CLASSIC MOVIE SCENES #12 – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975) – “WORLD SERIES”
Directed by Milos Forman
Produced Saul Zaentz, Michael Douglas
Screenplay by: Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman – adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel.
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Will Sampson, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick etc.
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler
**** CONTAINS SPOILERS ****
Multi-award winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) is easily one of the most complex, intense and darkly funny cinematic explorations of mental health I have ever seen. It is also one of the best films I have ever seen too. Based on Ken Kesey’s novel, it charts the admission of Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) to an Oregon mental institution as he attempts to avoid hard labour at a prison farm.
McMurphy is a charismatic, anti-heroic and anti-establishment criminal, but definitely not crazy in the clinical sense. Rather than lie low and serve his time though, he constantly clashes with the staff, notably Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). His unruly behaviour causes him to excite the other patients of the facility, becoming infectious. Thus, Nurse Ratched acts to quell such rebellion causing further conflict with McMurphy. Jack Nicholson is on absolutely incredible form in this film. He’s wild, funny, excitable, manipulative and very entertaining. On the other hand, Louise Fletcher is cool, calm, but equally devious. She loves to be in control and takes quiet joy in denying the inmates their wants.
When McMurphy “loses” a vote to watch the World Series Baseball of 1963 on television, he’s determined to get his own way. So much so, in this classic scene, he enacts what he thinks is happening in a fake commentary. Nicholson is so realistic and excitable you feel like you’re actually at the game. It’s such a classic scene with the gentle music counterpointing Nicholson’s manic delivery. Moreover, the ensemble inmate’s celebrations, Nurse Ratched’s cold-hearted face and a blank television screen create a powerful set of images. Ultimately, McMurphy is a tragic character as he tries to bend the system, only to eventually break himself by the end.
Now I would like to broaden the subject and have a go at defining some basic film character archetypes. My definition of this has some crossover with personas, but archetypes are not necessarily the component which make up the character – they ARE the character!
Archetypes are a common or typical shorthand; a tool writers, directors and actors can use to define character during the creative process. They are not stereotyping though. They are standardized models and structures that can be built upon to fully flesh out a character.
The archetypes I would like to consider are: Everyman/Woman, Hero, Super-Hero, Anti-Hero, Nemesis, Mentor, Sidekick and Lover/Romantic Interest. Obviously, many of these archetypes can combine, especially in more complex films, plus I’m sure there are loads of others. However, I will limit myself to these for now.
EVERYMAN / WOMAN
The staple for many, many movies is an everyman or woman or boy or girl (or gender fluid) character who is easy to relate to for the audience. It could be Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), or Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), or Tom Hanks in basically everything – even Toy Story (1995). They tend toward the working or ordinary class with regular jobs and family units. Their stories will be everyday, or they will find themselves facing incredible situations. Alfred Hitchcock favoured everyman and woman characters who would be thrown into dangerous situations. Actors who excel in such roles include: Hanks, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Jack Lemmon and many more.
Many characters can begin ordinary or everyday, but over the course of a film become heroes. Luke Skywalker for instance is an bright farm kid with dreams of joining the academy. A series of contrasting events then cause his rise to discovery and heroism. On the other hand, some heroes are fully formed such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. The everyman character and hero are often combined, like with John McCLane or underdog characters such as Rocky Balboa. My favourite hero arcs are stories where the character starts in lower status such as The Terminator (1984), Django Unchained (2012) and Harriet (2019).
So what’s the difference between a hero and a super-hero? For me the hero may be capable of incredible feats of action and endeavour, yet he or she is ultimately mortal. Thus, while they may be a super-hero on the surface, Batman and Iron Man are heroes to me; albeit mechanically improved ones. Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, have god-like powers, thus defining them as SUPER! Obviously, there are crossovers as illustrated by Peter Parker, Captain America and Captain Marvel. All of them begin as everyboy/man/woman characters and become super-heroes due to military experimentation or being impacted by incredible events which cause physical transformation.
I love a good anti-hero. I think they are my favourite character archetype. They can be charismatic and just on the side of the righteous, but misanthropic and sarcastic like say, Wolverine or Blade. They can be on the wrong side of the law, but redeem themselves at the end of a film like Danny Archer and Han Solo. They can be outsiders or loners like Travis Bickle. They can be hard on the outside and soft on the inner like Juno. Moreover, certain actors have cornered the market on anti-heroes such as Jack Nicholson, Ellen Page, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. My favourite anti-heroes are often cursed with supernatural forces causing them to be trapped by certain powers. The ‘Wolfman’, Lawrence Talbot, and Carrie White are fine instances of this.
