay Lee (Night Supervisor), Mel Lambert (Harbor Master), Ted Markland (Hap Arlich), Michael Berryman (Ellis), Alonzo Brown (Miller), Phil Roth (Woolsey), Ken Kenny (Beans Garfield), Tin Welch (Ruckley)

Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from Amazon.com:
Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD • Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray • Two-Disc Special Edition DVD • Single-Disc DVD
Video on Demand (also on iTunes with deleted scenes)


In the 83-year history of the Academy Awards, only three movies have pulled off a "sweep" in arguably the five biggest Oscar categories: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay (original or adapted). The first was Frank Capra's 1934 screwball film It Happened One Night, whose template is still being used for romantic comedies. The third and most recent was 1991's serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs. In between them was this review's subject, the 1975 drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

While all three films are regarded as classics today, few consider them obvious choices for a Greatest Film Ever short list. That reflects the nature of their achievement, which is significant but far from a perfect litmus test to determine greatness. In order to pull off the 5-category sweep, a film must be sharply written, exquisitely presented, highly satisfactory overall, and, the biggest challenge of all (responsible for all four 4-of-5 winners' falling short), it must feature meaty knockout performances by a man and a woman alike. To this tall prerequisites list, we have to add major factors of any Oscar campaign: the politics and biases of the voting body.

R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), the asylum's newest and most sane arrival, tries to get Bancini (Josip Elic) and other chronic patients to vote in favor of a ward World Series viewing.

For instance, right off the bat, we can eliminate any animated movies from contention; even those with more acclaim than any other competitor will not be recognized in the directing or acting categories, for too few voters understand, respect, and appreciate the work that goes into something superficially inhuman.

All three Big Five sweepers did quite well at the box office, but none rank among the inflation-adjusted all-time highest grossers list. Many of those atop the list were recognized with nominations and, in many cases, major awards, but such an extreme degree of public approval also tends to invite additional scrutiny. Nobody wants Goliath to beat David, at least not in every category.

Another thing to consider is release timing, a definite issue in recent years, as studios save contenders for the last possible minute to maximize buzz and returns. Finally, there is remorse.
An actor or director that's recently won the industry's highest honors is less likely to repeat their success, as the Academy looks to either reward new achievers or make up for close second-place finishes of the past.

Out of all the angles to consider on Cuckoo's sweep in March of 1976, this last one is the most relevant. Jack Nicholson, the film's star, had been nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for 1969's Easy Rider, then leading actor honors for 1970's Five Easy Pieces and 1973's The Last Detail. In 1974, Nicholson again picked up a Best Actor nomination, this time for Roman Polanski's Chinatown, a rich noir that would have been the film to beat in many categories in many years, but not the one that saw The Godfather Part II released. Chinatown lost ten of the eleven awards it was up for, including Nicholson's potential Actor trophy going to Harry and Tonto's Art Carney.

The Academy couldn't have been oblivious to Nicholson's history of unawarded fine work, but the retribution theory wouldn't necessarily have spilled over to his new co-star and collaborators. That makes it clear that Cuckoo's was not widely decorated for its leading man's past, as should the fact that though the movie hasn't been at the tip-top of Best Film Ever discussion, it's remained in consideration at every opportunity, from being chosen by the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, to handily featuring in the top half of four American Film Institute lists.

McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) takes pleasure in teaching supposedly deaf, dumb Chief (Will Sampson) a thing or two about basketball. As Big Nurse Ratched, Louise Fletcher mastered the cold blank stare and won a Best Actress Oscar for it.

Based on Ken Kesey's best-selling 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson), a 38-year-old man who is transferred to an Oregon men's asylum for evaluation in 1963. McMurphy (whose first two names are commonly abbreviated to R.P.) arrives from a work farm where he's been carrying out his prison sentence for statutory rape. The admitting reports claim that McMurphy may be faking mental illness to get out of work, something he doesn't necessarily deny nor does the ward administrator Dr. Spivey (Dean R. Brooks) disregard. But the convict is still to be evaluated, and so he joins the ranks of the far more visibly afflicted, many of them, he later learns, there voluntarily.

