Tuesday, February 7

Louise Fletcher, Best Known For Her Oscar-Winning Performance In ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ Dies at Age 88


Louise Fletcher, the Alabama-born actress best known for her role as the cruel, authoritarian Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, died on Friday at her home in Southern France at the age of 88. She was relatively unknown at the age of 40 when she secured the part, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. She continued to work in film and television up through the early 2010s, with a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and earning an Emmy nomination for Picket Fences and Joan of Arcadia

She was born Estelle Louise Fletcher, one of four children of deaf parents who worked in churches for the hard-of-hearing. After studying drama at the University of North Carolina, Fletcher moved to Los Angeles and found work on television westerns in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (Being 5 feet 10 inches tall, she said, was an advantage in that field.) She appeared on Bat Masterson, Maverick, two episodes of Wagon Train, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. In 1960 she married Jerry Bick, later a film producer, and suspended her acting career to raise a family.

Her return came with Thieves Like Us, Robert Altman’s 1930s-set southern outlaw film starring Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, and Tom Skerritt. It was based on an Edward Anderson novel that Nicholas Ray had previously adapted into They Live By Night. Bick, who had also co-produced Altman’s previous movie, The Long Goodbye, was among its producers. The sequence in which Fletcher’s character betrays her brother inspired the Czech director Miloš Forman to cast her as the villain in his forthcoming adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel and play One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A slew of well-known actresses like Angela Lansbury, Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, and Geraldine Page had already tuned the project down. 

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Starring opposite Jack Nicholson (and Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Christophe Lloyd, Will Sampson, Vincent Schiavelli, and many others), Fletcher’s turn as Nurse Ratched brought nuance to the representation of tyranny as overseer of the psychiatric ward where Nicholson’s character is feigning insanity to ditch a prison sentence. One is never quite sure if her cruelty is rooted in a poisoned rationalization of working toward a greater good, or if she is just an old-fashioned sadist.

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Cuckoo’s Nest was a tremendous success, and was the second movie in Academy history to sweep the “big five” awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Nicholson), Best Actress, and Best Screenplay, which went to Lawrence Haubman and Bo Goldman. Dourif was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and there were nominations for cinematography, editing and Jack Nitzsche’s original score. (In case you were wondering, the previous “big five” winner was 1935’s It Happened One Night, and the only one since has been 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs.)

At the close of her Oscars acceptance speech, Fletcher communicated to her parents using sign language. She also won the BAFTA and Golden Globe for the role.

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