HER EMINENCE, LOUISE FLETCHER:
After Nurse Ratched and Kai Winn, What Else?
by Michelle Erica Green
Deep Space Nine's Kai Winn was the spiritual leader of her entire planet, with the clout to determine Bajor's future among the species of the Alpha Quadrant. Yet she allied herself with the nemesis of her people in a bitter quest to destroy their Prophets. Winn's actions nearly laid waste to her world and enabled the malignant Gul Dukat to reign triumphant; when the Emissary saved Bajor from the evil Pah-Wraiths she had freed, Captain Benjamin Sisko lost his mortal life.
Though she went down in flames, just as she deserved, Winn Adami is actually one of the nicer characters portrayed by Louise Fletcher. The winner of an Academy Award for her performance as the archetypally villainous Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fletcher has a distinguished resume of roles it's impossible to imagine anyone else filling. The Kai is one of the grandest, to be sure; "the costume, the hair, the whole bit was big, big, bigger than life," notes the actress with a laugh.
But the wicked schoolteacher played by Fletcher in Invaders From Mars, the evil matriarch of Flowers in the Attic, the quietly vicious mother in The Karen Carpenter Story all come close. This actress can bring reality to material which would look ridiculous from a lesser performer. Give her meaty scripts like the final arc of Deep Space Nine, she takes an already unforgettable series to a new level.
Fletcher - whose easy laugh and unassuming demeanor must come as a surprise to fans who know only the antagonists she has created - says she regrets the end of Deep Space Nine because she enjoyed playing the dauntless Kai. "I'm sorry it's over, because it was a great deal of fun for me being able to be broad and over the top when I felt like it. It was sort of permissible over-acting...well, I don't think it was really over-acting, because it's operatic." Unsurprisingly, the actress describes Winn not as a villain, but a tragic figure in the classical sense: "She has at least two tragic flaws, pride and ambition." Then, with a laugh, "Most Shakespearean characters only have one!"
We first met Vedek Winn back in the first season in the episode "In the Hands of the Prophets," when she used a religious controversy over the station's school as an opportunity to make an attempt on the life of rival Vedek Bareil. In subsequent episodes, Winn allied with corrupt Provisional Minister Jaro, threatened to expose the former Kai's wartime collusion in an effort to destroy Bareil's bid to succeed to her title, and took the credit as Kai for a treaty with Cardassia negotiated by the dying Bareil. She became First Minister and tried to have a Resistance hero imprisoned; then she sabotaged a Prophet's struggle with a Pah-Wraith by disregarding the Emissary's order not to interfere.
It was not clear until the end whether Winn was a megalomaniac incapable of seeing beyond her own self-interest or a leader with a conservative agenda that might have accomplished some long-term good for Bajor. It was also not clear whether Winn honestly believed she was fulfilling the will of the Prophets or if statements to that effect served to hide her spiritual emptiness. We learned the truth in the seventh season episode "Till Death Do Us Part," when the Kai admitted that the Prophets had never spoken to her. Subsequently, she renounced her allegiance to the gods of her people - unaware that the understanding lover to whom she confessed her ambitions was really Occupation architect Dukat, perhaps the only man in the galaxy she despised more than Benjamin Sisko. Or perhaps not: the discovery of her partner's identity did not stop Winn from releasing the Pah-Wraiths which would have destroyed her planet as well as the Emissary.
"I thought she was trying to believe," says Fletcher. "She made that speech about how she pretended to believe because that was what was expected of her, and when people said they heard the Prophets' voices, she just smiled and pretended she did too. She would say different things depending on who she was talking to. Except when the Emissary started to hear them, she was so jealous! She was contemptuous that he would have been chosen."
Thus the Kai followed the path to which the Gul had led her - straight into the Fire-Caves. Despite her vocal loathing towards him, could Winn have been diverted by love for Dukat, who appeared to be infatuated with her up until the moment he realized she had poisoned him as a sacrifice for the Pah-Wraiths? "I think she was fascinated by the whole idea, you know? Probably she had never had this experience," reflects Fletcher, laughing at the repeated mentions in the dialogue of the Kai's bed. "He was obviously programmed to say and do the right thing to get to her. I think he was faking it, because there were moments when he had kind of a snide look. But it was so much fun!"
