Oregon Film Tour: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

October 21, 2016 (Updated December 23, 2016)

Many great movies have been shot in Oregon, but 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tops them all for critical acclaim. “Cuckoo’s Nest” swept the Academy Awards the year it was released, becoming one of only a handful of films ever to win in all five major categories. (It won Best Picture and Best Screenplay, as well as Best Director, Actor and Actress, for Miloš Forman, Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, respectively.)

An adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, the film features Jack Nicholson in one of his most indelible roles: Nicholson plays Randle Patrick “Mac” McMurphy, a self-styled outlaw who pits himself against the forces of authority and conformity as embodied by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), the controlling head nurse at the mental hospital where McMurphy is confined.

“Cuckoo’s Nest” was shot almost entirely on location at the Oregon State Hospital, a mental-health facility in Salem, with the active participation of hospital patients and staff. The then director of the hospital, Dean Brooks, made it a condition of filming that patients be included in the process. Brooks “felt that the therapeutic and financial advantages for those patients who got to work on the movie — as actors, technicians or maintenance people — far outweighed any disadvantages,” wrote the New York Times in a 1975 profile. Many patients and staff had bit parts in the film; Brooks even had his own moment in the spotlight in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” playing hospital administrator Dr. Spivey.

But over the years, the Oregon State Hospital gained notoriety for other reasons: It was plagued with issues of overcrowding, staff abuse of patients and other gloomy conflicts. It eventually closed, and construction of a new hospital facility began in 2009.

The legacy of “Cuckoo’s Nest” lives on at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, where several rooms of the old hospital have been preserved and converted into a nonprofit museum. Open three days a week (see up-to-date hours and admission prices here), the museum documents the history of the Oregon State Hospital and provides an insightful — and troubling — window into mental-health treatment over the last 150 years.

Located on Salem’s Center Street (formerly known as “Asylum Avenue”), the museum is set among a pleasant compound of fields, parks and new hospital buildings. It’s easy to imagine how the original hospital once housed a working farm, where inmates labored to raise their own food. But the bucolic setting is at odds with the treatments and methods on display: From straitjackets and leather restraints to shock therapy and lobotomy tables, the museum sheds light on the ignorance and inhumanity that have historically shaped attitudes toward mental health care.

A corridor of the museum is dedicated to “Cuckoo’s Nest,” including photos, quotes from patients and film crew, and the 70-pound hydrotherapy machine that Chief Bromden hurls through a window in the film. (Will Sampson, the actor who played Chief Bromden, was a painter working on the rodeo circuit when he was brought into the production through the personal connections of producer Michael Douglas. Years later, Sampson’s son Tim would reprise the role for a production of “Cuckoo’s Nest” at Portland Center Stage.)

While the bulk of the film is shot in the claustrophobic confines of the hospital, there is one notable exception: The inmates stage a dramatic escape to go fishing, where McMurphy offers the timeless line, “You’re not nuts; you’re fishermen!” Retrace their journey from confinement to coast in an afternoon: Depoe Bay’s harbor, where the scene was shot, is about 70 miles west of Salem on the Oregon Coast.

And for those seeking a somewhat more lighthearted Ken Kesey-based excursion, look no further than the coastal town of Lincoln City, where the cabin that housed Paul Newman and Henry Fonda in the classic “Sometimes a Great Notion” is available for rent. In downtown Eugene, an hour’s drive south of Salem, a statue of Kesey stands in Broadway Plaza. A mural of Kesey also adorns a wall in the nearby town of Springfield — it’s part of the city’s official mural walking tour.

About The

Alison Hallett
A native Oregonian, Alison Hallett's writing has appeared in Slate, The Magazine, Wired.com, The Stranger and the Portland Mercury. By day, she's the marketing and community engagement director at Portland's historic nonprofit Hollywood Theatre — where yes, she eats a lot of popcorn.