The following essay by Claudia Lu ’15, written for the Film Studies class taught by Ms. Acquadro, won a 2015 Scholastic Silver Key Writing Award in the “Critical Essay” category.
In different ways and to different degrees, both On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975) are about confinements–both physical and metaphysical. Both films start out with the pretense of equilibrium. In Waterfront, this pretense is portrayed by the passivity that Terry Malloy, the protagonist of the film, undergoes as Johnny Friendly and the rest of his gang push and nudge Terry into tasks that he is hesitant about. In Cuckoo’s Nest, however, this pretense only exists before the appearance of the movie’s protagonist, Randle McMurphy. With McMurphy’s arrival at the hospital, the pretense of equilibrium is quickly shattered and the ugliness of the system that is developed and nurtured by Nurse Ratched, the antagonist of the movie and the head nurse, is revealed. In the two films, besides the difference in the types of confinements, both Kazan and Forman use physical contacts to show the protagonists’ development from passivity to activity and their acquiring of power over the others’ actions as well as over their own behaviors.
Before the appearance of Edie Doyle, the major catalyst for Terry to gather up courage to challenge the system in order to stay true to himself, Terry is always being pushed from behind, just like how he is pushed into crimes he seems to be actively committing. Prior to when the film even begins, Terry is known to be a boxer who was forced to lose his big fight because Johnny Friendly was betting against him. In this game of boxing, a sport that is all about power, Terry walks into the ring already powerless and his future already written. Terry is also seen being pushed from behind by the other gang members, who don’t bother to question Johnny Friendly’s corrupt system, after Terry sees, to his astonishment, Joey Doyle being pushed off the roof. The emotions that Terry exhibits on his face as the other gang members jokingly push pass him is his first sign of unease and our first sign of the future development of the story.
Unlike the passivity that he exhibits in the beginning, Terry begins to initiate physical contact as he is introduced to Edie. The first time they meet, she fights Terry for the work pass to give to her father. Unlike Terry’s antecedent boxing game, she really means to win. Later in the bar, when their conversation freezes as Joey’s death comes up, Terry offers reconciliation with Edie by making physical contact with her. He first offers beer, than gum, both of which she refuses. However, the third time, when he offers to “spin” a little, she finally accepts and dances with him, soon melting into laughter. No longer being pushed around by Johnny Friendly, Terry is now leading the dance as well as controlling his activities, the way he should be.
Different from the frequent physical contacts made between characters in the beginning of Waterfront (often against Terry’s will), in the beginning of Cuckoo’s Nest, the pretense of equilibrium is exhibited through the lack of physical contacts. Nurse Ratched’s identity as the antagonist of the film is revealed as she nonchalantly walks toward the camera and nods “Good morning” to the fellow nurses and guards, but barely ever initiating a physical contact with another character in the film. The film begins with the guards and nurses waking up the patients–a nurse is shown distributing pills into individual cups methodically and a guard is shown waking up a patient by unlocking his restraints, but without actually making much physical contact either. This lack of intimacy between characters is soon eradicated as McMurphy comes into picture. As soon as he is released from his handcuffs, he jumps up and gives his guard a wet kiss on the cheek. Unlike the other patients and nurses in the ward, who are either deeply absorbed in their own world because of mental illnesses or are distant from the patients for protection’s sake (hence the glass window between the patients’ area and the nurses’ station), McMurphy is not afraid of either physical contact or protesting against the system (he later breaks the window of the nurses’ station).
As the story progresses, Nurse Ratched is seen slowly losing her power over her patients to McMurphy. Her power, though not physical, is reminded of when she offers to “help” McMurphy and later sends him to electroshock. Unlike Johnny Friendly in Waterfront, who is physically strong as well as big (at the beginning of the film, he once picks Terry entirely up from behind), instead Nurse Ratched’s power is displaced through the physical distance she puts between her patients and herself. She is often seen through barriers–behind the glass of the nurses’ station as well as the window through which she coldly observes her patients’ basketball games. Even when she is later being violently strangled by McMurphy and seems to lose control over her ward, she then has McMurphy lobotomized.
Kazan and Forman also choose to shoot their characters differently. Unlike Kazan, who often displays multiple characters inside one mise-en-scene to display multiple actions going on at the same time, Forman often shoots his characters individually on screen. This single framing of characters also makes it obvious whenever McMurphy is making a physical contact with the other patients. For example, when he is trying to get enough votes to play the World Series on TV, he breaks the patients’ solitude in an attempt to communicate with them (and he succeeds in the Chief’s case). Yet Kazan’s portrayal of Terry’s character development is more subtle, though Terry never shies away from physical contact (imagine a boxer who refuses contact), he has to break the pattern of being pushed around by Johnny Friendly and stand up for himself, just as he does at the very end of the movie. However, besides their difference in methods, both directors put emphasis on physical intimacies between characters in order to deliver the relationships and mental states of the characters. In both On the Waterfront and One Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, physical contacts are used to express disequilibrium of the big picture as well as for the individual protagonists.