The Jack Nicholson/Milos Forman classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. columnist Shane McNeil looks at how hard literary success can be to translate to the big screen and the film’s unique place in Oscar history.

Originally appeared on, Nov. 20, 2015

On the surface, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s 1975 release seems like an exercise in perfect timing. An incredible cast, expert direction and instant-classic source material make the film seem like the kind of project that nowadays goes from page to screen in a matter of months.

However, as the film celebrates its 40th anniversary, it remains a stunning combination of luck and endurance.

True, Jack Nicholson was the perfect candidate to play Randle McMurphy. His manic magnetism made him the perfect actor to overtake a mental hospital like a whirlwind. The same goes for Louise Fletcher, who – though inexperienced on the big screen – proved a revelation as the icy-blooded Nurse Ratched. Veteran Czech director Milos Forman had also made some of the finest European films of the 1960s and would use the film to help launch a long Hollywood career that eventually brought him around to films like Amadeus and The People vs. Larry Flynt.

However, the film took over a decade to come together. Based on Ken Kesey’s landmark 1962 novel, the film’s cinematic rights were purchased by Kirk Douglas the next year when he starred in a stage production. Once Douglas and Forman finally got the production off the ground, however, the 59-year-old actor was too old to play McMurphy.

The results couldn’t have been better, with the two leads combining with a stellar supporting cast that included Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, the towering Will Sampson and Brad Dourif, who earned an Oscar nomination as the stuttering Billy Bibbit.

It was at the 48th Academy Awards that the film entered cinematic history. The film took home five awards, including Best Picture and awards for Nicholson, Fletcher and Forman. It remains one of only three films (It Happened One Night and The Silence of the Lambs are the others) in Oscar history to have won the “top five” categories: both lead actors, picture, director and a screenplay award.

The achievement is so rare that even the giants of Oscar history – Ben-Hur, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King – can’t lay claim to it. But there are a few that have come close.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

clark gable, vivien leigh, gone with the wind, photoGone With the Wind remains one of the most successful movies in history and its performance at the 12th Academy Awards was no different. Earning 13 nominations, the film dominated one of the strongest crops of films in Oscar history including The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. What held the film from becoming the second film to take the “big five”? Surprisingly, it was Clark Gable, who could not overcome Robert Donat’s generations-spanning turn in Goodbye Mr. Chips for Best Actor.

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

greer garson, walter pidgeon, mrs.miniver, photoA war-time success, Mrs. Miniver may have caught a lucky break thanks to the Oscars deeming that Casablanca’s international release made it eligible for the 1943 Oscars instead. Greer Garson was the Best Actress, William Wyler the Best Director and the film won Best Picture and Screenplay. But Walter Pidgeon couldn’t beat James Cagney’s turn in Yankee Doodle Dandy for Best Actor.

Annie Hall (1977)

diane keaton, woody allen, annie hall, imageRunning opposite Star Wars, Woody Allen took home Best Director and Screenplay for his opus. It also won Best Picture and Diane Keaton went home with Best Actress. But Allen was unable to top Richard Dreyfuss’ performance in The Goodbye Girl in the Best Actor race.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

shirley maclaine, debra winger, jack nicholson, terms of endearment, photoWinner of five awards and earning 11 nominations, Terms of Endearment swept through most of 1983’s top categories. It took Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay with Shirley MacLaine taking Best Actress. Debra Winger and John Lithgow also earned nominations and Jack Nicholson took home the Best Supporting Actor trophy but the film did not earn a nomination in the Best Actor category.

American Beauty (1999)

annette bening, american beauty, photoThe most recent contender to the club, American Beauty was one category away. The film was way out in front of one of the strongest and boldest cinematic crops in recent history in a year that saw the likes of Being John Malkovich, The Insider, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix. Kevin Spacey stunned a tight Best Actor field while Sam Mendes and Alan Ball propelled the film to the top categories. But Hilary Swank edged Annette Bening for Best Actress.