One Flew Over the Chicks' Nest
The Sixties were different for girls. Recall Stark Naked, the Merry Prankster thrown off Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus, abandoned in Texas, and unmerrily banished to a psychiatric ward. (This is where, in college, I stopped reading Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, in dismayed recognition that the hippie trip wasn't necessarily liberating for bohos with boobs.) Or consider Susanna Kaysen, the disaffected daughter who was designated "promiscuous" in 1967 and sent to a Massachusetts mental hospital, and who recounted her stint in the bin in her 1992 memoir, Girl, Interrupted. Finally, more than 30 years after Kaysen's ordeal, the movie based on her bestseller turns Kesey's macho era on its ass, revealing the decade's at once heady and destructive feminine flip side.
Namely, Girl, Interrupted recasts One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with chicks, celebrating misfit-sisterhood (over mythic manhood) and reinventing the archetypal snake pit as a private, pastel haven for intriguingly troubled girls. At Claymoore hospital, Susanna Kaysen (Winona Ryder) discovers the community she never felt with her prude parents, their pretentious Ivy League friends, her ambitious prep-school peers, or her casual sex partners. Susanna gets a lesson in sorority and nonconformity from a cadre of young women, including a chicken fetishist and laxative junkie (unnervingly played by Brittany Murphy), a pathological liar (Clea Duvall), and a dyke (Jillian Armenante) from the pre-1974 days when psychiatrists deemed lesbians categorically crazy. Ultimately, our wide-eyed Girl must choose between sublimation, sanity, and the tough love of a take-no-sass nurse (Whoopi Goldberg) on the one hand, or impulse, deviance, and the love of a seductive sociopath (Angelina Jolie) on the other.
If Milos Forman's 1975 film version of Kesey's counterculture classic certified Jack Nicholson as the people's post-flower-power freak of choice, Girl, Interrupted confirms Jolie as a postfeminist, neo-beat virago. As Lisa, Jolie struts around the ward like a gangly cowboy, wielding herself like a latter-day Janis Joplin and demonstrating the same combustible mix of rage and vulnerability. Lisa alternately purrs and hisses, soothing her damaged psycho-sisters one minute and pressing their tender psychic buttons the next. Like Nicholson's charismatic cuckoo, Jolie's free-spirited guerrilla-girl defies psychiatric authority (what she calls "the-rapists" and their "diagnonsense"--"valium, speculum, whatever"), and liberates her gal-pals from their drugged-out stupor with sundry pranks and nocturnal escapades.
But where Kesey and Cuckoo's Nest offered a sexist cure for a sick society--prescribing sex as the manly antidote to emasculating institutions manned by women--Girl submits a more subtle diagnosis of society's gender trouble. After all, sex (from incest to free love, from exploitation to salubrity) has landed most of these girls in the coop in the first place. Following Kaysen's memoir, director James Mangold (Heavy) leaves questions about choice and compulsion purposefully unresolved, as Susanna "voluntarily" commits herself to the hospital, but only at the coercive hands of a variety of conformist elders. What ails her--whether she suffers from "borderline personality disorder," clinical depression, overprivilege, countercultural confusion, or sexist expectations--provides the movie's psychic pivot. Considering how ready experts have been to tag women as crazy during the past century, it's ironic how easily reviewers--most of them male--have dismissed this character as merely self-pitying. (As the New York Times' headline put it: "Get Over it, Little Girl. Stop Your Whining.")
Maybe this ungenerous sentiment has to do with Ryder's mincing, handwringing performance. To her dubious credit, Ryder has convincingly portrayed depression in all its frustrating dullness. "I'm not going to burn my bra, or drop acid, or march on Washington," says Ryder's uninspiring heroine of her passive resistance. "I just don't want to end up like my mother." (Hardly a ringing Sixties manifesto, that!) Yet if Ryder's recreant leaves some fire to be desired, blame the movie's rock-bottom faith in mental-health professionals. Where Kaysen herself still evinces a healthy mistrust of the psychiatric establishment, Mangold chooses to exalt aristocratic Dr. Wick (Vanessa Redgrave) and preternaturally calm Nurse Val (Goldberg)--the latter of whom is ever ready to turn the other cheek, even when racist inmates abuse her. So much for Nurse Ratched, Kesey's castrating, concentration-campy matriarch. But it's hard to question authority when your keepers are so kind, leaving Ryder's girl with no recourse but to be polite and contrite.
Ultimately, this spin on the Sixties lacks conviction, surrendering its seductive, destructive firebrand as it caves in to the supposedly stable Seventies. If the movie leaves our narrator's original diagnosis in question--was she ever crazy?--it leaves little doubt about her recovery. The reassuring sign of her mental health: Patient powdered nose and put on skirt.
Girl, Interrupted starts Friday at area theaters.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.