Though it seems as if it would be complicated to play a woman from another planet in a position of ultimate authority - let alone one who's having a dark night of the soul - Fletcher says, "I don't really play any of those things. I just play. That's the only way I know how to work, just try to believe what they've asked me to say...which in the case of some of that language is very difficult!" Despite the infamous Trek technobabble and the Bajoran prayers Winn had to recite, "given who I've learned that she is over the past few years, none of this was difficult, because the ends justify the means to her. She was one of those people who just believes she's right no matter what. She's doing it for either her own good or the greater good, and if those two things happen to gel, then fine; if not, then we know which side she's going to come down on!"
It also wasn't at all difficult for Fletcher to find role models for Winn. "The world is populated by people who don't doubt their own motives; we encounter them on a daily basis, people who say, 'I'm doing this for your own good,'" she notes. "I do love using politicians and religious leaders. I love flicking through TV watching some of these 'miracle workers.' It so enrages me! And I find it so hilarious that right-to-life people often believe in the death penalty. It just amazes me that they can hold those views so strongly, that they can just stand there and say it and feel their feet are based in what's right. Hypocrisy is just rampant in our world."
"And those things are fun to play," continues Fletcher. "The writers just gave me the greatest things to say! It's a pleasure to play people who think that way, because they're so irritating in real life. I've played it before, and I've no doubt I'll play it again."
Nurse Ratched is the consummate example of such a character, a woman whose belief in her own methods leads to the lobotomization of a quintessential rebel. Fletcher's favorite line from Deep Space Nine has unintentionally funny echoes of those events. In the episode Life Support, Winn needed the badly injured Bareil to help her negotiate a treaty. "When Bareil was on his deathbed, she turned to the doctor and said, 'You replaced all his vital organs; can't you do the same thing with his brain?'" Though she declines to name a favorite episode, she says she loved working with Frank Langella at the beginning of the second season on "The Circle" and "The Siege." "That was kind of a baroque dance we did...that was fun."
Langella has said that he is a longtime science fiction fan, but Fletcher claims that she is not particularly so, although her resume is packed with genre roles. "I have no idea why that is. I like to think that they want me to make something believable, and that's what I like to do - I like to create somebody that you say, gee, I've known somebody like that." Thus, she appeared with Denzel Washington in the thriller Virtuosity, with a very young Drew Barrymore in Stephen King's Firestarter, with Christopher Walken in the underrated Brainstorm which had to be reworked following the tragic death of co-star Natalie Wood.
"I loved Brainstorm - I loved my character," says Fletcher, though the role required that she die midway through the film to explore life-after-death possibilities in virtual reality. Is it hard playing someone who dies? "Sometimes you want to die!" croaks the actress with a laugh. She also played a comatose character on VR.5, Dr. Nora Bloom, who interacted with her daughter Sydney (played by Lori Singer) exclusively in a virtual world.
"Now that was a series ahead of its time, wasn't it?" recalls the actress, who didn't mind performing unconsciousness. "That was restful - you can't see, you can't hear, you're just in a catatonic state. Luckily she got to wake up a couple of times." The film she is scheduled to do next, Seeing in the Dark, also features a VR theme, "but I don't know if it's going to happen."
Fletcher seems to be fearless about playing villains. In fact, the role which made her famous was turned down by several prominent actresses of the 1970s - reportedly including Anne Bancroft, Colleen Dewhurst, Angela Lansbury, and the previous year's Best Actress Academy Award winner, Ellen Burstyn - on the grounds that the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was too misogynistic. The nurse in Milos Forman's film was a considerably stronger character than the version in Ken Kesey's book, but that didn't stop Burstyn from calling for a boycott of the 1975 Best Actress Oscar on the grounds that there weren't any good roles for women.
"That was terrible," recalls Fletcher, who told the New York Times that although Burstyn said the comment was not meant to be personal, she couldn't help but take it as such. Now she says, "If you think I agonized over playing that part in terms of the women's issues...I was in such a state of trying to empower myself at the time. Just getting a job was more important than anything else." She worked hard to get the role, which took six months. "I have no regrets. It was such a great part, and I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I think the fact that Milos Forman was not a known factor at that time, and Jack [Nicholson] was not at the peak of his power, plus it was very, very low budget...these major actresses who turned it down really were going to have to be this horrible person and get no money!"
