GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) AND ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)

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(“am I crazy?” film reviews by Timothy J. Verret)

It is quite apparent that both films, GIRL, INTERRUPTED and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, are asking the audience the same question: “Am I crazy?” While on the surface it might seem both films have the same answer to that question, i.e., “depends who you ask,” the answer goes deeper than that. Both films end with the freedom found in the “escape” from a mental institution, but the two films’ deeper answers are found beyond “depends who you ask” and rest in another question needing an answer, “Why are those deemed ‘crazy’ locked away in mental institutions when the REAL ‘crazies” are walking around free?” I hope I can attempt to explore all these questions and answers in reviewing both of these films to arrive at neither a question nor an answer but instead a revelation….but, knowing me, there’ll still be a question or two!

GIRL, INTERRUPTED is based on Susanna Kaysen’s 1993 autobiography about a year she spent in a mental institution. Actress Winona Ryder plays Susanna in the film and Angelie Jolie (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress) plays Lisa, a sociopath who challenges Susanna on this “am I crazy?” question. I’m not saying either Susanna or Lisa are NOT “crazy,” but what I am saying is that they both have a thirst to understand their inner workings which probably makes them as sane (probably MORE sane) than most who do NOT thirst to understand their inner workings. I loved the book and I loved the movie, but the book “attacks” more than the movie, thanks to Kaysen’s sharp observations into madness, stripping away from the reader the preconceived notion, “am I sane or insane?” After the reader turns the last page of the book, Kaysen does indeed have the last words to this notion: “I don’t know. What do YOU think?” Thank God director James Mangold cast Angelia Jolie as Lisa. Truth be told, when Jolie is not on screen, the film coasts along pretty calming and safe (and that’s hard for me to say, as I’m a Winona Ryder fan). But all is forgiven when Jolie shows up in a scene, wherein “attack” is a huge understatement where Lisa is concerned. Interesting to note is that I saw Angelina Jolie on INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO and James Lipton was interviewing her about her role as Lisa. Jolie said either before casting or after, she found Kaysen’s book that she had read as a teenager and when she flipped through the pages, all of Lisa’s lines were highlighted and underlined. Talk about willing yourself to play the role you know you have to play at some point in your life. What struck me so interesting about GIRL, INTERRUPTED is toward the ending of the film, not when Susanna was discharged from the mental institution but what she said before she was discharged. Susanna’s roommate was Georgina (Lisa called her “Georgie Girl”) who was a pathological liar. When Lisa steals Susanna’s diary and all read it together without Susanna, Georgina is distraught and angry at the things Susanna wrote about her. When Susanna is leaving the institution, she tells Georgina as a sort of peace offering, “You know, what I write in my diary, I don’t know what I’m saying, Georgina. Maybe I’m the liar?” Georgina replies, “Maybe not.” This is how the film gives us mirrors. All the characters in GIRL, INTERRUPTED are mirrors for one another and mirrors for us. If we say, “that Lisa, she sure is crazy!” (and we do many times in the film), we might as well be saying, “that so and so in our life (to include us), he or she sure is crazy!” Of course, I’m talking about “the speck and the plank” (Matthew 7:3-5), as I always seem to be talking about. “Crazy” is NOT insanity. “Crazy” is sanity in a world of insanity. “Crazy” is you and me muddling through an insanely rigid and cold world that wants to label us as SOMETHING so we can be “boxed in,” “you are different than me, and I don’t like that, so you go over there (or “down there,” which is more appropriate) and I’ll stay over here.” If we break free from of all of this, then how we can be “crazy?” Mental institutions are for those who the world beats up in this way and, if I’m being honest, if mental institutions were for people who beat up on others, EVERYONE would be in them and there would be no one walking around free.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is another film based on a book, this time by Ken Kesey, and another film set in a mental institution. The central protagonist in the film and book is Randall P. McMurphy, but the book tells the story from the point of view of Chief Bromden, the enormous Indian who all the patients think is “deaf and dumb,” until he speaks to McMurphy and becomes the sole figure who finds redemptive freedom by picking up an enormous fountain and throwing it through a window, escaping the institution and running through the “green pastures” (Psalm 23:2). I think you would have to be living under a rock if you have not heard the name, “Nurse Ratched,” a term synonymous with “mean” and one with a horrifying bedside manner. Ratched is the nurse who despises disruption and disorder, and McMurphy is the epitome of disruption and disorder. Jack Nicholson as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Ratched both won Best Actor and Best Actress Oscars for their performances. There was one particular scene that truly stayed with me, and it’s a scene less than a minute where the camera has Nicholson in closeup, no dialogue, but we can hear everything that his character, McMurphy, is saying. It’s toward the end, and what I heard McMurphy say is, “How the hell did I get myself in here? They’re trying to break me, but they won’t do it! They’ll shock me senseless, for sure, but Chief is my friend and if the shock is that bad or if it’s a lobotomy (which it was), Chief won’t let me live like that. He’ll put me out of my misery and then he’ll pick up that fountain that I secretly know he can pick up and throw it through a window and break out of here. His very act of freedom will be how I break out of here, too!” This is EXACTLY what happens in this film. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is about patients asking, “Who’s the crazy one in here? Is it us for being in here or it is that Nurse Ratched over there behind that glass and the other hospital staff telling us we’re crazy in here?” We don’t need the answer to this question, because Chief gives us the answer, i.e., “crazy or not, I’m outta here!!!!”

