One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
(D. Milos Forman)
I revisited One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on my once-every-two-weeks (whether I need it or not!) day off yesterday. My only previous viewing was on a black-and-white 19″ TV showing an expurgated version for a major network in the late seventies.
Even then, it made an impression, one that kept me at bay for forty years, even though it has been readily available in various home video formats since the early eighties and sitting on my to-watch shelf for a decade.
The impression–and the decade-by-decade avoidance, knowing all the while I would have to confront it some time–was entirely due to Louise Fletcher’s terrifying performance as Nurse Ratched. Even as a teenager, I saw Jack Nicholson’s fine Randle McMurphy as being a bit by-the-numbers, and all his fellow “crazies” as a touch hyperbolic, if admittedly effective.
I’m sure I am not the only one who missed the subtlety of Fletcher’s performance. The image above is so firmly etched in the culture’s memory, it’s possible to forget entirely (as I had), that this look was more representative–and just as chilling.
In the “Making of” documentary available on the two-disc “Special Edition” DVD I picked up on some sale table all those years ago, Fletcher says that director Milos Forman never gave her any directions on how to play the character except “Keep it real.”
For her, that meant keeping it Southern. My first shock while watching this again was thinking “She’s from the South!” By which I meant Nurse Ratched, but also Louise Fletcher. I say a shock because the novel (by counter culture hero Ken Kesey) and the film (shot in Oregon) are both so identifiably West Coast that an authentic (not Hollywood) Southern accent is far more “foreign” to the setting than, say, an Asian, Hispanic or Swedish one.
But even more shocking was that Fletcher–about whom I knew nothing except that she was Nurse Ratched–was recognizably Southern. I knew there was no way hers was a put-on accent. Put back on, maybe (I could only guess how many acting classes she had taken), but not put on.
All of which deepened the mystery of what is already a mysterious character, one who is never seen outside her hospital (and rarely off her ward), and gives no overt indication of what her outside life might be like. You might assume a lot–that she’s a lonely, frigid spinster, a regular church-goer, a reader of serious books, dedicated to her profession–but it’s all intuited. It’s not in the script. Everything you think you know is suggested by the distance between Fletcher’s tight smiles and the moment when she can no longer force those smiles.
It’s a short distance, and I can tell you from experience, it’s a persona rooted, at least to the depth with which it is played here, in Fletcher’s time (she was born in 1934) and place (Birmingham, Alabama).
It’s unlikely anyone else who had real creative input on the film (Czechoslovakia’s Forman directing; New Jersey’s Jack Nicholson starring; California’s Michael Douglas and New Jersey’s Saul Zaentz producing; New York’s Bo Goldman adapting Oregonian-by-way-of-California Kesey’s novel) understood what she was doing–regionalizing a universal type, as opposed to the usual universalizing of a regional type–but they must have seen how well it was working. (When Nicholson wanted a first name for the Nurse Ratched character, he asked not Forman or Goldman, but Fletcher. “Mildred” she immediately replied. “Perfect,” he said. He uses the name once in the film, to a gentle but devastating effect which Fletcher says caught her–and her character–off guard. I think one of the several Nurse Ratcheds I encountered growing up was actually named Mildred. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if one of Fletcher’s was, too.)
It’s not that any one of Nurse Ratched’s obvious or not-so-obvious characteristics couldn’t be found in non-southerners. I’m sure they all have been and perhaps even all in one place. It’s just that the Southern connotation, so delicately applied here, opens up a whole new set of questions.
How did she come here? (Or, How did she come here? Or, How did she come here?)
What has she been through?
What has she seen?
What did she think of what she has seen?
And is what she has seen what made her this way, determined to right the world’s wrongs at any cost?
Not wanting to know the answers to any of these was understandable when Nurse Ratched was a simple monster, floating around in our selective memories–mine and the culture’s.
But now I want to know–almost need to know. Kesey and Forman are gone. Fletcher, so far as I can find, has given only the perfectly sound and reasonable answers you would expect her to give, which don’t really answer any question worth asking.
I need to know, though. (Put the emphasis where you like.)
Otherwise I’m left with only my old, now wretchedly incomplete, understanding.
That it isn’t the monsters you need to watch out for.
It’s the “responsible” people.
The ones who know what’s best for you.
Until a couple of days ago, that was reassuring.