Given it is pantomime season there’s no harm is looking at villains! For me the greatest villains are the ones which actually have a valid cause or point. Of course, I don’t agree with their actions as they will generally involve killing people or destroying the Earth or Universe. However, villains such as Robert DeNiro’s heinous Max Cady had valid motivation. Likewise, Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of everyone was founded on sound environmental ideology. This doesn’t make it right though. Sympathetic nemeses are also interesting like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger. Moreover, King Kong for example, begins life as a threatening monster, but ultimately ends up being sympathetic compared to man. Nonetheless, you cannot beat a good old fashioned baddie like Hannibal Lecter, The Terminator, Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched and one of my favourites, The Wicked Witch of the West.
The Mentor character can take many forms. They are very valuable in supporting a hero or heroine on their adventures, plus providing vital exposition or the rules of the world information. The archetypal mentor archetype is a wise, older character like Morpheus, Alfred Pennyworth, Gandalf, Mr Miyagi, or Obi Wan Kenobi. Moreover, they will often have powers and magically assist those around them. The wonderfully helpful Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Every so often mentoring is rejected by the younger partner. A case in point being Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills eschewing Morgan Freeman’s Somerset’s sage advice with deadly results. Then again, mentoring can take a more twisted and controlling turn as seen with The Devil Wears Prada’s (2006), Miranda Priestly, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent arthouse classic, The Phantom Thread (2017).
The sidekick is a lower status character that can be an ally, helper, friend or even enemy that also provides comic relief or dramatic tension. Different from the bromance or traditional buddy character, because that double-act dynamic is on an equal level of status. Great sidekicks include: Hermione Granger, Short Round, Robin, Chewbacca, Dr Watson and many more. Often, the sidekick actually becomes more interesting, funny and memorable than the lead protagonist. Examples of this include the brilliant Hit Girl, Igor, Donkey and the aforementioned Hermione. Sometimes the sidekick takes a darker route such as Loki and Lady Macbeth, who use their influence for evil rather than good.
THE LOVER / ROMANTIC INTEREST
So, the love interest can be a romantic extension of the sidekick but can also be a mentor and even a villain. I would differentiate the love interest character from traditional romantic comedies or dramas. For instance, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sally and Harry are of equal status and classed as everyman and woman archetypes. However, in James Bond films the love interest is traditionally a female conquest. More in depth love interest characters are those that are not just trophies; they become equal in the story. Princess Leia is a heroine and love interest, likewise Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most recently, and a reflection of our progressive times, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman found a fine love interest in Chris Pine’s heroic Steve Trevor. Thankfully, the outdated “damsel in distress” stereotype is being consigned to the past and now we have characters of all backgrounds and gender represented on an equal basis.
As I said earlier this list is just an exploration of archetypes. There are a number I could have included. That stock character the wife or husband is one which always appears regularly in films. Often, they are waiting by the phone or television screen as some disaster befalls their partner. Lastly, I could have included the double-act, the team or the ensemble archetype; where one or more characters combine to create a whole. But, I think I’ll save that for another essay.
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Gregory Alan Williams etc.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
What if Superman was evil? As concepts go Brightburn (2019) has a simple but highly impressive one. The trailer too was brilliant and it was only when I saw a few negative reviews did I baulk at going to see the brisk B-movie-super-hero-horror-film. So, does a great pitch, and cool trailer lead to a great movie? In part yes; and in part no!
With the indie-turned-blockbuster director, James Gunn, in the wings producing the film, Brightburn clearly has a pedigree in superhero, comedy and horror film-making. I loved his low budget gem Super (2010) and his work helming the Guardians of the Galaxy films is also impressive. One wonders if Brightburn may have worked better with James Gunn directing but we will never know.
Set, unsurprisingly in Brightburn, Kansas, the story completely steals the Superman origin narrative and twists it in a fun and gory way. Farming couple Tori and Kyle Breyer are desperate for a kid and have failed to conceive naturally. Fortunately, or so it seems at first, a child falls from the skies, and rather than tell the authorities they adopt the kid as their own.
Flash-forward and Brandon is now twelve years old and puberty is fast approaching; cue bodily changes but not the kind his parents were expecting. As Brandon deals with school bullies and his first crush he suddenly begins going into trances and attempting to unlock that red glowy thing in the barn. What could it all mean? Mayhem! Bloody mayhem is what it means!
I really enjoyed Brightburn. It’s script is a bit dumb and some of the character choices are pretty ridiculous, especially when Brandon starts behaving violently at school and around the house. However, I loved the fast-pace, the concept, the dark horror, the red-masked image system, and the gore. Moreover, while many were given away in the trailer, there are some brilliant set-pieces and scares throughout.
