Crafting an Unforgettable Villain

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From Writer Unboxed:

The actor Louise Fletcher passed away a few weeks ago (September 23rd), and though she had a career spanning over half a century, much of it in television, her signature role, the one for which she is most remembered, is that of Nurse Ratched in Milos Forman’s adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Why is it that in a wide open field of other notable villains—Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Francis Dolarhyde (the “Red Dragon”), Tom Ripley, Noah Cross—this gentile, soft-spoken nurse continues to represent a particularly insidious form of evil?

In a Vanity Fair profile written by Michael Shulman in 2018, Ms. Fletcher explained her unique approach to the role and shared some other insights into the making of the film. The article was at least in part prompted by news of an upcoming Netflix series, Ratched, based on the same character (Sarah Paulson serves in the series role),

The TV series purports to tell the story of how the title character came to become such an iconic embodiment of evil—i.e., it focuses entirely on events that took place before those depicted in the novel. That backstory, created entirely by the show’s writers, bears little resemblance to the character in Kesey’s novel.

To be fair, Louise Fletcher’s portrayal also differed significantly from how the character was presented in the novel, but the difference between her approach and that provided by the TV series is striking.

The TV series portrays Nurse Ratched as diabolically evil by nature—malformed by childhood trauma, hardened during service as a nurse in the Pacific theater during WW2, and progressively more unhinged as the series progresses—with the ultimate effect that of a meticulously crafted mask concealing the soul of a self-aware monster. (The TV series makes little attempt to restrain its over-the-top inclinations, to the point it often approaches grand guignol. Its showrunner, Ryan Murphy, lists American Horror Story and The Jeffrey Dahmer Story among his credits.)

The film, on the other hand, sought to temper the more exaggerated elements of the novel. Forman, a veteran of the Prague Spring and an important figure in the Czech New Wave, escaped Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion in 1968, saw in the novel an analogy to his own experience under totalitarianism. (Kesey wrote the novel as a critique of U.S. conformity in the aftermath of WW2.) With respect to the character in question, Forman said, “The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched.”

Ms. Fletcher took a slightly different approach. Consumed by the Watergate hearings, she saw in Nurse Ratched a reflection of Nixon’s abuse of power, but both she and Forman knew playing the character as an idea wouldn’t work, just as they agreed the portrayal in the novel was cartoonish—in Ms. Fletcher’s words, “she’s got smoke coming out of her ears.” Instead, she focused on a simple human observation: Nurse Ratched is convinced she’s right.

She thought back to her childhood in Alabama and “the paternalistic way that people treat other people there … White people actually felt that the life they were creating was good for black people.” She saw how that dynamic translated to Nurse Ratched and the patients under her care. “They’re in this ward, she’s looking out for them, and they have to act like they’re happy to get this medication or listen to this music. And make her feel good about the way she is.”

This approach resonated with Forman, who realized that Ms. Fletcher’s Jim Crow Alabama shared many of the dehumanizing elements he’d experienced under Communism. In a 1997 interview, he said, “I slowly started to realize that it will be much more powerful if it’s not this visible evil. That she’s only an instrument of evil. She doesn’t know that she’s evil. She, as a matter of fact, believes that she’s helping people.”

By taking this more down-to-earth, human approach, Fletcher and Forman managed to make Nurse Ratched even scarier, revealing in vivid terms how good intentions do indeed pave the road to Hell.

In creating the character’s physical nature, Ms. Fletcher asked celebrity hairdresser Carrie White to come up with something unique, and boy did she. “[T]he hairdo, the dress, everything I had on under it that I wore to be the way she was, the white stockings and the undergarments,” all underscored how the character was “stuck in time.”

She also created a detailed backstory for the character, but she kept the details a secret for the rest of her life, except for a few she shared in the Vanity Fair profile:

“She had sacrificed her life for other people. She hasn’t married, hadn’t done this, hadn’t done that, and was self-sufficient on her own leading this life, because she dedicated her life, her earlier life, to other people who needed her.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed