Louise Fletcher, Oscar Winner for ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ Dies at 88

Louise Fletcher, who won the best actress Oscar for her indelible performanceas Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” diedFriday at her home in France, according to a rep. she was 88.

The classic film, based on Ken Kesey’s novel and exploring the repressivetendency of authority through the story of the patients and staff of a psychward, won five Oscars in 1976, including best picture and best actor for JackNicholson.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was the first film in more than four decadesto sweep the major categories of best picture, director, actor, actress andscreenplay. It was nominated for an additional four Oscars and was also asubstantial box office hit.

In the American Film Institute TV special “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes &Villains,” Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched was named the fifth-greatest villain infilm history — and second-greatest villainess, behind only the Wicked Witch ofthe West.

Ironically, the Ratched character had been softened in the script compared toKesey’s original, and Fletcher gave a rather subtle performance, oftenconveying the character’s emotions simply through facial expressions, which iswhy she deserved her Oscar in the first place. Indeed, the actress evenenables us to feel sorry for Ratched at more than one key moment in the film.

In a 2003 reappraisal of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Roger Ebert declared that despitethe Oscar, Fletcher’s performance “is not appreciated enough. This may bebecause her Nurse Ratched is so thoroughly contemptible, and because sheembodies so completely the qualities we all (men and women) have been taughtto fear in a certain kind of female authority figure — a woman who hassubsumed sexuality and humanity into duty and righteousness.”

It could be argued, however, that the role of Nurse Ratched and the Oscar theactress earned for that performance ultimately did Fletcher more harm thangood: In a review excoriating the horror film “Flowers in the Attic,” in whichthe actress starred in 1987, a frustrated and unsympathetic Washington Postwriter opined, “Fletcher should talk to her agent about these stereotyped’evil’ roles, in which she has become increasingly tedious.”

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But Fletcher may well have beseeched her agent for a greater variety of rolesto no avail.

She had most recently appeared in the 2013 feature “A Perfect Man,” starringLiev Schreiber and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

On TV Fletcher had played family matriarch Peggy “Grammy” Gallagher, a cunningex-con who nevertheless wanted a relationship with her grandchildren, onShowtime’s “Shameless.” The actress recurred on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”as the scheming, duplicitous spiritual leader Winn Adami from 1993-99, on cultsci-fier “VR.5” from 1995-97 and on “ER” in 2005.

She was Emmy nominated for guest roles on “Picket Fences” in 1996 and on “Joanof Arcadia” in 2004.

Fletcher had returned to acting in 1974 after more than a decade away raisinga family and gave a supporting performance in Robert Altman’s “Thieves LikeUs” that Pauline Kael called “impressively strong,” but the actress did nothave a high profile in Hollywood when she was cast as Ratched.

Angela Lansbury, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Colleen Dewhurst and GeraldinePage had all turned down the Ratched role, each afraid of the possible effecton her career.

Director Milos Forman chanced to see Fletcher in “Thieves Like Us.”

“She was all wrong for the [Ratched] role, but there was something about her,”Forman later wrote in his memoir. “I asked her to read with me and suddenly,beneath the velvety exterior, I discovered a toughness and willpower thatseemed tailored for the role.”

Fortunately, there were some opportunities to escape the typecasting.

She acquitted herself well in the 1978 noir spoof “The Cheap Detective,”starring Peter Falk.

In the 1979 drama “Natural Enemies,” she starred with Hal Holbrook, playing ahusband who murders his family. Critic Richard Winters wrote that Fletcher is“quite good playing the polar opposite of her Nurse Ratched character. Hereshe is vulnerable and fragile instead of rigid and authoritative and even hasa scene inside a mental hospital as a patient. The fact that she can play suchdifferent characters so solidly proves what a brilliant actress she is.”

In 1999’s “Cruel Intentions,” she played a genial, warm-hearted Long Islandaristocrat.

Other film credits include “Exorcist II: The Heretic,” starring with RichardBurton and Linda Blair; sci-fi “Brainstorm,” with Christopher Walken andNatalie Wood; “Firestarter,” starring a young Drew Barrymore; and “2 Days inthe Valley.”

Estelle Louise Fletcher was born in Birmingham, Alabama. Her parents weredeaf; she was introduced to acting by the aunt who taught her, at age 8, tospeak. Fletcher attended the University of North Carolina; after taking across-country trip, she became stranded in Los Angeles and soon stumbled intoacting.

The young actress made her screen debut in 1958 with appearances on “Playhouse90,” among other television shows. The next year she guested on “Maverick,”“77 Sunset Strip” and “The Untouchables.” She appeared on “Perry Mason” twicein 1960, but by 1963 she had abandoned her career, at least for the timebeing, after making her feature debut in “A Gathering of Eagles.”

In 1973, after raising her children, she resumed her profession with a guestappearance on “Medical Center.” After doing a TV movie, she was cast in asupporting role in “Thieves Like Us” — a movie her husband, Jerry Bick, wasproducing.

Fletcher’s life story helped serve as the inspiration for one of the maincharacters in Robert Altman’s classic 1975 film “Nashville” and was set toplay the character when Bick and Altman had a falling out.

Fletcher was married to Bick, a Hollywood literary agent who was also later aproducer, from 1959-78. He died in 2004. She survived by her sons JohnDashiell Bick and Andrew Wilson Bick.

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