Jack Nicholson is undoubtedly one of the 20th-century’s most era-defining actors, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may indeed be his most era-defining film. Now retired from filmmaking, Nicholson’s sheer dedication to his characters made each one bold, memorable icons of cinema, and R.P. McMurphy in the aforementioned film is no different, a brash, extroverted leader and showman.
In the film, Nicolson’s R.P. McMurphy is a criminal who pleads insanity and is admitted to a mental institution where he finds a more oppressive regime than he’d initially realised as the nurses maintain a stranglehold over their patients. Determined to break the inmates free of their tormentors, he rallies the eclectic cast of characters to fight against the nurses, leading the likes of Danny DeVito’s Martini and William Sampson Jr’s Chief Bromden.
The main antagonist in their mission to break free is the infamous Nurse Ratched played by Louise Fletcher, an evil, tyrannical leader who doesn’t even realise the extent of her wrongdoing. Whilst Jack Nicholson received all the plaudits for the role, including a famous Academy Award, Louise Fletcher’s success as Best Actress in the same awards ceremony often goes overshadowed.
Codependent on each other’s existence, the characters of Nurse Ratched and R.P. McMurphy represent two sides of the same coin, with the former showing the strong arm of governmental control and the latter, the strength of individuality. The two characters live symbiotically in Ken Kesey’s classic novel that shares its name with the film, though it is Louise Fletcher’s character in Miloš Forman’s film that outshines the other.
A number of different actors were considered for the villainous role including Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury before Louise Fletcher was finally awarded the position. Grateful for her chance to show Foreman her capabilities in the role, the actor managed to change the way the director saw her character. Previously believing that Nurse Ratched had to be the personification of evil, the director later realised that she is far more sinister, showing off an innocent facade as she genuinely believes she is helping people.
The war on free speech and individualism rages between Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy and Nurse Ratched in the film, with the battle serving as a reflection of the culture wars that emerged in the late 20th century, though it’s Louise Fletcher who really stokes the fires of the conversation in the film. Simply a stronger character than that of R.P. McMurphy, Ratched is an enigmatic tyrant with fractured psychology as to her place in the world and the roles of those that surround her.
Playing the character with a great deal of nuance in comparison to the expressive shouts and physicality of Jack Nicholson, it is Louise Fletcher’s evil antagonist who remains fixed in your mind long after you see the film. Who is she? How has she developed such an evil persona? When did she turn into the tyrant we so-loathe? These questions were simply too compelling to never flesh out which explains why her character has carved such a legacy in pop culture, appearing in the likes of Spaced, Futurama and even in her own origins TV series. It’s all thanks to the mystery of Louise Fletcher’s central performance.