Fletcher won the Best Actress Oscar as the independent feature achieved a stunning sweep, earning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay (thus trouncing Steven Spielberg's Jaws). She brought down the house at the ceremony when she signed her acceptance speech so that her deaf parents would understand her tribute to them. The role made Fletcher a legend. Nurse Ratched is still conjured by name as a stereotype of rigid values and inflexible conservatism - a tribute to the performance, since the nurse did not have the same name in the novel. Cloris Leachman even parodied the character to hilarious effect as Nurse Diesel in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety. But then as now, playing a powerful woman didn't always open doors.
"If you look at my resume, you see I haven't turned down a whole lot, because financial concerns have always been a problem - I just have never earned that much money," notes Fletcher, who spent several years before Cuckoo's Nest away from the business, raising her children. "I was a housewife, I worked harder at that than at anything in my whole life. I had a lot of responsibility. And then suddenly I was a single mom, and terrified. Early in my career when I was young and carefree, who cared if I only made $250 in a month? But once I had these two kids, I had to do what I had to do to make a living. Obviously there are parts that I wish I hadn't done, just because the projects weren't admirable. But I had no choice, really, unless I wanted to give it up and do something else."
She considered becoming a lawyer, going to work for the Southern Poverty Coalition or a similar group. "When I became aware of myself, for the first time in my life really, it was the Nixon era. That was such a big thing in my life: I was very politically interested, and became kind of obsessed and wrote letters and felt betrayed. I think the Nixon era figured a lot in Nurse Ratched. I thought, I could be a lawyer, I could make money and do good things. I persevered, but I stay interested and active in those issues anyway."
An Alabama native, Fletcher survived box-office bombs like The Exorcist II (a role she says she took because it was originally written for a man, which intrigued her). She has sidelined as an art dealer since 1991, but claims she always wanted to act - the result of the influence of an aunt who "taught me to show off" when the girl went to live with her at age three "just for a year, so I could learn to talk. She just was so loving, she would dress me up and get me to sing and dance. Then right through until I was sixteen, my sisters and my brother and I spent every summer with her, and we did plays." Fletcher's mother was a movie buff: "I always went to the movies with her and would tell her the story after we got home if she couldn't understand."
Though she left her alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill, determined to arrive onstage in New York, a graduation trip to California left her stranded in Los Angeles with little money and no transportation back East. "I got a job in a doctor's office and enrolled in an acting class at night, just trying to save my money to go to New York, and one thing led to another. I was contemptuous of film acting, I thought it was ridiculous - it was makeup and mirrors and ego - it wasn't really the real thing. But I quickly fell in love with making movies. And then I fell in love, and got married, and, you know, that's the way it happens. I'm still on my way to New York."
Now she doesn't draw major distinctions even between television and film roles. "It's luxurious to do a nice big-budget movie, you're treated very well and you feel like you can take a little more time, but there have been some TV roles recently that have been much more satisfying. I did a few episodic things in the past few years, like The Practice, a really interesting issue about whether you prosecute as a child or an adult when they do a really terrible thing. And on Brimstone, I played a mother seriously in denial, and that was interesting. Then I got to do some comedy with Mercedes Ruehl in a movie recently. So it's a toss-up, it just depends."
Fletcher also played the oblivious Aunt Helen in Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble's adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses starring many of the hot young WB stars including Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair. Though "they were cute, those kids, and you knew it was going to be kind of a hot movie," Fletcher's overriding memory of the film "was terror of getting up on the horse, because just the summer before, I was attacked by bees while horseback riding. I fell off a horse in France and was stung over seventy times. That was the first time I got back up on a horse. Other than that, very little stays in my memory."
Curiously, the actress has not seen the successful film. "I very rarely go to see what I do. It's hard for me, I'm not a good audience for myself, I'm too critical. I'm a good audience in general, I can suspend my disbelief so quickly, I'm good for other people but I'm really bad for me. Last Saturday night one of my sons and I watched the last episode [of Deep Space Nine], which is the first one I have watched in a long time. I see it when I'm looping, so I don't feel the need. It was very exciting. It was done well."
Fletcher admits her ambitions at this point lie largely outside her profession. "I've bought this ruin in France," she explains with a laugh. "They're just starting to bring electricity and water because it doesn't have anything, it doesn't have a bathroom or a floor or anything - it's an old barn, it's got to have the roof taken off and put back. I'm pretty passionate about that right now. I love making a nest, my physical surroundings are very important to me, so I'm involved in that."
