The Career of Louise Fletcher
Years ago, Louise Fletcher predicted what would head the write-ups of her passing: “When I die, I know that’ll be at the top of my obituary, ‘Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for . . .’ That changes your life. People around you change; they think you have some special wisdom or magic touch.”
It’s no surprise that’s how she’s best remembered, and not simply because she won an Academy Award for her performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Milos Forman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic paean to free spirits martyred by conformity. No, her accomplishment was bigger than that; creating one of the all-time great cinema villains, right up there with Hannibal Lector, Darth Vader, Goldfinger, the shark from Jaws (1975). Watch the movie and you never forget her in her starched nurse’s white uniform, legs neatly crossed, surrounded by the colorless mental ward she presides over like some ice queen, able to emotionally eviscerate one of her charges with a raised eyebrow, tilt of her head, and the ever-so-subtle change in the tone of her voice, all the time thinking she’s somehow doing this to their benefit. “Life had stopped for her a long time ago,” Fletcher said of her character, and couldn’t seem to recognize it as anything but a threat in others.
Classic performance, classic villain, classic film. Award-winning. Critically-hailed.
But I think she should be remembered for something else. Something bigger. For making the two riskiest, gutsiest, most daring decisions someone in her profession could ever make.
Starting in the late 1950s, she’d been working fairly steadily in television. No breakout performances, nothing hinting at a star on the rise, nothing like that, but she was working: The Untouchables, Perry Mason, a lot of Westerns like Lawman, Maverick, Bat Masterson, Yancy Derringer, Sugarfoot, Wagon Train…
“I was five feet, ten inches tall, and no television producer thought a tall woman could be sexually attractive to anybody,” she said looking back on those days. “I was able to get jobs on Westerns because the actors were even taller than I was.”
She finally made it to the big screen with a supporting part in A Gathering of Eagles (1963).
And then she walked away.
Turned her back on the profession she’d dreamed about since she’d been a child because there was something more important to her: her own children. “I could not handle going away day after day. The thought of going away before they got up and coming back after they were in bed was intolerable.”
The second gutsy decision? Coming back eleven years later in a business with the memory of a housecat; it would’ve been close to starting all over again. And doing it while she was pushing forty, in a profession forever and brutally intolerant of age on a woman. She landed a supporting part in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), and then after that… One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But she’d been kicking around long enough to know what the Oscar meant…and what it didn’t. “Just enjoy it,” she said of the win, “it’ll make you wonderfully happy for a night. But don’t expect that it’ll do anything for your career… Sure, it changes your life enormously in personal ways, but it was not a guarantee of anything. I’m realistic. I have to be. I got the Oscar when I was forty-one.”
She neither completely suffered nor completely escaped the supposed Oscar Curse; you win an Oscar and then everything after that is downhill (anybody out there remember poor F. Murray Abraham?). It didn’t make her a star, a flow of great roles didn’t come her way, certainly none that showcased her the way Nurse Ratched did. But she worked steadily, the way someone who’d been away from the job so long would, appreciating and relishing a second chance to live out a childhood dream. “Frankly, how many parts are out there for people like me? I’m not going to be a person who complains about roles for women; there’s a long line of people doing that. I’m working. Even if I don’t think something is so great, I still do it. I’m one of those actresses who have to work for a living. I don’t have huge savings… I was up for a lot of good parts, but the competition is keen. I think I’m not that easy to cast.”
Maybe not, but she piled up the credits, bouncing between the big and little screen, earning two Emmy nominations in the process for Outstanding Guest Actress first on Picket Fences and then on Joan of Arcadia.
That’s a nice payback for someone willing to give it all up for her kids. They don’t have an award for that you can put on the mantle next to your Oscar.
But maybe they should.