Along with McMurphy, we grow familiar with the patients: the articulate Harding (William Redfield), upsettable Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), stuttering shy young man Billy Bibbit (an "introduced" Brad Dourif), confrontational Taber (Christopher Lloyd), smiley Martini (Danny DeVito), and the deaf Native American giant known as "Chief" (Will Sampson). McMurphy gets along well enough with these socially impaired men, but they're reluctant to support him in his idea to have the hospital change its schedule to let the guys watch the World Series.

Opposed to that suggestion but open to a vote is the group's on-site authority, Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Always procedural and with a blank, cold look on her face, Ms. Ratched pointedly starts briefly-civil group discussions and dispenses unspecified pills to all. Recognizing McMurphy as a dangerous human influence on the ward, she votes that he isn't passed onto some other place to become someone else's problem. Though he was in the final months of his jail sentence, McMurphy is surprised and upset to learn that he could be committed indefinitely on doctor's orders. This puts a damper on his plans to enliven his inmates, leading him to instead plot escape.

Taber (Christopher Lloyd) is quick to pounce on Harding (William Redfield) for the way he contributes to group therapy and, as seen here, the way he plays Monopoly. A young Brad Dourif received an "And Introducing" credit and his only Academy Award nomination to date for his performance as stuttering Billy Bibbit.

Cuckoo's Nest is a relatively small independent film, confined almost completely to one setting and, at the time, one big star. But it tackled a major issue (mental institutions) and did so in a way that audiences instantly identified and sympathized with.
Returning to it thirty-five years after its release, the movie isn't dated, melodramatic, or heavy-handed the way that current issue films of the 1940s tend to seem today. The story maintains relevance even as awareness and understanding of mental illness seems to increase everyday and schools of thought are always changing. The movie affects less as an indictment of controlling, dehumanizing prison-like facilities and more as a story of one seemingly sane man inspiring those around him not to simply accept what they're told.

I first saw Cuckoo's Nest over ten years ago and felt a bit underwhelmed by it. I had seen and heard some of the extensive praise poured on both Kesey's book and director Milos Forman's adaptation. I knew quite a bit about the latter entering (including the fact that the Boston Celtics center Robert Parish got his fitting nickname from it). There is never any question as to with which side viewers are to sympathize. But I didn't really like McMurphy and didn't really hate Ratched. Seeing the movie a second time all these years later, I think a little more highly of the troublemaker and a little more lowly of the not entirely democratic warden nurse. More importantly, I see the function of the shades of grey and pick up on subtext I either didn't notice or pay attention to.

Do I think this is one of the greatest films of all time? No. And if I had to vote today on 1975's Best Picture nominees, I'd choose Jaws, for the fantastic man vs. monster experience that birthed the thoughtful summer blockbuster and young Steven Spielberg's career. But if I had to rank the nominees, as the Academy now does, Cuckoo's would merit serious consideration alongside Dog Day Afternoon for second place. (Note: I've still yet to see Nashville.)

Cuckoo's Nest is clearly a good film, marked by humanity and humor, and presented with plenty of skill and sage judgment. I can't easily identify any major faults in it. The biggest problems I could point out pertain to story structure and the selling of specific turns and reveals, including the ending. None of it seems important enough to detail right now, whether you have or haven't seen the movie. Yet, it doesn't resonate as strongly for me as other films do, even kindred other dramas from this significant baton-passing era. My estimation of the movie definitely rose with this viewing, so I'm staying open to the idea that it one day could hold a real special place in my heart. Until then, I'm content liking, not loving it.

Warner Bros., who neither made nor distributed the film but assumed home video rights from HBO years ago, recently released the movie to DVD for a third time, Blu-ray a second time, and digital download a first. The DVD and Blu-ray do not carry an official title on their packaging, but each is called an Ultimate Collector's Edition in press materials. Accordingly, they are in the mold of the studio's premium collector-friendly sets, best enjoyed by people who don't like but love the film. Nevertheless, I do love this job and am more than happy to tell you all about the DVD version of this big box and what you'll find inside it.

One quick note before jumping into the technical nitty-gritty, this set is more moderately priced ($39.99 SRP for the DVD, $49.99 for the Blu-ray) than most of Warner's other Ultimate Collector's Editions, although it may be that it offers a bit less than the sets offered the studio's other top-tier titles (among them, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, A Christmas Story, and Blade Runner).

Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Gift Set Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Mono 1.0 (French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish, French
Closed Captioned; Extras Not Captioned
Video Extras Subtitled in English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Thai
Release Date: September 14, 2010
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9s)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.98
Triple-Width Thick Cardboard Box with Digipak, Poster and Press Book
Reproductions, Hardcover Book, Envelope of Cast Photos, and Playing Cards
Also available on Blu-ray Disc ($49.99 SRP) and On Demand rental/purchase
Still available in 1-Disc DVD ($14.98 SRP) and Two-Disc Special Edition ($26.98 SRP)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer given One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest leaves it looking super for most of its runtime. Like much about the film, its visuals are low-key, marked by a narrow palette sparse on color. It's the kind of thing that could easily be lacking or bland, but the presentation is clean and sharp enough to suggest that we're getting the look we should be and with no unwanted qualities. One odd thing is that the latter parts of the film do feature a noticeable amount of grain, considerably more than the rest of it. Whether that is a deliberate effect or the restoration budget ran out,
I don't know, but it's barely significant enough to mention and definitely not troubling enough to warrant major concern.

Though it is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1, the movie sounds much like the monaural production it originally was. Almost all the audio emanates from the front speakers and with minimal directionality. That's appropriate considering the setting, and the dialogue is heard without distortion or age woes. While it's definitely not a movie you pick to show off your home theater or sound design, it's also not one you'll find disappointing in any way.

For this review, I was unable to track down the film's 2002 Two-Disc Special Edition DVD that I suspect looks and sounds identical to this release (all the files have 2002 dates). I was however, able to pick up the movie's original double-sided single DVD that was released in 1997 and remains in print today. Comparing the transfers was no close match on my 16:9 display; the initial DVD was non-anamorphic on its widescreen side. Even overlooking the resolution gained in the new and wasted in the old, there is just no comparison. The original DVD is loaded with minor artifacts and scratches that weren't a big deal coming from VHS but are not at all missed in the newer transfer. Everything is improved; colors, compression, sharpness, detail, clarity. Even the new DVD's soundtrack, underwhelming as far as 5.1 mixes go, offers drastically better depth and crispness than the old disc's quiet Dolby Surround audio.

One thing worth noting is that the new DVD loses the United Artists studio logo at the start of the 1997 DVD, presumably a change made for the 2002 Special Edition. This chops about 20 seconds off the film's runtime, effectively rounding it down to 133 minutes from 134.

Author Ken Kesey, whose screenplay adapting his own novel was rejected, has one of his final interviews restored to the Disc 2 documentary "Completely Cuckoo." Actress Louise Fletcher discusses playing Nurse Ratched while having her hair done in one of the vintage on-set interviews featured in "Completely Cuckoo."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

Disc 1's main bonus feature is an audio commentary featuring director Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. The hodgepodge track pools remarks from three separate sources, Douglas and Zaentz from general interviews and Forman from his 1997 laserdisc commentary. That eliminates conversation and severely reduces the screen-specificity, but the editor does a decent job of making this coherent and collaborative.
There is a fair amount of overlap among the speakers and also with the set's documentary and book. There's no logical way around that; the information is there to be digested in the format of your choice. If you don't make it a point to see and hear everything, the documentary on Disc 2 will serve you better than this and save you about 50 minutes. Judged entirely on its own merits, the commentary is informative and just fine.

The disc also provides five photographically-enhanced text screens of the film's awards and selective, long-dated film credits for Nicholson, Fletcher, writers Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, producers Zaentz and Douglas, and director Forman. These are actually a downgrade from the 1997 DVD, which supplied short biographies and credits for fourteen individuals, including seven cast & crew members missed here. Other text extras dropped from that original DVD include screens on casting, location, and the 13-year journey to get the movie made, all topics more than sufficiently covered in this 2010 edition's bonus video, audio, and book. Also gone are the semi-random recommendations that Warner didn't long employ on the format.

