The Nurse Ratched riddle: why wasn't Louise Fletcher a bigger star?

Louise Fletcher's chilling performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won her an Oscar – then she made Grizzly II. What happened?

Pure evil: Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Pure evil: Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Credit: Getty

She thought about the money and about her age and then she said “yes”. It was July 1983 and an Oscar-winner who had shared the spotlight with Jack Nicholson and worked with Robert Altman had just agreed to travel behind the Iron Curtain to be chased by a mechanical bear. 

“I was 50—that should explain it all,” Louise Fletcher told The Ringer recently of her decision to sign up to Hungary-shot b-movie Grizzly II. “You’re too old to be young, and you’re too young to be old. It’s a big dip in careers.”

Some stars might regard a descent into fright-flick obscurity as a humiliation. In Hungary, filming Grizzly II, Fletcher would be in the orbit of actors on the rise: bright, beautiful young things such as George Clooney and Laura Dern. Talk about having your redundancy rubbed in your face. 

Yet she seems not to have perceived it that way. Instead, Fletcher appears to have got on with it with the phlegmatic resolve of someone whose fleeting moment of success had come after a lifetime of disappointment. At a certain level she may have concluded that Grizzly II wasn’t so different from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, for which she had won Best Actress in 1976. It was just another movie.

At age 86 Fletcher is in the news again. That’s partly to do with Grizzly II, which vanished in a swirl of dodgy accounting in the mid-Eighties but which has now been restored and is set to be officially released for the first time. The other reason is Ratched – a Netflix prequel to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in which Sarah Paulson portrays a younger version of Fletcher’s demonic Nurse Mildred Ratched. 

Fletcher hasn’t watched the new series, from prince of excess Ryan Murphy, and is unlikely to. She has heard it’s gory and explicit – a horror caper rather than a psychological masterpiece in the tradition of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. 

“I saw a little bit of the trailer, and for me it was like looking at the trailer of a horror movie,” she told the HuffPost. “So I sort of put it out of my mind as not having anything to do with the movie.” 

The impression Fletcher gives is of someone who doesn’t mind being off the radar and out of mind. She has certainly had plenty of time to reconcile herself to that status. Fletcher was for decades Hollywood’s invisible Oscar winner. She rose from nowhere to win Best Actress as Nurse Ratched and vanished just as quickly. 

She was not Forman’s first pick for Malevolent Mildred, the softly-spoken nemesis of One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest’s anarchic anti-hero McMurphy (Nicholson).

Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher after winning Best Actor and Best Actress at the 1976 Oscars Credit: Getty

She wasn’t even the Czech director’s fourth or fifth choice in his adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital. She recalled meeting him over a span of months to discuss the nuances of Ratched, unaware that he was all the while offering the gig to higher-profile talent – among them Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page, Angela Lansbury. They all said “no”, on the grounds that Ratched was far too monstrous. 

“Women, in terms of the women’s movement and what was happening at that time, were uncomfortable being the villains,” Michael Douglas, one of the movie’s producers, would tell Vanity Fair. 

Fletcher would not have been particularly shocked had Forman turned around and told her that, after all their conversations, he’d given the role to someone else. Robert Altman had essentially done just that to her in casting Nashville several months earlier. 

He had based the character of Linnea Reese, the mother of two deaf children, on Fletcher, who used sign language to communicate with her deaf parents growing up in Alabama. She’d read the script and agreed to take on the part. And then at the last moment Altman called Lily Tomlin instead. 

“I don’t think Lily knew anything about it. It just was one of those things that happened,” Fletcher later said. “I think he just got caught up in Lily Tomlin. He made a decision based on what he wanted to do, not what I wanted to do.”

Rejection had been part of her life from the moment she got into acting. Fletcher was 5ft 10" – too tall, apparently, for the cowboy shows she tried out for in the Fifties. She would go to audition after audition and at the end the casting people would always ask her about her height and decide she was too statuesque to pay the ingenue or tomboy. 

Fletcher was not cursed with boundless optimism and understood how the world worked. She had, in fact, given up on acting altogether after marrying producer and agent Jerry Bick in 1960, with whom she had two children. Bick coaxed her back when producing Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us in 1974, though she had not been gung-ho about it (the whiff of nepotism put her off). 

Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched in Ryan Murphy's Netflix series Credit: Netflix

Her marriage was falling apart when she read the script for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and lobbied Forman. In the end she got the gig largely because nobody else – a-list, b-list or c-list – was interested. And as might be expected of an emotionally-intense drama set in a psychiatric hospital, the shoot was not straightforward, with Fletcher and Forman clashing early on. 

The point of contention was how villainous Ratched should be. He wanted Fletcher to be more assertive – to lean into the nastiness. To her Ratched wasn’t simply a bad person, however. True, she makes life hell for McMurphy and the other patients. Most unforgivably, she triggers a breakdown in Brad Dourif’s Billy Bibbit who has had sex with a woman McMurphy smuggles into the ward. 

Ratched matter-of-factly explains she has no choice but to inform Billy’s mother. He freezes in horror, his stutter returns and he finally kills himself. At no point is Ratched is less that entirely convinced she is in the right. That, the film implies, is true evil: a person who never pauses to reflect that they might be doing wrong. 

The character reminded her of Richard Nixon and of the racists she had grown up with back in Alabama. “White people actually felt that the life they were creating was good for black people,” she told Vanity Fair. 

The same dynamic was at play with Ratched and the patients. “They’re in this ward, she’s looking out for them, and they have to act like they’re happy to get this medication or listen to this music. And make her feel good about the way she is.”

The nuance she brought was crucial as the film really wouldn’t have worked if Ratched was a two-dimensional baddie. Fletcher would, however, soon come to realise how spoilt she had been working with Forman. She attempted to inject the same subtlety into a witch-like character in 1987’s Flowers in the Attic – but it wasn’t what was required. “Scare me to death,” said the director. He wanted cackles, not the banality of evil. 

“He didn’t understand about villains,” she later said. “What’s so familiar can be the most frightening thing.”

By then she had already been to Hungary for Grizzly II – a gonzo project that featured a real-life rock festival headlined by Nazareth and a malfunctioning bionic bear (since missing). Fletcher played the grumpy park supervisor – the equivalent of Mayor Vaughn in Jaws. But she had turned down some choice parts too – such as the crazed mother in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. 

One job she was glad she said “yes” to was Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. This Nineties spin-off was one of the more contemplative entries in the boldly going sci-fi saga, with an ever evolving storyline and rich tapestry of protagonists. Fletcher’s was one of the richest: Winn Adami was an opportunist power-broker and wheeler-dealer.

Louise Fletcher as Kai Winn in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine   Credit: Getty

Described as “selfish, arrogant and power hungry”, the character was an opportunity for Fletcher to one again twinkle with deep-vein malevolence. As a bonus she didn’t even have to wear Mr Spock-style pointy ears. 

At the time, it was regarded as a surprise that a former Oscar-winner would pop up on a b-list sci-fi show. However, perhaps the biggest turn-up was how at home Fletcher felt out there in deep space with the geeks. It had been a long journey. Finally she was home.

“Star Trek was so much fun because the crew was the most professional group of people I’ve ever been at work with — like a ballet, almost, the way they work together,” she would say. “It’s in a genre that they are all so familiar with and they know what to expect. It’s a thing of beauty to watch it work. I thought it was great fun.”