Not to get too personal (though I will), I have to talk about my many visits to mental institutions. “Was I crazy?” “Depends who you ask.” But if you’re asking me, I WAS “nuts,” but it was because I was “cracked.” Truth be told, I still think I’m “nuts” (“cracked”) on any given day or, better yet, on any given hour. But what is this “crazy” and this “nuts” if I voluntarily admitted myself into these mental institutions, which I did? Is it “crazy” for someone to voluntarily admit themselves to a mental institution? Is it only “crazy” if someone INvoluntarily is admitted to a mental institution? Maybe the “voluntarily admitted myself” is the “crazy” and the “nuts” part of it, because I’m NOT “crazy” or “nuts” for wanting to understand why I am like I am, why I need what I need, why I think like I think, why I feel what I feel. If you think that is “crazy” or “nuts” about me, challenge yourself to answer these same questions. And notice I didn’t put question marks behind these questions, because you don’t have to answer them if you don’t want to. You can stay “sane” as long as you need to, as long as that is working for you, as long as that is how you “roll,” and just plain as long as you possibly can in an insane world.

So, have I come to a revelation? I think I have. In reviewing GIRL, INTERRUPTED and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, I wanted to come to an understanding of these films’ question, “Am I crazy?,” but instead I seemed to have come to understand my own answers to this question. I understand now that I will NOT allow anyone to call me ANYTHING, nor anyone to “box me” or label me ANYTHING. And if they call me ANYTHING or “box me” or label me ANYTHING, I don’t have to answer them back. I can hear what they called me and I can sit with what they called me and ask myself, “is this speck or is this plank?” But none of this has to alter me inside in any way, shape or form….unless I let it. I’ve been called A LOT in my life, some good, some not so good, and that has all altered me in more ways than I care to mention. But what can’t alter me RIGHT NOW is what ANYONE chooses to call me, “box me” or label me. I struggle like Kaysen and McMurphy to understand myself better. I have been both Lisa and Nurse Ratched on more than one occasion. But what I DON’T struggle with or what I have NOT been both (actually, I’m lying….I AM BOTH!!!!) is me finding my own path, journeying, discovering, weeping, laughing, etc. I think they call this “living.”

“Am I crazy?” “I don’t know. What do YOU think?” or, more appropriately asked, “I don’t know. what do YOU think about asking yourself this same question?”

3 thoughts on “GIRL, INTERRUPTED (1999) AND ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)

  1. I have felt crazy a number of times in my life, So I fully identify with your blog. My sense is that a hospital isn’t the place to go to answer the question. Nice piece Timothy

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  2. I don’t think anyone can reveal both these pivotal works ( I’ve seen both) as clearly and lucidly as you do. Your back and forth of enquiry adds a rhythm here which is essential to the issues addressed and my God, you are one creative writer.

    Also Georgina remains the most haunting figure for me from GIRL, INTERRUPTED as it is essayed by Elisabeth Moss who is my absolute favourite and also because we keep digging for clues to what could have led to her burning her face in reality. Her being there is almost antithetical as she’s the picture of calm and gives us an Uneasy clue to her unsaid backstory.

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  3. Thanks for the compliment of being “one creative writer.” I really appreciate that! In fact, Elizabeth Moss’ character was named Polly; Georgina was the pathological liar named Georgina played by Clea Duvall. I do like that you highlighted Polly, as she is the character who is most probably like all of us, even if our face does not show physical burns. We are burned inside! If I remember correctly (and I should, seeing this film so many times), Polly had lit herself on fire because she was found to be allergic to her puppy and she thought burning herself would fix that. Of course, it didn’t, but what It shows us is that Polly had, like you and me, a special attachment and relationship with animals. A great love for them! One who has a special attachment and relationship with an animal, greatly loves him or her, is one who will likewise treat his or her fellowman in the same way. That’s a quote someone said, NOT me! Haha! I wish everyone understood that. God knows if I found that I was allergic to either my cat, Conrad, or my dog, Blue, I, too, might light myself on fire to never abandon them! Love and blessings ALWAYS, Timothy

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