FRANCE – Louise Fletcher, the imposing, steely-eyed American actress who won an Academy Award for her role as the tyrannical Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), died last Friday at her home in the town of Montdurausse, in southern France. She was 88.
The death was confirmed by her agent David Shaul, who did not cite a cause. Fletcher also had a home in Los Angeles.
She was 40 and largely unknown to the public when she was cast as the head administrative nurse at an Oregon mental institution in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
The film, based on a popular Ken Kesey novel, won a best actress trophy for Fletcher and four other Oscars, including best picture, best director (Milos Forman) and best actor (Jack Nicholson), who starred as the rebellious mental patient McMurphy.
Fletcher’s acceptance speech stood out that night, not only because she teasingly thanked voters for hating her but also because she used American Sign Language in thanking her parents, who were both deaf, for “teaching me to have a dream”.
The American Film Institute later named Nurse Ratched one of the most memorable villains in film history and the second most notable female villain, surpassed only by the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
But at the time Cuckoo’s Nest was released, Fletcher was frustrated by the buttoned-up nature of her character.
“I envied the other actors tremendously,” she said in a 1975 interview with The New York Times, referring to her fellow cast members, most of whom were playing mental patients. “They were so free, and I had to be so controlled.”
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, one of four hearing children of Robert Capers Fletcher, a minister, and Estelle Fletcher. Both her parents had been deaf since childhood. She studied drama at the University of North Carolina and moved to Los Angeles after graduation.
She later told journalists that because she was so tall – 1.78m – she had trouble finding work in anything but westerns, where her height was an advantage. Of her first 20 or so screen roles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, about half were in television westerns.
Fletcher married Jerry Bick, a film producer, in 1959. They had two sons, John and Andrew, and she retired from acting for more than a decade to raise them.
Fletcher and Bick divorced in 1977. Her survivors include her sons; her sister, Roberta Ray; and a granddaughter.
She returned to movies in 1974 in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us, as a woman who coldly turns in her brother to the police. It was her appearance in that film that led Forman to offer her the role in Cuckoo’s Nest.
“I was caught by surprise when Louise came on screen,” Forman recalled of watching Thieves Like Us. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had a certain mystery, which I thought was very, very important for Nurse Ratched.”
Fletcher is often cited as an example of the Oscar curse – the phenomenon that winning an Academy Award for acting does not always lead to sustained movie stardom – but she did maintain a busy career in films and on television into her late 70s.
She had a lead role as the Linda Blair character’s soft-spoken psychiatrist in Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) and was notable in the ensemble comedy The Cheap Detective (1978), riffing on Ingrid Bergman’s film persona. She also starred with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as a workaholic scientist in Brainstorm (1983). But she was largely relegated to roles with limited screen time.
Later in her career, she played recurring characters on several television series, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 to 1999) and Shameless (2011 to 2021), in which she appeared as William H. Macy’s foul-mouthed convict mother.
Her most recent credit was for two episodes of the Netflix comedy series Girlboss in 2017. NYTIMES