Best Picture winner, the second of three films to win all five major Academy Awards, Louise Fletcher plays the infamous Nurse Ratched, the cold, unfeeling head of the ward in the mental institution where Randle P. McMurphy is sent instead of prison. Though McMurphy does everything he can to bring mayhem to the ward, Nurse Ratched refuses to relinquish her control.
Unless I'm remembering wrong, this is the first time anyone received the Best Actress Oscar for playing the antagonist. There were portrayals of unlikable characters before, but the story was always told from their perspective, or occasionally from their love interest's perspective. I've seen this movie a couple times before, but because I was specifically watching for her this viewing, it was the first time that I noticed that Nurse Ratched actually doesn't appear in very much of the movie. We mostly see McMurphy and the inmates without her around. Yet her presence permeates the entire film. She is the most disturbing character in a profoundly disturbing story. I don't really like McMurphy, but he's infinitely preferable to Ratched.
The fact that Nurse Ratched is often cited as one of the greatest movie villains of all time proves that Fletcher did an amazing job of portraying her. Usually acting requires a lot of different facial expressions; her character requires two. She's always either firmly emotionless or angry, and the only time she's angry is towards the end. The vast majority of her performance is made up of a blank face and a calm voice. I can't even imagine the amount of focus and willpower it must have taken to maintain that demeanor, especially when the rest of the characters were literally going crazy around her. But she managed it, and while it's usually not very complimentary to say a performance has no expression, it was perfect for this character. Because she is in so little of the film, there isn't much time to develop her character, yet she has to be seen as the villain for the story to work. Thus the audience has to strongly dislike her throughout the film without having much time to get to know her, and it's Fletcher's chilling, almost inhuman performance that makes this possible. Jack Nicholson's incredible and all, but without Louise Fletcher, I don't think this film would be nearly so highly acclaimed.
This was Fletcher's only Academy Award nomination, which makes sense because I feel like it's pretty much the only thing she's known for, especially as far as movies are concerned. She has appeared on a lot of TV shows, but they've mostly been single-episode guest appearances. I think she's still working, though, so there's still a chance that she'll give another Oscar-winning performance someday. But even if she doesn't, her iconic performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has already ensured that her name will be remembered for a very long time.
Up next: Faye Dunaway, in the second, and so far last, movie to win three acting Academy Awards