Louise Fletcher, the Oscar-winning actress who became iconic for her turn as the villainous Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” has died at age 88. Deadline first reported the news of her death, which was shared with the outlet by her family. She died peacefully in her sleep at her farmhouse home in Montdurausse, France, surrounded by those she loved.
Fletcher became one of the great icons of cinematic villainy as Ratched, who menaced the patients at an institution for the mentally ill in the 1975 film. After a career in TV, Fletcher’s performance as the wicked nurse, who battles with Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, was just her fourth in a film. “Cuckoo’s Nest,” directed by Milos Forman from the Ken Kesey novel, ended up winning the five “major” Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Nicholson), Actress (Fletcher), and Screenplay. With her cold stare and at first sweetly condescending demeanor, she tangled with McMurphy until ultimately ordering for him a tragic fate. She never raises her voice. She is the eye of the hurricane, the calm in the center of the storm — deceptively, its most dangerous part.
She ended up winning the Oscar that year over fellow nominees Isabelle Adjani, Ann-Margret, Glenda Jackson, and Carol Kane. The child of deaf parents, she signed part of her acceptance speech in American Sign Language.
Before “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the actress, who was born in 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, had acted primarily in TV, in shows like “Bat Masterson,” “Lawman,” “Maverick,” “77 Sunset Strip,” “The Untouchables,” and “Perry Mason.” She told The New York Times in 1975, “I was five-feet 10-inches (1.78 m; 178 cm) tall, and no television producer thought a tall woman could be sexually attractive to anybody. I was able to get jobs on westerns because the actors were even taller than I was.”
Her films before her Oscar-winning-triumph were not particularly notable, and, frankly, neither were her films after. It’s almost certain that she was typecast, because of the unforgettable Nurse Ratched, as villains, which often meant smaller parts. One standout, though, was as the abusive grandmother in 1987’s “Flowers in the Attic,” based on the V.C. Andrews novel. And she also memorably played herself, like so many, in Robert Altman’s “The Player.”
Fletcher was a character actress: here she is in “Brainstorm,” there she is in “Cruel Intentions.” She was the female version of a Gene Barry, or a Robert Loggia, or a Henry Silva (who also just died September 14), someone who did consistently high-quality, memorable work, but is ultimately just defined by one character. Two if they’re lucky.
And Fletcher did have a second great character: a return to TV offered her her greatest role ever. Yes, even greater than her Oscar-winning Nurse Ratched. Starting in 1993 she played Kai Winn on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” The Kai was the spiritual leader of the planet Bajor, one of the show’s major settings. She was like the Pope, but with some actual political power. And she became, over seven seasons, one of the great antagonists of the show, alongside Marc Alaimo’s Gul Dukat.
Like with Ratched, she brought a placid exterior to the part of the Kai. And a volcanic menace inside. She particularly resented that Avery Brooks’ Capt. Sisko had been deemed by Bajor’s gods, the Prophets, to have a spiritual role himself: as the Emissary. She clashed with Sisko for years, until she finally teamed with Dukat and became his lover. (Among the many great achievements of this role and of this show is that it allowed the then 60-something Fletcher to be sexual without layering it with the horny, geriatric comedy shenanigans that often occur with depictions of AARP-age women in Hollywood film and TV.)
The remarkable thing is that Kai Winn, devised for this “Trek” spinoff on UPN, becomes a richer, more complex character even than Ratched. Her “Cuckoo’s Nest” role could be dismissed as a sexist caricature in some ways. Not the Kai.
To be mourned by serious cinephiles and Trekkies? Certainly there’s some Venn diagram overlap there, but those are two large groups. And she will be remembered.