Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based on the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey, won five Academy Awards, placed 33rd on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. But most important of all, it has now charted on The New Poetics: The 20th Century Sublime.
The infamous baseball sequence in the “nuthouse,” where Randle McMurphy commentates game 2 of the 1963 World Series over a blank television screen in protest to Nurse Ratched’s “hen house shit,” rates as one of the greatest moments in not only cinematic history, but all of 20th Century American culture. Whenever I watch this scene, people look at me like I’m crazy, because it never fails to move me to tears; me, a grown man, to tears, when everybody else is laughing. A group of institutionalized males vote on watching a baseball game in the ward at the Salem State Hospital, but are thwarted by the tyrannous head administrative nurse. Randal McMurphy, played by the indomitable Jack Nicholson in the role of his career, refuses to take no for an answer and calls Nurse Ratched out on her shit. The poignancy of this scene lies in how the film’s dehumanized characters are able to find joy, laughter, and community, within the fabric of an illusion, and by embracing McMurphy’s illusion they empower themselves to combat the larger delusion of institutionalization.
Yes, the game is rigged, and the purpose of order is control, control for the sake of control. Nurse Ratched represents the corrupting influence of power and authority in bureaucracies. When the Big Nurse arbitrarily shuts down McMurphy’s request to watch the World Series, he doesn’t back down to her, or the system she represents, or the bullshit rules of a bullshit bureaucracy. His rebellion is the epitome of the noble anti-etablishment ethos that came to a head in America in the 60’s, before being strangled by the conservatism of the 70’s. The delusion of the ole ballgame over the empty television screen is exemplar of the indefatigable nature of the spirit in the face of oppression: No matter what they throw at us, we will always find a way to throw it back.