One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Milos Forman; Cinematographers: Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler)
During Oscar Month, a reader asked me if I felt Bill Butler and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was intentionally bland, a way to visualize the numbing monotony of the mental hospital. I hadn’t seen Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel in quite some time, and though I remembered its powerful story and acting, I drew a blank at its aesthetic qualities. Revisiting it, Cuckoo’s Nest does look rather dull, but there is a definite contrast between the listless greys of the hospital and the brief interlude of colorful freedom, in which the patients, wearing bright orange life-jackets, board a fishing boat, and Candy (Mews Small) is introduced, all smiles, in her red top to the patients’ reverent approval. When Christopher Lloyd’s Taber starts to reel in a fish, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the others are all in frame, backing him, a sense of community working toward a common, simple goal.
Much of the cinematography inside the hospital is overtly mechanical and static. The group therapy meetings, perfect places for pans between characters, are made up almost entirely of medium shots, the community seen on the fishing boat disassembled. Here, there is only isolation. When Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Rached enters the film for the first time, she walks silently through the cream colored walls toward a motionless camera, giving off an air of order and rigidity without saying a word.
Then there are moments of brilliance, where Wexler and Butler seem to have complete mastery over their lenses, capturing deep, discomforting emotions through blocking and subtle movements. During McMurphy’s electroconvulsive therapy, an above shot places the film’s protagonist in a position of confounding supplication, a slow zoom adding an undeniable dread as McMurphy’s confidence dissolves, and the abject fear he’s been hiding all along behind his wit pulses naked from his pleading eyes. Only one “dose” is shown, and perhaps only one “dose” administered, but the point is made. The close-up of McMurphy’s clenched jaw, his jutting chest, convey agony in its extreme. There is no music. Forman understands the same story doesn’t need to be told twice. Nicholson’s face is enough. This is Kesey’s America. You know, land of the free, and all that.