As Jack Nicholson approaches his 80th birthday (22nd April) now seems like a fitting time to pay tribute to one of the, undeniable, screen greats. Choosing the best performance from Nicholson is no easy task, though. Like Pacino and DeNiro there are plenty of choices and many people’s opinions will differ. For me, though, it’s Jack’s iconic portrayal of Randle Patrick McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that stands the tallest.
Nicholson has always been an actor of great nuance and has predominately focused on playing rebels or misfits. Such is Nicholson’s wild and colourful personal life, it can sometimes be difficult to ascertain whether he’s in character or whether he’s essentially playing himself. That’s what makes Jack so appealing, though. He has such a sense of life and carefree attitude that it’s impossible to ignore and it’s these very traits that make him the perfect choice for McMurphy.
R.P. McMurphy is the epitome of the anti-authoritarian character. He’s a man that refuses to adhere to social strictures and in order to make his prison sentence easier, he feigns mental instability so he can spend the remainder of his sentence in relative comfort in a psychiatric hospital. But it’s here that he feels he must assist the other patients in rejecting the restrictions and authority of the wards tyrannical head nurse.
Despite this now being one of Nicholson’s most iconic roles, it was very nearly otherwise. It’s now widely known that the rights to the film were owned by Kirk Douglas who had plans to star as McMurphy himself. He had played the role on Broadway in 1963 but such were the difficulties in getting the production started he eventually became too old for it and passed the rights to his son Michael Douglas to produce. It’s also been mentioned that James Caan, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando were considered and that director Milos Forman had his heart set on casting Burt Reynolds.
That aside, in Ken Kesey’s original novel, McMurphy’s physical appearance is nothing like Reynolds or Jack Nicholson. He’s described as a huge, red-headed Irishman and Kesey, himself, had actually envisioned Gene Hackman for the part. Alas, it was Nicholson who was eventually cast and despite the quality of the aforementioned actors, none of them have the same energy that Nicholson brings to the screen.
Nicholson captures the essence of McMurphy perfectly. It’s hard to think of another performance that is as energised or free-spirited as he displays here. To quote McMurphy himself; “In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she won’t know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch” – rebellious characters in cinema have never been more entertaining.
Oscars? – Cuckoo’s Nest was a huge success in the 1976 Oscars. It was nominated for 9 awards and became only the second film in history (after It Happened One Night) to win all the top five: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actress and, of course, Best Actor for Nicholson. It’s hard to argue with any of them.
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