As Nurse Ratched in the classic 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher created one of the greatest cinema villains of all time, a tyrannical figure who is all the more scary because she likely believes she is doing good.
Critics were unanimous in their praise and Fletcher duly scooped the Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe for best actress.
Yet Fletcher had appeared in only one film in the previous decade, a supporting role in Thieves Like Us, and her husband was the producer on that film.
And director Milos Forman came upon her purely by chance when watching Thieves Like Us to see Shelley Duvall, who he was considering for a small role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, that of a prostitute who visits the mental hospital where the action is set.
She was only the third person to win the Best Actress Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe for a single performance, following Audrey Hepburn and Liza Minnelli.
Nurse Ratched was a tough role to pull off, the one character who is ostensibly sane in a lunatic asylum.
“I envied the other actors tremendously,” she told the New York Times. ''When you're being crazy, the sky is the limit.”
And it would have been so easy to overdo it and create a caricature, but as the esteemed American critic Pauline Kael wrote in The New Yorker: “Louise Fletcher gives a masterly performance... We can see the virginal expectancy – the purity – that has turned into puffy-eyed self-righteousness. She thinks she's doing good for people, and she's hurt –she feels abused – if her authority is questioned her mouth gives way and the lower part of her face sags.”
In 2003 an American Film Institute list ranked Nurse Ratched as the fifth greatest villain of all time, behind Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Darth Vader and the Wicked Witch of the West. Such was the lasting impact of the character that Netflix gave her her own prequel series a couple of years ago.
Yet, having seemingly come out of nowhere to blow the awards season away, Fletcher found it extremely difficult to move on from the shadow of Nurse Ratched. A victim of her own success, Fletcher struggled to escape typecasting as villains, generally villains who lacked the moral shading of Ratched.
The second of four children of an Episcopalian minister, Estelle Louise Fletcher was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934. Both her parents were profoundly deaf and her father worked to set up churches for the deaf throughout the state.
Throughout her childhood Fletcher felt a sense of isolation, saying in one interview that she never cried because her parents would not hear her. She was so shy that when she started school the teachers thought she was deaf too and suggested she attend a specialist school, though she had spent a year as an infant with an aunt in Texas, who taught her to speak.
She and her siblings then took it in turns to live with the aunt for three months each year. Fletcher later contrasted the affluence of her life in Texas with the poverty of home life Alabama.
She studied Drama at the University of North Carolina and began working in television in the late 1950s, appearing in The Untouchables, Perry Mason and a string of western shows including Maverick and Wagon Train. At 5ft 10in , she seemed to tower over some leading men. She reckoned she had more success in getting parts in westerns as the stars tended to be taller.
After appearing in a small role in the Cold War film A Gathering of Eagles with Rock Hudson, she took a step back from acting to concentrate on raising her two children. The family spent six years in London and when they eventually returned to California she could not even get an agent.
She returned to the screen in Thieves Like Us, on which her husband Jerry Bick was producer.
She feared it might look like nepotism, but director Robert Altman not only persuaded her to take that role, but had one of the main roles in his 1975 movie Nashville written specifically for her, drawing on her family background to create the character of Linnea, a Gospel singer with two deaf children.
But Bick fell out with Altman and the role went to Lily Tomlin instead. But it was at much the same time as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which went some way to mitigating the disappointment. Accepting her Oscar, Fletcher used sign language to acknowledge her parents.
As well as being so closely associated with a single character, Fletcher also had to face the fact that as an actress in her forties she was considered too old for many lead female roles.
A couple of years after Cuckoo’s Nest, she co-starred as a psychiatrist with Richard Burton, Max von Sydow and Linda Blair in Exorcist II: The Heretic and a decade later she was playing a nasty granny in Flowers in the Attic.
She had the recurring role of Kai Winn Adami, an ambitious, morally dubious religious leader from the planet Bajor, in the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 1990s. It gave her a higher profile and more kudos among a section of the viewing public than any number of Oscars.
Fletcher also had a major part in Cruel Intentions, a 1999 teen drama based on the classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. More recently she played the foul-mouthed Grammy Gallagher in the American version of Shameless.
She and Bick divorced in the 1970s, after which she had a lengthy relationship with actor James Mason’s son Morgan Mason, who was an aide to President Reagan. It stirred prurient interest as she was more than 20 years older.
She is survived by two sons from her earlier marriage.
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