Disc 2's extras begin with Completely Cuckoo (1:26:11), a great feature-length documentary on the film and its making. It was created for the movie's 1997 laserdisc and a shortened 47-minute version appeared on Disc 2 of the 2002 Special Edition DVD. With the notable exceptions of Jack Nicholson and Brad Dourif, the film manages to interview practically anyone then alive and worth interviewing, including author Ken Kesey, book optioner Kirk Douglas, producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz, director Milos Forman, screenwriter Bo Goldman, consultant/actor Dr. Dean R. Brooks, and castmates Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito, (foul-mouthed) Christopher Lloyd, and Vincent Schiavelli.

Written, produced, and directed by Charles Kiselyak, the comprehensive retrospective flows in a logical direction, starting with the book and moving onto the long process to get it made into a film, casting, the story and characters, and the experiences filming in a real mental hospital. The documentary avoids being just a collection of talking heads by supplying a wealth of outtakes, interviews from production, and plenty of relevant footage, from locations to premieres to the Oscar ceremony. That you hardly even notice that Nicholson is absent demonstrates the strength of this fantastic companion, one of the best I've encountered on DVD.

Now 94, Dean R. Brooks, Dr. Spivey in the film and superintendent of the institution used (the Oregon State Hospital), appears with his daughter and granddaughter to discuss his calling in the new documentary "Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill?" The distinctive Michael Berryman, later known for "The Hills Have Eyes" but just 26 years old here, appears in a couple of deleted scenes as the lobotomized Ellis.

Also from Kiselyak is the DVD's one all-new bonus feature, "Asylum: An Empty Nest for the Mentally Ill?" (30:55). This documentary includes interviews with Michael Douglas, doctor/actor Dean Brooks (still going strong at age 94), and Brooks' daughter and granddaughter, who have followed him into psychiatry. The piece offers a defense of the field criticized in the film, updating us on changes in practices and modern challenges. It touches upon the film's uphill effort to shoot in the elder Brooks' facility, but the focus remains on the mental health industry, making it of questionable interest to customers.

Eight deleted scenes (13:22) are of a much higher caliber than most older cut film sequences. Seen here: orderlies taunting Chief, McMurphy meeting Ratched and getting scolded for standing up at their first group session, and a couple more Michael Berryman sightings. We can assume this interesting material was dropped for time considerations, with the film already running over two hours, but there is no commentary to confirm that.

McMurphy enters the hospital in the title card shot of the movie's original theatrical trailer. Nothing says American film like Amιlie (Audrey Tautou), who appears in the AFI's minute-long watching movies in movies montage. "The Departed", "The Bucket List", and "Anger Management" are just some of the credits too recent to appear on Jack Nicholson's dated Disc 1 film credits list.

The original drum-beating Cuckoo's Nest theatrical trailer (2:40) is happily preserved (though sadly not enhanced for 16:9 displays). Disc 2's final listing "American Film Institute Trailer", is a potent 1-minute montage of movie-viewing movie scenes, promoting enrollment in the institute. Bring back those annual countdowns and television specials and I'll consider joining, AFI!

Typical for Warner, the menus are simple, static screens, of which only Disc 1's main menu is accompanied by score. The pages are at least inspired enough to feature appropriate psych ward imagery, like clipboards and folders.

While this is where most DVD reviews come to an end, save for maybe a slipcover confirmation, Warner's set gives us much more to talk about regarding packaging and physical bonuses. This edition is packaged in sturdy box barely taller but three times as wide as a standard DVD keepcase. The box applies foil effects and embossing to its spine and front, which places an iconic monochromatic Nicholson in front of a barbed wire fence. An L-shaped thick piece of cardboard provides a back and right spine showing the set's contents spread out. Once the shrinkwrap is off, this won't stay in place, making it a likely candidate for the trash or recycling bin.

This studio artwork provides a look at the many contents of the "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD, including playing cards, a book, poster and press book reproductions, cast photos, and the main attraction, the two DVD discs.

