Jack Nicholson: Everett Collection
Ty Burr
April 20, 2001 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Why ”Cuckoo’s Nest” hasn’t aged well

”One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is perhaps THE founding myth of the ’60s. Ken Kesey’s novel was published in 1962, making it a crucial link between the Beats and the Hippies. The film version came out in 1975 — after the revolution, in other words — and, by winning Oscars for stars Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, director Milos Forman, and producer Michael Douglas, proved that the rebel kids of Hollywood were now in charge.

The plot itself wraps up all of a generation’s grievances into the fecund metaphorical setting of an anonymous mental hospital, in which a free spirit named Randle Patrick McMurphy (Nicholson, in the movie) rouses inmates to revolt before he is quashed by blandly corporate Nurse Ratched (Fletcher).

It’s a hell of a story — a classic of counterculture agitprop. It’s also, as a new Broadway staging makes distressingly clear, very much of its time. In fact, watching the Steppenwolf production of ”Cuckoo’s Nest” is a little like getting to meet yourself as a teenager: You’re torn between amazement and embarrassment at the kid’s impassioned naïvete.

Note, please, that I’m not slagging Gary Sinise (of ”Mission to Mars”), who plays McMurphy on stage, or anyone else in the cast: They do their damnedest to serve the play. It’s the storyline that has turned quaint. A lot of water has gone under the cultural bridge since ”Cuckoo’s Nest” appeared, and while raging against The Man (or The Woman, Ratched, in this case) may be more relevant than ever, it seems painfully obvious when presented as such.

We live in an age in which rebellion has been co- opted by the very forces Kesey symbolically decried: When Reebok tells you to ”Defy Convention” by buying sneakers, or Apple parlays images of those who ”Think Different” so you’ll pony up for an iMac, it’s clear that nonconformity is just one more option on the endless lifestyle menu being sold to you. (The people who REALLY think differently these days are the ones who choose not to own computers.)

The 1975 film version of ”Cuckoo’s Nest”, as good as it is, was perversely part of the conundrum. By turning a tale of a scrubby misfit fighting the good fight into bigtime Hollywood entertainment, its success furthered the enshrinement of nonconformity by the mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with the film per se — it holds up as honorable, troubling entertainment. But it’s also a cry of revolt that was produced by a major corporation in the hopes of making a profit.

Does that dilute its message? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly worth keeping in mind (Not for nothing has author Ken Kesey gone out of his way to never see film or stage adaptations of his book). Does the fact that the words I’m writing will appear on a website owned by AOL Time Warner alter their meaning? Yes, actually, I think it does. It’s a complicated thing, thinking about what constitutes real individuality in a culture that sells rebellion to you for breakfast. Boiling everything the enemy represents down to a character named Big Nurse Ratched doesn’t cut it in the early 21st century — not only is it simplistic, but it reveals more macho fear than may have been intended (the Steppenwolf production makes plain that there are two kinds of women in ”Cuckoo’s Nest”: smothering mothers and tootsies / barflies who gladly devirginize total strangers).

This story, then, works best as nostalgia for a time when the battle lines were far more clearly drawn — or for an adolescent mindset that can only handle such. Nurse Ratched, unfortunately, doesn’t work at the mental institution anymore. She’s a CEO at that hip new ad agency, and she’s got a nose ring just like yours.

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