With the passing of the great actor Paul Newman, let’s pay tribute to the American anti-hero that he played so well, especially in the iconic Cool Hand Luke. We’re talking about those leading men (or women, i.e. Thelma & Louise) who often look heroic by doing out-sized or dangerous things, but use methods that aren’t really all that laudable, and at their most interesting, are rebels who are doing battle with “The System.” The early versions in the ’50s were generally just misunderstood stalwarts, but then the strange brew of assassinations, drugs, and war ushered in the ’60s counter-culture. It took the position that “The System” was bad, so anybody who gave it the metaphorical finger was good. That gave us two classics: Paul Newman’s Luke in Cool Hand Luke and Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Both films have a biblical quality to them, as if they are parables for a modern-day Second Coming. If Jesus returned, they argue, we’d probably kill him — or at least lobotomize him.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Jack Nicholson brilliantly plays Randall Patrick McMurphy, a minor troublemaker at odds with the law, sent from jail to a psychiatric facility in order that his “anti-social tendencies” be studied. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won all five major Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay) and gave its fledgling producer Michael Douglas his big break. Besides being a loud-mouthed braggart, Nicholson’s McMurphy is overtly sexual, openly aggressive, and manipulative. His confinement is the result of a pattern of behavior that includes assault and statutory rape, and truthfully, even if he doesn’t belong in a psych ward, he probably still deserves to be in jail. The psychiatric patients are slowly being “killed by the cure” at the hands of a quietly sadistic Head Nurse, Miss Ratched, underplayed to villainous perfection by Louise Fletcher, and her
Henchmen, the brutal “Black Boys.”
Cool Hand Luke
Coming at the height of the counter-culture, director Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke concerns a Southern ne’er-do-well sent to a 1930s prison work farm for cutting the heads off parking meters. The prison is run with aloof, almost casual brutality, by a deceptively homespun Warden (Strother Martin) and his Bosses, most notably a silent, sunglasses-wearing sharpshooter known to the men as “The Boss with No Eyes.” The men enforce the rules and regulations with fists, whips, canes, blackjacks, rifles, and isolation — the cinematic embodiment of “The System.” Newman’s Lucas Jackson simply refuses to conform or seemingly care what others think. Without an agenda, he often acts like prison is merely another of life’s experiences he was put on Earth to enjoy. Jesus metaphors include cheerful one-sided conversations with God, the road gang equivalent of “miracles,” and his betrayal by fellow inmates leading to his final destruction. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” has become a phrase deeply imbedded in our culture.
Both of our anti-heroes end up as anti-leaders of a group of men who are bereft, belittled, and abused. They’re all in need of a hero, but they get Luke and McMurphy. Both films have classic villains, too. Both Strother Martin’s Warden and Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched play characters who think they’re the heroes, and that’s also one of the reasons these films have such power and resonance. Every film school now teaches the lesson that villains never think they’re bad, they think they’re good. It’s Screenwriting 101.
Oddly, Cool Hand Luke feels like the more commercial of the two, despite One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s award success. That may be the difference between the magnetic blue eyes of Paul Newman and the wild unpredictability that’s part of the Jack Nicholson persona.
Jack Nicholson’s Randall McMurphy is a different take on the Saviour Symbol than Newman’s Luke. McMurphy is openly aggressive, manipulative, sexual, and a loudmouth braggart. While Luke’s incarceration seems almost an ordained act, McMurphy’s confinement is the result of a pattern of behavior that includes assault and statutory rape. You always have the feeling that Luke does not belong in his surroundings, much as Jesus was out of place on Earth, but Randall McMurphy, even if he doesn’t belong in a psych ward, definitely deserves to be in jail.
Within the fictional mental hospital, set in Oregon, McMurphy finds a situation similar to Luke’s: a group of men, bereft, belittled and abused, in need of a hero. The denizens of McMurphy’s new world are psychiatric patients who are slowly being ‘killed by the cure’, at the hands of a quietly sadistic Head Nurse, Miss Ratched, underplayed to villainous perfection by Louise Fletcher, and her Henchmen, the brutal “Black Boys” who serve as ward retainers, and, joy for the Counterculture, the uncaring Psychiatric System itself.
Jack Nicholson’s Oscar for McMurphy was well-deserved. His strutting, leering, grinning, streetsmart-but-not-very-bright portrayal is a joy to watch, and adds even more tension to an already precarious situation, as we realize that, as the Forlorn Hope of the psych ward, he is both champion and leaky vessel. Unlike Newman’s Luke, McMurphy makes a conscious decision to take on the Nurse and all she represents, partly to rescue the men, but also out of boredom. He can’t just sit and play cards all day, like the rest of them. Unlike Newman, McMurphy has no chats with God, and his motives are sprung from his human weaknesses, not from an inviolable moral code. If anything, then, he is even more the classic Antihero, akin not to Luke Jackson, but Newman’s earlier Hud. Indeed, his one strength, his human loyalty, is the thing that betrays him in the end, not a human Judas figure. And, in keeping with the upped ante of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest proceedings, the eventual price he pays is more horrific in its way, a theft of the soul that almost surpasses a physical crucifixion.
It is a tribute to the power of both these immensely popular films that their legacy does not reside in embarrassing attempted remakes or failed TV adaptations, although I’m sure there were probably suggestions for both by venal Hollywood executives interested in cashing in on two huge moneymakers. For one thing, it would fly in the face of everything the Counterculture stood for, and still represents, and would negate, or at least water down, their importance in the history of American Cinema.
The formula for anti-heroes like Luke Jackson and Randall Patrick McMurphy, loners with iconoclastic personalities, has now been copied endlessly, until our very definitions of both heroes and villains have been changed forever. Bless these two men who gave their lives and consciousness to enrich our own cinematic souls.
Everyone should see Cool Hand Luke because it remains a cultural touchstone that delivers a powerful message, but the film that knocks you over, and stays with you forever remains One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s never easy to watch a spirit crushed, but to see a life ended while the body is still alive is the most painful thing you’ll ever see.