Looking to start a producing career, Douglas wheedled the film rights to Ken Kesey’s book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from his father, Kirk, who had them for years, actively certain that playing the story’s lead character was a sure path to Oscar glory. The elder Douglas couldn’t get the project off the ground, especially once his movie-star clout started to fade. His offspring had better luck, in part because the Hollywood studio system had trouble applying the previous artist-impeding controls on the crop of upstart young filmmakers. They’d even let the star of The Streets of San Francisco recruit a Czechoslovakian director of art films to preside over a jagged drama set in a mental institution.
Douglas credited screenwriter Lawrence Hauben with introducing him to the work of Miloš Forman, specifically the 1967 feature The Firemen’s Ball. Douglas appreciated the tone of Forman’s film and noted he was skilled in crafting engrossing physical dynamics within tight confines, an absolute requirement for the project. Douglas had his reservations, too, mostly due to rumors that Forman had basically become a miserable shut-in after his 1971 U.S. directorial bow, Taking Off, bombed miserably. When Douglas called Forman to set up a meeting, the director had confined himself in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, his adamant opposition to leaving the premises so complete that he sent a proxy to psychiatric appointments. When Forman met with Douglas and his producing partners, there was no hesitance. Forman went through the entire script, explaining exactly how he’d approach every scene. He got the job.
The tone Forman establishes on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is truly remarkable. The film moves easily between pummeling drama and rascally comedy, the latter quality an extension and reflection of Forman’s lead actor. Jack Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, the convict who feigns madness because he figures the hospital is better than prison, with vivid confidence and furious countercultural instincts. Although Nicholson has tremendous range, he essentially cements his screen persona forever with this film, and Forman wisely gives him room to roam, sparking off the other actors with a freewheeling joy in the task of performing. Every scene is a showcase, and Forman is admirable unafraid of Nicholson’s spirited excess.
As Murphy’s archenemy, head nurse Mildred Ratched, Louise Fletcher takes the opposite approach, or at least that’s how it appears. Fletcher is stern and strictly measured, routinely quelling her charges with an imperious glare. As opposed to the others on screen, Fletcher is quiet and withdrawn. But there’s a broadness to her portrayal, too, a firmness that almost plays as silent-movie villainy. In her own way, Fletcher as confident and unguarded as Nicholson, playing institutionalized control with the same fervor that Nicholson brings to rebellion. Forman recognizes the kinship and contrast, artfully pitting the two performances against each other.
Nicholson and Fletcher both won Academy Awards for their efforts, and Forman prevailed in the directing category. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest also claimed an Oscar for its screenplay and took the night’s top prize, Best Picture. It is still one of only three films in the ninety-plus year history of the Academy Award to sweep the top five categories, following It Happened One Night and preceding The Silence of the Lambs.
Almost ten years passed before Forman ushered another actor to an Academy Award. After adaptations of the musical Hair and the E.L. Doctorow novel Ragtime, the latter earning eight Oscar nominations and zero wins, Forman turned to a film version of Amadeus. Peter Shaffer’s play about the toxic jealousy composer Antonio Salieri feels toward musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the kind of work that seemed genetically engineered to win awards. It’s Broadway run resulted in five Tony Award wins, including one for Ian McKellen, who played Salieri. Since Forman’s film version was mounted only four years or so after the play’s New York opening, it might have made sense to just bring the stage cast right over, especially since there was no evident pressure to cast stars in the movie. Instead, Forman decided he wanted to stick with U.S. actors, a choice that Kenneth Branagh later claimed contributed to him losing out on the title role, which instead went to Tom Hulce, then best known for playing Pinto in Animal House). For the pivotal role of Salieri, Forman cast F. Murray Abraham, fresh off of the overacting festival that is Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
As in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Forman builds conflict out of distinct character contrasts in Amadeus. Hulce’s Mozart is childish, impulsive, and ribald, his braying laugh an offputting disruption in the refined society that otherwise reveres his gifts. Abraham’s Salieri is the Nurse Ratched figure, looking upon this rambunctious soul opposite him with disdain and dismay. Where Fletcher never gets the opportunity to show other layers of her character, Abraham is blessed with a role that is constant discovery of new corners of his being. Salieri is in a perpetual state of personal turmoil, envious and awestruck at the same time, sure of his own talent and diminished by the comparisons to Mozart that he can’t stop himself from making. Just as Forman previously gave Nicholson and Fletcher the space to play, the director allows Abraham to relentlessly explore and freely expose the inner facets of the role he lands upon. If Salieri is a wonderfully written part, it still requires an actor capable of plumbing its depths and a director who will provide the support to let him do it. Abraham is capable, and Forman knows it.
Amadeus cleaned up at the Academy Awards, collecting eight statuettes. Forman won his second directing Oscar, and Abraham became the third actor to win under his guidance.