Actress Louise Fletcher, who has died aged 88, won a best actress Oscar in 1976 for her chilling and controlled performance in the film version of Ken Kesey’s counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
As Nurse Ratched, who instills fear in patients at a mental institution without ever raising her voice, she was quietly terrifying. The part had panto villain shades to it, but Fletcher allowed for vital glimpses of the human control freak beneath that good-natured exterior, particularly in her spats with Jack Nicholson as the rebellious anti-hero McMurphy.
She was 40 years old at the time and had only recently returned to acting after a long hiatus. She repeatedly applied for the role, unaware that the producers were courting and being turned down by actors including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury and Ellen Burstyn. Director Miloš Forman conceived the role as “the personification of evil”, but after casting Fletcher he reconsidered his opinion: “Slowly it began to dawn on me that it would be much stronger if she didn’t know she was evil. She actually believes in helping people.’
Certainly, the most surprising quality of Fletcher’s performance is the muted but palpable attack she takes when her orders are challenged. Even her outdated hairdo was distinctive—”a symbol that life had stopped for her a long time ago,” Fletcher noted. “She was so out of touch that she had no joy in her life and no idea that she could be wrong. She took care of her insane patients in a murderous way, but she was convinced that she was right.
Fletcher saw Nurse Ratched as a symbol of where the US had gone astray during the Richard Nixon years. “She was convinced that she had her world in order and that it had to be in that order for it to work properly. The moment McMurphy arrived, things started to fall apart for her. And she couldn’t have that. She had enough power that her beliefs could have consequences – and that’s where I felt we were in the world at that time, too. The whole movie was about who has power and how they use it and how absolute power absolutely corrupts.”
Accepting the Oscar, Fletcher ended her speech in sign language to thank her parents, who were both deaf – her mother after a childhood illness at six months and her father after he was struck by lightning at age four.
Fletcher was born in Birmingham, Alabama, one of four hearing siblings to the Rev. Robert Capers, who organized more than 40 congregations for the deaf, and Estelle (née Caldwell), who raised a family and also worked with the hearing impaired. “I grew up being my parents’ parent,” Fletcher said. Her first memory was of “creeping into my parents’ bed in the middle of the night to tell my father I was sick.”
Each of the couple’s children spent a year with an aunt in Texas to learn to speak. Even so, Fletcher didn’t fully use her voice until she was eight, and was once sent home by teachers who believed she was deaf.
She studied drama at the University of North Carolina, then moved to Los Angeles and began landing roles in television series including Maverick, Lawman and The Untouchables in the late 1950s. She married producer Jerry Bick in 1960 and left acting to raise their two sons.
The family moved to London in 1967. In the early 1970s, Fletcher tried to return to acting, but Hollywood agents told her she had no chance of finding work. Robert Altman convinced Fletcher to star in his slick Prohibition-era crime drama Thieves Like Us (1974), produced by Bick; she was reluctant at first, afraid it would look like nepotism.
Her relationship with her parents was an inspiration for the choir singer, who portrayed raising two deaf children in Altman’s next film, Nashville (1975). Fletcher was the director’s natural choice to play the part. But Altman balked at Bick’s insistence that his wife could only take part if he could also be on board as a producer, and cast Lily Tomlin instead.
Around the same time, Thieves Like Us brought Fletcher to Forman’s attention. “You can call it luck or fate that I met Milos,” she said, “but it would be pointless if I wasn’t prepared.” After winning an Oscar, she turned down the role of an evangelical mother in Carrie (1976), but accepted roles in the ill-fated horror sequel Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and the comedy The Cheap Detective (1978).
She also appeared in the thriller Brainstorm and the science-fiction tribute Strange Invaders (both 1983), the Stephen King adaptation Firestarter (1984), the romantic comedy Nobody’s Crazy (1986), and the adaptation of Virginia Andrews’ bestseller Flowers in the Attic (1987), in which she played another the figure of a tyrannical matriarchy.
Although Fletcher never got another role as memorable as Sister Ratched, she continued to act throughout her life. Her notable recent work has included playing Frank Gallagher’s tough-guy mother serving time for manslaughter in the US version of Channel 4’s hit comedy drama Shameless (2011-12).
Fletcher and Bick divorced in 1977. She is survived by their two sons, John and Andrew.
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