What do Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Angela Lansbury and Geraldine Page have in common? They are among the many actresses who rejected the role of the sadistic, manipulative and unforgiving Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and that way made it possible for the unknown Louise Fletcher to come out of nowhere and win the Best Actress Oscar for her take on this infamous character – a highlight that would be the only one in a career that could never benefit from this Oscar win and Louise Fletcher disappeared again just as quickly as she had arrived. In fact, right after her Oscar win she already admitted that she had not received any good movie offers since One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – it was probably the unlucky combination of being type-cast and not having shown enough talent or personality for leading roles that prevented her from ever becoming a bigger star. Because the role of Nurse Ratched, as fascinating as she may be, did not allow Louise Fletcher to either display a wide variety of emotions nor proof that she could carry a picture since her role is relatively short compared to other winners and nominees in this category – another disappointment for Louise Fletcher who also had to spend some of her post-Oscar-win time defending herself against accusations that hers was actually a supporting role and that only a weak year like 1975 could have allowed her to win in the leading category…maybe people thought that Nurse Ratched would be strong enough to stand all those accusations but Louise Fletcher actually suffered pretty much from them and she also had to defend herself even before the Oscars when last year’s winner Ellen Burstyn went on TV and urged Academy voters not to vote for Best Actress because of the lack of good female roles – maybe Ellen Burstyn’s heart was in the right place when she made this plea but it was certainly a slap in the face of the nominees and it’s understandable that Louise Fletcher made her anger about those remarks publicly known.
So, this start for this review already made it clear that the role of Nurse Ratched brings back this old, never-ending argument – leading or supporting? I don’t want to have this argument here since it makes a) no sense since the race is over and done and b) no satisfying answer will ever come from it since arguments could be made for both categories. Yes, Louise Fletcher does only have limited screentime and a limited character to accompany it but her role is undoubtedly of great importance for the whole story and, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, an unforgettable counterpart to the central character of the movie. Okay, the same arguments could be made for Vanessa Redgrave in Julia but the structure of Julia and One flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is very different and Louise Fletcher a larger presence in hers than Vanessa Redgrave. Okay, and I have started the argument…let’s just say that some performances cannot be categorized easily – and if an actress enters the leading category despite a lack of screentime, she risks to be judged lower simply because she may not have enough opportunities to craft her character and become the strong presence that a leading player needs. I have complained about this myself – some performances simply lack too much depth and power because of the size of the part and therefore are not truly able to compete with other, more fully realized performances. But sometimes it happens that an actress is able to overcome these obstacles and create an intriguing and exciting character that is able to show how much careful attention and preparation can help to dominate a movie even if the character is largely absent. Other winners for Best Actress who achieved this are Luise Rainer whose Anna Held could easily have disappeared in the extravagant, three-hour long The Great Ziegfeld if it hadn’t been for Rainer’s witty, charming, funny and heartbreaking interpretation or Frances McDormand whose role as Marge Gunderson is even rather short in a movie which isn’t very long to begin with but the unique humor, line-delivery and facial work she used did nothing less than create one of the most unforgettable movie characters of all time. In these cases, those actresses not only turned their material into gold (that’s something also supporting actresses can do) but they also let their characters become such powerful and dominating presences that the screentime becomes of secondary importance when deciding if this is a supporting or a leading performance (unlike Vanessa Redgrave – in her case the screentime does give the answer even if she may be a powerful and important presence). And Louise Fletcher also belongs in this group. In the part of Nurse Ratched, she had both an advantage and a disadvantage against Luise Rainer and Frances McDormand – on the one hand, she benefited from the fact that her movie presented her with a character that was already written as extremely fascinating and of central importance while Anna Held and Marge Gunderson were rather a part of the whole. But on the other hand, these two characters were allowed to be explored, crafted and realized – Luise Rainer and Frances McDormand could construct these women themselves while Louise Fletcher was basically given a certain type of role that required her to follow a certain path and never leave it, forbidding her any experiments with the part and therefore limiting her in her interpretation. So there are a lot of riddles in this performance – does Louise Fletcher make Nurse Ratched fascinating or is it the other way around? Is she only a vessel for her words and the system she symbolizes or does Louise Fletcher herself create the character and turns her into such a subtle ambassador of evil? The answer is not easy but what can be said is that Louise Fletcher perfectly gave a face to an almost faceless woman, a disembodied presence floating above her ward – her success in this part was that she took this character which, even though intended to be a powerful presence, could have been easily overshadowed by the central storyline surrounding Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and turned her into one of the most mysterious and intriguing movie villains of all time. Maybe Louise Fletcher benefited from the fact that Nurse Ratched is such a juicy character but she is also a limited character, mostly sitting in a chair, hardly moving at all and it was up to Louise Fletcher to give these scenes the intensity it needed, to turn Nurse Ratched into a force to be reckoned with without making it noticeable, letting all the evil happen behind her stone-faced façade – a task she was wonderfully up to.
