Louise Fletcher, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her indelible performance as the indelible nurse in Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” died Friday at her home in France, according to an actor. She was 88 years old.
The classic film, based on Ken Casey’s novel and exploring the oppressive propensity of power through the story of patients and the staff of a psychiatric ward, won five Academy Awards in 1976, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Jack Nicholson.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the first film in more than four decades to sweep the major categories of Best Film, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay. It was nominated for four additional Academy Awards and was also a huge box office success.
On the American Film Institute TV special “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes & Villains,” Nurse Fletcher Ratched has been named the fifth greatest villain in film history—and the second greatest villain, behind the Wicked Witch of the West.
Ironically, the character of Ratched is toned down in the script compared to Kesey’s original performance, Fletcher delivered a fairly accurate performance, often conveying the character’s feelings simply through facial expressions, which is why she deserved an Academy Award in the first place. In fact, the actress enables us to feel sorry for Ratched in more than one key moment in the film.
In a 2003 re-appraisal of The Cuckoo’s Nest, Roger Ebert declared that despite the Academy Award, Fletcher’s performance “is underappreciated. This may be because she utterly despises her nurse Ratched, and because she perfectly embodies the qualities we (men and women) have all been taught to do. To fear in a certain type of female power figure – a woman who ranked sexuality and humanity in duty and goodness.”
However, it can be argued that the role of Nurse Ratched and the Oscar that the actress received for this performance did Fletcher more harm than good: in a review critical of the horror film “Flowers in the Attic”, in which the actress starred in 1987, a frustrated and unsympathetic writer’s opinion of The Washington Post, “Fletcher must talk to her agent about these stereotypical ‘evil’ roles, which are getting increasingly boring.”
But Fletcher may have asked her agent for a wider range of roles, to no avail.
Most recently, she appeared in the 2013 movie “A Perfect Man” starring Liev Schreiber and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
On TV, Fletcher played family lady Peggy “Grammy” Gallagher, a cunning former con man who nonetheless wanted a relationship with her grandchildren, on Showtime’s “Shameless”. The actress reprized in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” as the deceptive spiritual leader Wayne Adami from 1993 to 1999, in the science fiction movie “VR.5” from 1995 to 1997 and in “ER” in 2005.
She was nominated for an Emmy for guest roles in “Picket Fences” in 1996 and “Joan of Arcadia” in 2004.
Fletcher returned to acting in 1974 after more than a decade of raising a family and made a supporting role in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, which Pauline Kyle described as “impressively powerful,” but the actress did not have a prominence in Hollywood when she was cast as Ratched.
Angela Lansbury, Anne Bancroft, Elaine Burstyn, Colin Dewhurst, and Geraldine Page turned down the role of Ratched, each fearful of the potential impact on her career.
Director Milos Fuhrmann happened to see Fletcher in Thieves Like Us.
“They were all wrong for [Ratched] A role, but there was something about her,” Foreman later wrote in his diary. “I asked her to read with me and all of a sudden, beneath the velvet exterior, I discovered a toughness and willpower that seemed designed for the role.”
Fortunately, there were some opportunities to escape being typecast.
She cleared herself well in the 1978 satirical film “Cheap Detective” starring Peter Falk.
In the 1979 drama Natural Enemies, she starred with Hal Holbrook, playing a husband who kills his family. Critic Richard Winters wrote that Fletcher “plays the polar opposite of her character Nurse Ratched quite well. Here she is weak and fragile rather than rigid and authoritative and has a scene inside a mental hospital as a patient. The fact that she can play such different characters strongly proves that she is a wonderful actress” .
In 1999’s “Cruel Intentions” she played a Long Island aristocratic and heartwarming character.
Other film credits include “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” starring with Richard Burton and Linda Blair. Science Fiction “Brainstorming” with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood; “Firestarter” starring young Drew Barrymore; and “Two Days in the Valley”.
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents were deaf. She was introduced to acting by the aunt who taught her to speak when she was eight years old. Fletcher attended the University of North Carolina. After taking a cross-country trip, she got stuck in Los Angeles and quickly stumbled into acting.
The young actress made her screen debut in 1958 with an appearance in “Playhouse 90” among other TV shows. The following year, she hosted the shows “Maverick”, “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables”. She appeared on “Perry Mason” twice in 1960, but by 1963 she had given up her career, at least for now, after making her first appearance in “A Gathering of Eagles.”
In 1973, having raised her children, she resumed her career with a guest appearance at the “Medical Center”. After doing a TV movie, she was cast in a supporting role in “Thieves Like Us” – a movie that was being produced by her husband, Jerry Peck.
Fletcher’s life story helped inspire one of the main characters in Robert Altman’s 1975 classic “Nashville” and was scheduled to play the character when Beck and Altman were breaking up.
Fletcher was married to Beck, a Hollywood literary agent who was also a later producer, from 1959 to 1978. He died in 2004. She is survived by her two sons John Dashiell Beck and Andrew Wilson Beck.