Inside the box are four components. The two discs are held in a slim Digipak providing variations on the outer box art. In its pocket, we find four glossy 5" x 7" cards replicating the film's original American, Italian, Swedish, and German posters. These are pretty cool, especially knowing how hard it is to find clean, clear images of original marketing supplies for pre-Internet films.
Warner's Ultimate Collector's Editions:
Alongside them is a 12-page staple-bound replica of the movie's original press book. As usual, it's a richer general public read today than it was for the intended journalists who received it upon the 1975 theatrical release. In addition to the official studio line, it includes newspaper and magazine excerpts on the play, the film, its authentic shooting location, and its correctly predicted Oscar-bound star.

Next is a small, wide hardcover book. It's over 50 pages and needs no padding to reach that length. In addition to being adorned with countless film stills and behind-the-scenes photos, the book provides substantial excerpts from Disc 2 documentarian Charles Kiselyak's "Notes from the Cuckoo's Nest" (whatever that is). Inevitably, much of it repeats what's said in the commentary and Completely Cuckoo, but it does so in eloquent fashion. Plus, the book offers plenty of unique charms, comparisons of scenes to their literary equivalent, discussion of the film's different incomplete edits, a fold-out timeline, and updated cast/crew bios and credits.

The third inclusion is a paper envelope identified as Randle P. McMurphy's patient file. It inspiredly features comments by Dr. Spivey and Nurse Ratched from September of 1963 with some convincing signs of wear. Inside the envelope is not a more thorough evaluation of McMurphy but glossy in-character headshots of six of the film's biggest stars: Nicholson, Fletcher, DeVito, Sampson, Dourif, and Lloyd. Some fine additions for your walls dedicated to Academy Award winning actors and the cast of "Taxi."

Last but perhaps not least is a compartment which holds a standard deck of 52 playing cards. What makes these special is that the backs feature the McMurphy and bird cover design (minus title and text) and the fronts of the face cards feature characters' photos. McMurphy claims all the Aces, female characters take the Queens, and the supporting mental patients divvy up the Kings and Jacks. Though the deck may not be as stimulating as the one McMurphy carries in the film, who hasn't dreamed of proudly slapping down a Brad Dourif, Danny De Vito, or Vincent Schiavelli during an intense game of War?

McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) objects to taking an unidentified pill while dirtying the glass with his hand. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) shows her angry face in the messy aftermath of a wild, unauthorized ward party.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest isn't a personal favorite, but it did grow on me a lot with a new viewing. Thirty-five years after release, it remains a sharp, powerful, and extraordinarily acted film. It's easy to appreciate in Warner's new Ultimate Collector's Edition DVD,
whose feature-length documentary, audio commentary, and companion book shed ample light and significance on the movie and the novel it came from.

While many DVD collectors might not care about some of the physical extras (cast photos, poster reproductions, playing cards), these additional items get included at barely any premium price. And, without question, the discs are the best yet offered for the film, with their largely excellent feature presentation and fine, now-restored retrospective documentary standing out as especially commendable.

If you're rebuying the film, you may very well choose the directly comparable Blu-ray version of this set. If like me, you're as content with DVD as you've ever been (especially catalog titles unaffected by the industry's diluting of the format), then this new set provides a clear upgrade over both prior releases, especially the weak letterboxed single disc from 1997. Clear enough to spend $30 on a repeat purchase? You'd have to be a pretty huge fan of the film. But it's definitely a solid first-time purchase as long as you don't mind making three times as much shelf space as for a typical DVD.

Buy One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from Amazon.com:
Ult. CE DVD / Ult. CE Blu-ray / 2-Disc SE DVD / Original 1-Disc DVD / On Demand / The Book

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Related Reviews:
Starring Jack Nicholson: Chinatown • The Shining • The Cry Baby Killer & The Little Shop of Horrors
Brad Dourif: My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done • Child's Play • The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans
Best Picture Oscar Winners: The Godfather Trilogy • Forrest Gump • The Apartment • Braveheart • No Country for Old Men
New: Beauty and the Beast (Diamond Edition) • The Karate Kid (2010 • The Thin Red Line (Criterion Collection) • Frozen
Danny DeVito: Solitary Man • It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: The Complete Season 5 • Deck the Halls • The Rainmaker
Christopher Lloyd: Star Trek III • Santa Buddies • Angels in the Outfield • Angels in the Endzone • DuckTales: The Movie

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Reviewed October 5, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1975 Fantasy Films and 2010 Warner Home Video. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.