Nurse Ratched is a two-dimensional character without any emotional clearness or depth – she only exists in the world of the hospital, it’s impossible to imagine this woman in the ‘outside world’. Apparently she and Billy’s mother are friends but it’s almost impossible to imagine Nurse Ratched in a private life, involving friends or a family. When she leaves her ward, she seems to fall into a dark hole until she appears again in the next morning. All this could have harmed the character but the script and Louise Fletcher perfectly understood to use this two-dimensionality of Nurse Ratched to create a villain without any reasoning, who doesn’t even give one hint at some kind of backstory or a more private, hidden side. The question ‘why?’ is constantly floating above her but is never answered.
Since Louise Fletcher spends most of her on-screen time sitting in a chair, most of her acting is done by her face – a face that is rid of any emotions. All expressions are torn away from it when Nurse Ratched watches her patients, forcing them to speak about things they don’t want to and then enjoys the discussions that arise among them and in which the patients show a constant state of mockery and self-loathing. Only sometimes her face seems to change a bit, a little smile seems to escape when she is satisfied with her results or she calculates her next steps. But even more, Louise Fletcher can change her appearance so easily – in some moments she looks almost delicate, pale and small but in other scenes her face appears almost vast, red with anger and her body surpassing everyone else around her. The other important aspect of her work is her voice – again, she can deliver her lines very soft-spoken, friendly and thoughtful but there is always an almost threatening undertone that suggests a greater truth and during the final scenes of the movie, her voice changes to a more ‘obvious’ evilness when Nurse Ratched cannot find any other way to keep control over the ward than open threats.
Probably the most important aspect of Louise Fletcher’s performance was the fact that her underplaying of Nurse Ratched helped her immensely to establish the character as a very untypical villain – in fact, there could even be the question if she is a villain at all. In some ways, Nurse Ratched seems rather to be a symbol of efficiency, a woman who tries to keep control in her ward and does not tolerate the rebellious McMurphy and the effect he has on the other patients. But this is the power that actually allows her to keep such tight and complete control over her ward and her patients – her ability to appear strict but not evil makes her the unquestioned symbol of accepted suppression. Nobody, not the patients nor the other workers at the hospital, see anything else than a woman who does her job since she gets her personal joy from very little things – like letting the men get their hopes up about voting if they are allowed to watch baseball on TV while she already knows that they will not get enough votes. She likes to see them get excited with anticipation only to destroy it a few seconds later. She enjoys the complete power she has over the men, her unquestioned authority developed in an environment that has no means to reject it. She never does anything ‘obviously’ evil and that way escapes any accusations – until the end when she discovers that McMurphy is close to destroying her precious authority. Bullying her patients with uncomfortable questions and controlling their lives is all she has so when McMurphy gets them to cheer at a TV that doesn’t show anything and that way gives them back their own will and ideas, Louise Flechter thrillingly shows the hidden anger burning inside Nurse Ratched. And during a later session, when one of the men keeps standing up despite the fact that she prohibits it, she lets her lose her self-control for the first time, shouting at him ‘You sit down!’ – in this moment, Louise Fletcher’s head almost becomes like a skull, covered with anger and rage. In this way Louise Fletcher quietly, almost unnoticeable develops Nurse Ratched – the calm and confident woman from the beginning slowly begins to lose her power over her patients and needs to find new ways to keep her authority intact.
Louise Fletcher’s most chilling scene comes at the end when she sees how the rebellious, anti-authoritarian McMurphy is destroying the structures that have enabled her to keep her power. Billy’s refusal to feel ashamed, the cheers of the other patients, her dirty cap – it all represents the fall of her power and Louise Fletcher thrillingly shows how Nurse Ratched is thinking about her options at this moment, finally deciding that only open threats can re-erect her authority. Acting against all morale principles, she informs Billy that she will tell his mother about what he did even though she must expect the consequences of her doings. The final look she gives McMurphy at this moment, after Billy has been dragged away, shouting and screaming, tells him that she, after all, has beaten him. But even after all these incidents on her ward she still is in charge at the end – again this underlines the power of Nurse Ratched as she apparently found a way to let her own actions disappear and lay all the blame on McMurphy while also silencing all the other patients who witnessed the event.
It’s not clear if this is a case of brilliant acting or brilliant casting or brilliant writing allowing a limited performance to impress because of the fascination of the character – but something brilliant happened nonetheless. It may be that Louise Fletcher benefited from the way the character was written and presented but it's still her presence, her face, her voice and her ability to show so much with so little that brought Nurse Ratched to live and made her an everlasting part of movie history. Her ability to use the one-dimensionality and the limited determination of Nurse Ratched and turn it into a thrilling piece of work is surely a wonderful achievement for which she receives