Mildred Ratched, the antagonist of the Oscar-winning movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest never brandishes a gun or sword. She never orders the mass killing of innocent people. She doesn’t punch, slap, kick or physically harm anyone in the movie. She rarely ever screams or yells.
No, Nurse Ratched is a more menacing villain. And that’s mainly because she never sees what she’s doing as wrong. Louise Fletcher, who passed away on Sept. 23 at the age of 88, said she approached the role by making Ratched a character who thinks she’s always doing what’s best for people. A lot of people watching this movie know someone like her. She’s the head nurse of the psychiatric ward at an Oregon hospital. She’s around the patients more than Dr. Spivey (Dr. Dean R. Brooks) the doctor who is over the ward.
Ratched has three black orderlies who mainly function as her muscle and intimidation. There’s also the younger Nurse Itsu (Lan Fendors) who functions as her submissive nurse. She runs the ward just the way she wants with the same music playing to calm the patients. She doesn’t want them watching certain things on TV or sometimes anything on the TV at all. They lock the dorm during daytimes so none of the patients will go back to bed. The fact that the patients, who are mostly voluntary, are treated so badly by people who should be helping them is an eye-opener of how people will allow themselves to be treated.
Nest came out in 1975 a few years after Geraldo Rivera exposed Willowbrook State School, on Staten Island, for its inhumane and savage treatment of people who people with mental health issues. But the movie is set in 1963 supposedly before people began to really see that the patients need better care. One of the orderlies, Washington (Nathan Goerge) functions more as an enforcer. At one point, he actually wraps a leather belt around his knuckles to get physical if need be. And the orderlies don’t have any qualms about getting rough with the patients.
I guess one could argue given the time era, the orderlies view this as an opportunity to get back at the system that has oppressed them. Most of the patients in the ward are white with the exception of “Chief” Bordem (Will Sampson), a tall Indigenous man who appears to be deaf and mute. One of the patients, Bancini (Josip Elic) is introduced being strapped to a bed in a solitary room. And as the orderly greets him in the morning, he looks scared and defensive.
When R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred to the hospital from the nearest prison, he disrupts Ratched’s pattern simply by not doing things his way. But McMurphy’s way is to act like he’s back in prison where he can play card games with the other patients who may not understand the rules and win their money and cigarettes. And this behavior upsets Ratched as she eventually orders all cigarettes to be confiscated and rationed to the patients so McMurphy won’t be able to get them.
The movie directed by Milos Forman was supposed to be a reflection of the society. The kicker is we never know if McMurphy has mental issues or if he’s faking like a lot of officials think he is. But when we see the other patients he interacts with, they don’t seem too different. They have their quirks and eccentricities but they never come across as really having any issues that would require them to be in a hospital.
There’s Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) who seems too sensitive and has the mind and attitude of a child, but he probably needs medication. The other patients are Harding (William Redfield), a repressed homosexual who seems to be the one patient mostly on board with Ratched’s policies and he becomes a constant irritation for McMurphy. There’s also the young Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) who instantly takes a like to McMurphy and sees him as an older brotherly figure. Billy also has a bad stutter and shy and anxious.
Billy’s mother is supposedly good friends with Ratched, which is something she hangs over him. He’s there voluntarily too but it seems he’s more there more by an overprotective mother who’s never shown but referred to. Billy is supposed to be in his early 20s but I suppose he probably has never been allowed to live away from home except at the hospital where he can be in a controlled environment. Ratched seems to exert the same overprotective behavior on Billy. And that’s kinda how she views the rest of the patients. She’s their surrogate mother and she knows what’s best for them.
In the end, McMurphy manages to have some lady friends who are probably prostitutes come over and bribes the night orderly, Mr. Turkle (Scatman Crothers), as they throw a party as he’s getting out of the hospital. Before McMurphy leaves, he talks Billy and his friend, Candy (Marya Small), into having a little private intimate time in one of the solitary rooms. All the partying and booze causes them to all pass out before McMurphy can escape.
When the staff arrives the next morning, they are upset but can’t find Billy. When Ratched asks where Billy is, no one answers and laughs because they know Billy is with Candy. And when he is discovered in the room, Ratched tries to use the same authorative behavior to make him feel bad, Billy stands up to her. However, she becomes angrier with him and then tells him she’s going to tell his mother causing him to break down. Billy is placed in Dr. Spivey’s office, which is unoccupied, where he manages to commit suicide cutting his throat with broken glass.
Ratched tries to downplay Billy’s death but McMurphy strangles her in anger but is stopped by the orderlies. Even though she is injured, she survives. And while the audience might laugh at seeing Ratched wheezing to talk with a neck brace on, it’s a painful look at how she’s won twice over. She pushed Billy over the edge because he stood up to her and pushed McMurphy to the point that any efforts to prove that he should re-enter society are now useless. In the end, McMurphy gets a lobotomy and is suffocated with a pillow by his Bromden who has become his friend.
It’s revealed he only pretends to be deaf and mute but McMurphy discovers is faking it because he can’t handle things in the real world. Bromden talks about being weak and seeing McMurphy as the one to give him strength. In the end, he kills McMurphy to set him free and then uses a hydrotherapy console to break through a gated window and escape the hospital.
Some arguments have been made that Ratched is unfairly labeled a villain because the movie is told from McMurphy’s point of view. (The novel by the same name written by Ken Kessey was told from Bromden’s point of view.) McMurphy’s in prison at the beginning for statutory rape of a 15-year-old and he doesn’t hide it that he likes women and sex, even enticing other patients like Martini (Danny DeVito) by showing him playing cards with nude pics of women on them. The idea that Ratched is just doing her job can be argued that during the early 1960s, mental patients were expected to be treated more aggressively. Now, that type isn’t tolerated and movies like Music, which show people with high-functioning autism being aggressively handled, have been heavily criticized.
But I would feel that it wouldn’t matter what time frame in which the movie is set. Ratched has to have control. Let’s not forget this is in 1963 where women were expected to behave a certain way and for Ratched to have so much control over the men shows she only gives orders and doesn’t take them. We never see what she is like outside the hospital. We don’t need to. Someone like her acts the same at work as they do in their private life. She’s probably not married, but maybe a divorcee.
I’ve heard some people say that the “mean girls” they dealt with in high school have become registered nurses now. If the boy bullies become law enforcement, then it’s possible the girl bullies look for some outlet where they’re able to control helpless people. Nurses should be caregivers and many do work with the patients the best. But there’s always one who feels the hospital will fall apart if they’re not there.
Fletcher wasn’t the first actress to portray her. Joan Tetzel did it in a Broadway adaptation with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy. Amy Morton portrayed her in a 2001 Broadway revival. In the Netflix prequel series Ratched, Sarah Paulson portrays her younger version even though Paulson was a few years older than Fletcher, who was only 41 when the movie was released.
It brought Fletcher worldwide acclaim and her Oscar speech is one of the most memorable ones ever. When she used American Sign Language to sign to her deaf parents, everyone at least got a lump in their throat. It showed that Fletcher was able to transfer from a beautiful, classy, funny, sincere and elegant woman into a monster. Even Ratched’s hairstyle looks like she has horns.
You can watch the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGl5U7nNlkY
Mel Brooks would use a parody of the character in his 1977 Alfred Hitchcock parody High Anxiety where Cloris Leachman played a Nurse Diesel who was into BDSM and a stickler for the rules. Fletcher herself would go on to spend the next several decades making movies and TV appearances. Her last filmed role was on Girlboss in 2017. She had a role in the Grizzly II that went decades as a suspected lost movie before being released in 2020.
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