I came to a lot of classic Hollywood films late.
Being the child of immigrants, I grew up on a solid diet of melodramatic Bollywood films from the 50s and 60s, any English language film set in Africa (both parents grew up in Kenya) and then a melange of David Attenborough nature docos, British comedies and whatever investigative news programs that you could get in NZ when we only had two channels (TWO CHANNELS! Oh children, I even predate remote controls – hell, I was the remote control and our telly was one of those that had to warm up before you saw a picture …).
Basically anything that you could class as part of the indy film movement of the 70s, was never a part of my life – so of course, my first impression of Jack Nicholson was as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (not a terrible sin given the character – although now every time I see him, I keep thinking of his character in Five Easy Pieces – just further down the line after he hops onto the truck).
Of course, being the kind of film heavily referenced in pop culture (not the least, The Simpsons) I already had an idea of the film before seeing it – Nurse Ratched, Chief and the water fountain, lobotomies, and Mantovani’s Charmaine. So while I can’t remember my first impressions of the film, I suspect much of it was piecing these bits together into context.
I know this is a much hallowed film so I feel a little guilty / heretical to say that it’s ok. The performances are fantastic, no doubt, and you know I’m going to be down for anything anti-authoritarian … but … what struck me this viewing was the women and the orderlies.
There seem to be only two options if you’re a female character in this film – you are either an enforcer of the regime (Ratched, her assistant, the nurse who visits in the night, and even Billy’s mother – though only mentioned) there to control, humiliate and be feared, or you’re a prostitute – paid to be friendly, and flirtatious, objects of desire only. Yes, ok, product of its time (our protagonist has committed statutory rape and apparently other than criminal it’s otherwise fine), but I wonder if it’s the film or the book that has a woman problem.
The three orderlies are a) all African American men and b) the only African American men in the film. Like the women they are enforcers of the regime but with less agency – they are mouthy, brutual, negligent of their charges (Warren is more interested in shooting hoops when outside), negligent of their jobs and corruptible (Turkle is easily bought off with booze and promise of sexy times with one of the prostitutes, ends up drunk and passed out on the job). Again, is the a symptom of the time the film was made or a problem of the book?
Film Ratched I don’t understand – she’s an antagonist in the purist terms, only there to really antagonise McMurphy and serve the plot with no real reason given as to why she’s like that, other than she’s is the embodiment of all the bad things about the regime (humiliation, enforcement etc). More puzzling to me is the final medical assessment of McMurphy – three doctors/psychiatrist deem him to be merely criminal, not psychotic or dangerous and yet they all defer to Nurse Ratched and commit him to care indefinitely? Her opinion is at complete odds with the psychiatrists and yet she trumps them? Yes, expedience of plot but is there something that the book explains more of, that the film has cut?
Those big questions aside, as we move to the book I’m really looking forward to learning more about Chief Bromden – I accidentally saw the back blurb on the book during the week and am delighted to see that he is the narrator. He’s annoyingly very much the “noble savage” and I didn’t quite understand his long speech to McMurphy – so I hope get a fuller character in the book. Also interested to see how the other patients are filled out – with so many of them in the ward voluntarily, I’m really curious to know why.
Reminder: I’m a fairly slow reader (bedtime reader, no commute at the moment because I’m *sigh* unemployed), so it may be a while until the next post …
*If you’ve stumbled on this post because for once I got tagging right, then an explanation of my page to screen project can be found here.**
1. Watch film first with no prior knowledge of book
2. Read book
3. Rewatch film – discuss, reflect, etc.