Some of the negative reviews I have seen may have come from the wrong angle on Brightburn. Its not really meant to be taken seriously despite the compelling and dramatic performance from Elizabeth Banks. For me it’s to be watched as an imaginative low-budget B-movie feature, somewhat reminiscent of those “kids-go-bad” 1980’s horrors I used to rent from local video store.
There’s an element of depth as it touches on themes relating to puberty, adoption and the trials of parenthood; ultimately though it’s about the rise of an evil anti-hero in a gas mask with glowing red eyes!! In a nutshell, Brightburn is one for B-movie horror fans everywhere and I definitely want them to expand the universe.
DIRECTOR(S): Noah Hawley, Michael Uppendahl, Larysa Kondracki, Tim Mielants, Hiro Murai, Dennie Gordon
WRITER(S): Noah Hawley, Peter Calloway, Nathaniel Halpern, Jennifer Yale – based on Marvel’s Legion created by Chris Claremont & Bill Seinkiewicz
CAST: Dan Stevens, Aubrey Plaza, Rachel Keller, Jean Smart, Jeremie Harris, Jemaine Clement, Bill Irwin
**REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS**
Noah Hawley is a postmodern auteur par excellence. He takes established genre output and influences from film, television and literature, before translating them through his creative persona to breathe paradoxical original life into his productions. For example, he actually had the creative courage to take one of my favourite films Fargo (1996) and turn it into a brilliant and quirky television series. Similarly he has done the same with Marvel’s comic-book-X-Men-based-anti-hero Legion.
Of course the superhero/heroine genre has become massive business at the box office. I loved Nolan’s Batman trilogy and personally am also a big Marvel and Avengers fan, believing the Captain America trilogy to be representative of the height of the genre model. Meanwhile, the X-Men franchise also has some fine entries too notably X-Men: First Class (2011) and Days of Future Past (2014); and Netflix’s Daredevil (2015) has also given us two seasons of gritty and energetic delight too. Yet arguably some of the more intriguing Marvel adaptations have been the lesser known products such as: Ant Man (2015), Doctor Strange (2016) and the effervescent Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Now, FX’s sensational television series Legion (2017) proves to be the most mind-boggling and consistently brilliant of the lot.
It features a talented ensemble cast led by the intensely brilliant Dan Stevens portraying a mentally disturbed young man called David Haller. The pilot episode’s opening sequence establishes his issues from a young age through teenage-hood right through to the now as he finds himself in a psychiatric hospital being treated for schizophrenia. Patients he connects with mostly are Aubrey Plaza’s eccentric and wild Lenny Busker and the more sensitive Sydney Barrett (Rachel Keller). Syd cannot stand to be touched – a character quirk which is soon to be revealed more than a phobia – yet her and David fall for each other. This romance propels one facet of the multi-stranded narrative; at the same time providing the story with much empathy and heart.
The main thrust of the narrative though is totally cerebral. While David finds himself in the middle of a war between mutants and the shady government agency called Division Three, we essentially spend many of the episodes in David’s troubled mind. There events unfold in a whirling cavalcade of images, characters and monsters all battling for supremacy of his brain. At times I could not work out what was happening yet I felt compelled, like last year’s HBO production Westworld (2016), to persist and the rewards and payoffs in the final episodes are indeed legion. Because the show, no doubt propelled by Hawley’s creativity and the original source material, is brimming with stunning ideas and visuals that literally burst out of the screen.
The cast are incredible. Dan Stevens cements himself as one of the best emerging actors and he is destined for stardom in my view. Aubrey Plaza, who was great at laconic sarcasm in Parks and Revelations is wildly over-the-top and entertaining in her devious role; while Rachel Keller is the polar opposite: doe-eyes cute, vulnerable but with steely determination to protect David. My favourite supporting character was Flight of the Conchords’ comedian Jemaine Clement as a far-out scientist lost to the astral plane. His delivery and deportment just made me laugh out loud amidst the madness on show.
This is as imaginative and original take on the superhero/mutant/X-Men genre you are going to find. Many people lost their shit over Logan (2017) but that is pedestrian compared to Legion. It also very cleverly melds themes relating to: mutation, special powers, telekinesis, split-personality, disassociation and schizophrenia expertly while wearing its’ influences neatly on its sleeves. Indeed, if you’re a fan of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay (2005), Clockwork Orange (1971), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) , Inception (2010) and the work of David Lynch, then you’ll love Noah Hawley’s masterful Marvel adaptation.