She has no intention of moving to Europe full-time, just for a couple of months a year, and has no intention of retiring, either. "Everybody says, when are you going to retire? I say, are you crazy? I'm never going to retire! I'll be retired one day, the phone will stop ringing, but I'm not going to do it of my own free will."
What You Leave Behind
As she proved in the final Deep Space Nine episode, there's no reason for her to think about retiring. Louise Fletcher is sexier in her sixties than many actresses are in their twenties. Considering how non-erotic Star Trek has been accused of being - Voyager's Robert Beltran complained to the magazine Sci-Fi Universe that "holding hands is supposed to be thrilling," and Captain Janeway has not had a romantic relationship in five seasons - Kai Winn was part of one of the most passionate pairings in franchise history. During the final episodes, she kissed Dukat amorously to seal their alliance, fed him fruit as they lounged indulgently making jokes about her disapproving assistant, and threw off her robes when she denounced the Prophets. "She was dying to get those things off!" chuckles Fletcher. "That was a very good bit, throwing the clothes, the hat...the vise that she was in.
It's not clear from the ending of "What You Leave Behind" whether Winn was obliterated by the flames of the Fire-Caves, or whether - like Dukat among the Pah-Wraiths and Sisko among the Prophets - she's still alive in disembodied form, conceivably waiting to come back to haunt the universe. "Of course the Kai is not dead," insists Fletcher. "She will be equal to the sum of her parts as soon as Paramount calls."
Although she's a bad girl and not even a Starfleet officer, Winn has been extremely popular among fans. "I haven't done many conventions, I've only done two or three, it's just been amazing," Fletcher says. "One of my sons drove me once to the one in Pasadena. He and I were both astonished at the length of time people would stand in line to get a picture. I was sort of amazed! I haven't done many conventions so I'm not used to it; I was sort of blown away by it."
In contrast to series actors who are intimidated by the intensity of Trekkies, Fletcher finds Kai Winn's followers quite grounded in comparison to the some of the fans of Nurse Ratched who write to her. "Star Trek fans are so nice. I think they're a special breed of people," she notes. "They like the bad guy and the good guy, they know what's what, and they have a penchant for fantasy. I don't get any fan letters from people in jail from Star Trek. But fans of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are writing from all kinds of institutions." The actress laughs. "I got the most incredible fan letter yesterday from some guy in prison who claims to be a fall guy for the Bush-Reagan years, you know?"
Fletcher certainly doesn't fear typecasting from having appeared on Star Trek, as some of her peers on the series have expressed. The show may be contemporary myth, but Mildred Ratched is a cultural icon whose influence the actress is unlikely ever to live down - which is fine with Fletcher.
"The greatest thing is, she's in the lexicon. There was a column in The New York Times I read while I was in Europe, when Elizabeth Dole was suddenly going to run for President, and this was the comment: 'Nurse Ratched for President. It's about time our cuckoo's nest got a good tidying up.' And she backed that up with all of [Dole's] control issues. So when I got home, I sent the columnist this photograph of Nurse Ratched which I had taken in the dormitory when the guys were at lunch - I wanted to give them all a present, so I took off all my clothes except I put on Jack's boxer shorts, and I had my hat on. I was topless, and I did it like the Betty Grable pose, looking over my shoulder so it was a back view. I sent her this picture, and I wrote, 'Be careful what you wish for. Love, Mildred.'"
Asked what she is proudest of, Fletcher gets quiet for a minute. "I guess just keeping on, waking up in the morning and facing it again," she says finally. "It is a roller-coaster, life, and my career is an important part of my life, but my life is made up of so many things - my children, my friends. I guess I get a kind of sad sound in my voice when I talk about what am I most proud of, because I really don't know. I'm not a very proud person."
Not even when her fans call her 'Eminence'? "To me that's just funny!" laughs Fletcher. "I loved doing that to Kira, 'You may go now, my child.' There are these highlights when I'm working, feeling good, in the moment. There is this other thing that I'm proud of. Actors have nightmares about what can happen when you've got to work on something and your heart is somewhere else. I've had that, I've had problems in my life and working was very hard for me. But somehow, something else takes over, which is the training, or just conditioning, and I'm proud that I have that kind of concentration."
"So the fact that I have the work that I can do, that I've found what I really like doing, and that it can give me peace in a way, it's a joy to me," concludes Fletcher. "I'm proud that I've found something in my life that means as much to me as it does."