Louise Fletcher, the imposing, steely-eyed actress who won an Academy Award for her role as the tyrannical Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” died on Friday at her home in Montdurausse, France. She was 88.
The death was confirmed by her agent, David Shaul. He did not cite the cause.
Ms. Fletcher was 40 and largely unknown to the public when she was cast as the head administrative nurse at an Oregon mental institution in the 1975 film version of “Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film, directed by Milos Forman and based on a Ken Kesey novel, won a best actress trophy for Ms. Fletcher and four other Oscars, including for best picture, for Mr. Forman as best director and for Jack Nicholson as best actor.
Ms. Fletcher’s acceptance speech stood out that night, not only because she teasingly thanked voters for hating her but because she used American Sign Language in thanking her parents for “teaching me to have a dream.”
The American Film Institute later named Nurse Ratched as one of the most memorable villains in film history and the second most notable female villain, surpassed only by the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
But at the time of the “Cuckoo’s Nest” release, Ms. Fletcher was frustrated by the buttoned-up nature of her character. “I envied the other actors tremendously,” she said in a 1975 interview with The New York Times, referring to her fellow cast members, many of whom were playing mental patients. “They were so free, and I had to be so controlled.”
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, Ala., one of four hearing children of Robert Capers Fletcher, an Episcopal minister, and the former Estelle Caldwell, both of whom had been deaf since childhood. She studied drama at the University of North Carolina and moved to Los Angeles after graduation.
She later told journalists that she had trouble finding work because she was so tall — 5 feet 10 inches — and was often cast in westerns, where her height was an advantage. Of her first 20 or so screen roles in the late 1950s and early ’60s, about half were in television westerns, including “Wagon Train,” “Maverick” and “Bat Masterson.”
Ms. Fletcher married Jerry Bick, a film producer, in 1959. They had two sons, and she retired from acting for more than a decade to raise them.
She returned to movies in Robert Altman’s 1974 film “Thieves Like Us” as a woman who coldly turns in her brother to the police. It was her appearance in that film that led Mr. Forman to offer her the role in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I was caught by surprise when Louise came onscreen,” he recalled of watching “Thieves Like Us.” “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had a certain mystery, which I thought was very, very important for Nurse Ratched.”
Reviewing “Cuckoo’s Nest” in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael declared Ms. Fletcher’s “a masterly performance.”
“We can see the virginal expectancy — the purity — that has turned into puffy-eyed self-righteousness,” Ms. Kael wrote. “She thinks she’s doing good for people, and she’s hurt — she feels abused — if her authority is questioned.”
Ms. Fletcher is often cited as an example of the Oscar curse — the observed phenomenon that winning an Academy Award for acting does not always lead to sustained movie stardom — but she did maintain a busy career in films and on television into her late 70s.
She had a lead role as the Linda Blair character’s soft-spoken psychiatrist in “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) and was notable in the ensemble comedy “The Cheap Detective” (1978), riffing on Ingrid Bergman’s film persona. She also starred with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as a workaholic scientist in “Brainstorm” (1983). But she seemed to be relegated to roles with limited screen time, especially when the character was very different from her Nurse Ratched persona.
After a turn as an inscrutable U.F.O. bigwig in “Strange Invaders” (1983), she appeared in “Firestarter” (1984) as a fearful farm wife; the police drama “Blue Steel” (1990) as Jamie Lee Curtis’s drab mother; “2 Days in the Valley” (1996) as a compassionate Los Angeles landlady; and “Cruel Intentions” (1999) as Ryan Phillippe’s genteel aunt.
Only when she played to stereotype, as she did in “Flowers in the Attic” (1987), as an evil matriarch who sets out to poison her four inconvenient young grandchildren, did she find herself in starring roles again. That film was “the worst experience I’ve ever had making a movie,” she told a Dragoncon audience in 2009. She had told the director that she didn’t want her character to be a heavy.
Later in her career, she played recurring characters on several television series, including “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” (she was an alien cult leader from 1993 to 1999) and “Shameless” (as William H. Macy’s foulmouthed convict mother). She also made an appearance was as Liev Schreiber’s affable mother in the romantic drama “A Perfect Man” (2013).
Her survivors include her two sons, John and Andrew Bick; her sister, Roberta Ray; and a granddaughter. Ms. Fletcher and Mr. Bick divorced in 1977.
In addition to her home in Montdurausse, a town in southern France, Ms. Fletcher had a home in Los Angeles.
Ms. Fletcher, whose most famous character was a portrait of sternness, often recalled smiling constantly and pretending that everything was perfect when she was growing up, in an effort to protect her non-hearing parents from bad news.
“The price of it was very high for me,” Ms. Fletcher said in a 1977 interview with The Ladies’ Home Journal. “Because I not only pretended everything was all right. I came to feel it had to be.”
Pretending wasn’t all bad, however, she acknowledged, at least in terms of her profession. That same year she told the journalist Rex Reed, “I feel like I know real joy from make-believe.”
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