Sometimes an actor enters the pantheon because of one unforgettable performance, and surely there is no clearer example of this than Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in Miloš Forman’s film of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975). With her soft voice and 1940s pageboy and slight smile, Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is devoted to a “calming bedside manner,” but with all-controlling steel underneath. Jack Nicholson’s rebellious Randle P. McMurphy, who finds himself in the mental ward she lords over, thinks he can handle her. McMurphy is a typical blue collar “bad boy” type of guy, a life force, a guy who is fun to be around, the center of attention. Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched sees that he is a problem, but both of them underestimate each other.
Fletcher had her own subtext for Nurse Ratched’s relationship with McMurphy, which she revealed to the writer Michael Schulman in a very enlightening 2018 profile for Vanity Fair in which he asked her how she approached this role. “She had sacrificed her life for other people,” Fletcher said. “She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life, because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her.” Fletcher also thought that her Nurse Ratched was a 40-year-old virgin and was “very turned on by this McMurphy guy.”
Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page, Angela Lansbury, Ellen Burstyn and quite a few other name actresses had all turned down the role of Nurse Ratched before Forman cast Fletcher, who was little-known in the mid-1970s. She had been born in Alabama to deaf parents, and Fletcher said later in life that her need to act had partly sprung from the way she acted out Bette Davis movies for her mother and father. Her father founded over 40 churches for the deaf.
In her twenties, Fletcher made some appearances on TV, mainly in westerns like “Lawman” and “Maverick,” where her height (5 feet and 10 inches) wasn’t such a liability. She married a literary agent and producer named Jerry Bick in 1960, and she retired from acting in order to raise their two sons. Fletcher only returned to the profession when Bick asked her to play a role in Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” (1974). When Altman saw Fletcher using sign language with her parents, he was intrigued and asked her to work on a role for his new movie “Nashville” (1975) with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. Fletcher gave Tewkesbury a lot of material, and so she was very hurt when Altman gave her role to Lily Tomlin.
Fletcher actively pursued the role of Nurse Ratched, but Forman wasn’t sure she was right for it at first. Nurse Ratched is described in the original Ken Kesey novel of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as a very large and very obviously formidably evil woman, almost non-human, but Fletcher had a different idea for her. She wondered if Nurse Ratched’s evil, her need for control and her capacity for cruelty, wouldn’t be more frightening if she spoke in a soft way and gave encouraging little smiles when her rules were being obeyed.
Forman saw what Fletcher was going for, but he wondered if what she was doing was right. On the first day of shooting, he told Fletcher not to tilt her head because it would read as weak, but Fletcher wanted to emphasize the soft and placating attitude this woman puts on for her inmates, and Forman eventually saw that she was right and re-shot this scene her way.
Even knowing some of Fletcher’s own back story for this character, her Nurse Ratched remains basically mysterious, and that is the value of this performance, which cannot be entirely rejected or shrugged off no matter what solid objections we might have to the gender imbalance or sexist basis of the material. It was Fletcher who saw this role as an opportunity to say something large about all the insidious people in this world, female and male, who are bureaucrats at heart and use the pointless rules of their bureaucracy to their advantage.
Think of that face beneath the nurse’s cap Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched wears: steely, yet somehow soft, but is the softness weakness or is it a kind of moral decay that has started to show on her face? Think of the dated hairstyle Nurse Ratched wears, as if she has never felt the need to update it because to her it is always wartime, and she lives in the past and takes revenge on the present. Think even of the nasty humor she reveals when she tells Nicholson’s McMurphy that if he does not want to take his medication orally, then he can have it another way: “But I don’t think you’d like it, Mr. McMurphy,” she says, with that mild look on her face.
And how can we forget the way Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched immediately says, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine” after finding the very bloody dead body of Billy (Brad Dourif), who has committed suicide after she shamed him for having sex and threatened to tell his mother about it. When McMurphy goes in to strangle Nurse Ratched, her eyes nearly pop out of her head, and it feels like we are finally seeing the non-human side of her that Kesey wrote about in his novel.
In our final glimpse of Nurse Ratched, after McMurphy has been lobotomized, she wears a neck brace, and her manner is very soft, very “kind.” But we know what she is underneath. Fletcher has shown us. Anyone who has had to deal with bureaucracies knows that there are Nurse Ratcheds, both male and female, in every one of them, and their voices are “friendly” as they twist their knives. There is no other performance by any actor that shows this type of person in such a substantial and revelatory way.
Fletcher won the Academy Award for best actress for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and she gave one of the most touching acceptance speeches when she thanked her parents in sign language. Her career didn’t work out too well after her Oscar win, but she had made her mark. See just one image of Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched and you know what it means: the face of petty authority, more machine sometimes than human, but human in some of the worst ways underneath.