Good Reads: “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” & “Dog Day Afternoon”

The second instalment of ‘Good Reads’ takes us back to 1975 with two classics winning the top screenplay prizes. Adapted: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, written by Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben (based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey) and original: Dog Day Afternoon, written by Frank Pierson. (links to scripts online). You can find the first part, where I dissected what made 2004’s Sideways and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind great here.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the second of only three films to win the ‘big five’ awards at the Oscars, taking Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay. It’s an achievement so exclusive that it’s difficult to judge its worth as a ‘big sweeper.’

Goldman and Hauben’s adaptation was notorious (at least to its author) for switching its perspective from the Chief to R.P. McMurphy, though we all know who steals the film’s final moments. Granted, the shooting script available hardly resembles the film. Each scene has been changed in rehearsals or in production from dialogue to character’s involved to topics, though locations remain.

If anything, those changes emphasize Milos Forman’s great direction and how he juggled everything. He wanted something authentic, inspired by the cinema verite of Titicut Follies, and he encouraged adlibs – such as when McMurphy arrives at the hospital, he was supposed to kiss the first guard in the script, but kissed the second for a bigger reaction.

But of course, the script provided the foundation for the actors to play in, and its strength comes from the natural conflict in its conceit. Everyone is fighting each other – patients vs. nurses, patients vs. patients, patients vs. outsiders. Cuckoo’s Nest utilizes its premise for constant and authentic antagonism. It’s a basic factor too few films apply, even great ones.

No character is allowed to stand as they are, no matter how arbitrary their point may be, not even McMurphy. As the one character that’s supposed to be the ideal of someone who stands up for himself, watching him be tested by resistance reveals the most. When Nurse Ratched (called Big Nurse in the script, though Ratched when called upon) turns down the simple request of watching a football game, he really has to go above and beyond to get his way (pages 63 to 65).

With sparks flying it makes you question the fairness of the scenario in more detail, and ultimately results in all the victories for the characters feeling far more satisfying. With a large ensemble of vulnerable characters, these conflicts inevitably bubble to a boil and the script holds a tension for when this explosion will happen, which it does, and it’s a thrilling moment. It’s important for the writer to never hold back.

Bo Goldman also won an Oscar in 1980 for writing Melvin and Howard, whereas the film remains Lawrence Hauben’s only writing credit. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was ranked #24 in the Writers Guild of America’s 2013 Top 101 Screenplays of All-Time.

Dog Day Afternoon is a contender for my all-time favourite film and Al Pacino is handedly my all-time favourite performance. The only trophy it took from the Academy was for its Original Screenplay, although it’s known as a film that was improvised in rehearsals.

Nevertheless, Sidney Lumet states in his book ‘Making Movies’ that Frank Pierson thoroughly deserved the Oscar for his selfless devotion to the material. Pierson was present throughout the rehearsal period where Lumet wanted the actors to be themselves rather than characters. It certainly helped the film feel lighter on its feet yet hold a dramatic weight.

Though they may not be Pierson’s words, what makes Dog Day Afternoon a masterpiece is his elegant use of structure to form a social commentary that still resonates today. It’s a film on a small scale (to which I’ll note that Pierson deftly decompartmentalizes the script using ‘on:’ for each section of its location), and for each criminal action it consequently ripples through the nation; from police to the media and to society. This escalation takes everything to a grand scale.

The first of two bullets fired as Sonny suspects invasion from the back door demonstrates this effect (pages 66 and 67), for how people can feel so involved with small criminal acts that have nothing to do with them. From a violent act to taunts of celebration with police control in unison with society’s control.

With resulting media invasion, including moments where Sonny is prompted to kill hostages though he instead shouts ‘Attica!’ at the police and crowd, they shape the crime into a statement (“out of the closets and into the streets”), for entertainment. There’s even a live audience cheering Sonny on. The script never needed to include society outside of the criminals and police, but it says a lot more by doing so. After all, despite being a sly criticism of its effects, without media this film wouldn’t exist.

Frank Pierson was nominated for an Oscar for writing other classics Cool Hand Luke and Cat Ballou. Dog Day Afternoon was ranked #69 in the Writers Guild of America’s 2013 Top 101 Screenplays of All-Time.

1975 is known as probably the best year for Best Picture with Jaws, Barry Lyndon and Nashville filling up the rest of the ballot. Other notable films include Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Love & Death, Dersu Uzala, Jeanne Dielman and Zerkalo. I guess the character I’m drawn to most outside of Dog Day Afternoon is the hero of Jaws. Played by Roy Scheider, his Brody presents a key irony that fuels the film. Police chief of a beach town afraid of water. Brilliant idea.

Your thoughts on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon? What are your best written films, scenes, characters of 1975? Please discuss in the comments!