In real life, Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher isn't nearly as scary as Nurse Ratched, the character who terrorized a ward of mental patients and millions of moviegoers in the classic 1975 film, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

Fletcher, 69, is a sweet lady, much like the grandmother character she plays in the movie, "Finding Home," which screens at the Sarasota Film Festival Jan. 30 and 31. Fletcher is expected to introduce the film both days, answer audience questions and, after the Jan. 30 screening, attend the Night of A Thousand Stars Party at Michael's On East.

The film is the story of a young woman, played by Lisa Brenner, who struggles to reclaim her life when she inherits her grandmother's inn on a remote Maine island. Fletcher plays the grandmother character in a series of flashbacks.

It's also a story about women's choices and how those choices, sometimes made unwittingly, affect women's lives, Fletcher said in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes when women make choices, they don't always see it as a choice," Fletcher said. "I got married in 1959 when I was a working actress. In 1960, I got pregnant and had my son and, shortly after, got pregnant again. I made the choice to stop working at the time, but didn't see it as a choice. I felt compelled to stay home."

A young actress when she married producer Jerry Bick (the couple is divorced), Fletcher had just started working in television and film when she took a long hiatus from acting to raise her children.

Later, in 1974, she starred in Robert Altman's "Thieves Like Us," and her performance caught the attention of director Milos Forman, who was looking for someone to play Nurse Ratched in the movie version of Ken Kesey's novel, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Other more famous actresses, including Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn, reportedly had turned down the role.

"I was the last person cast," Fletcher said. "It wasn't until we were halfway through shooting that I realized the part had been offered to other actresses who didn't want to appear so horrible on screen.

"I wasn't well-known, and Jack Nicholson (who played the lead role of Patrick McMurphy) was a star, but he wasn't a megastar like he is today," she said.

Ratched is a stern nurse on a mental institution ward who intimidates her patients, played brilliantly by then-unknown actors Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif and Will Sampson.

Her strict sense of order is disrupted when prison inmate McMurphy arrives and encourages his fellow patients to rebel against Ratched's rules, watch baseball on television, speak out in therapy sessions, discover their true personalities and have some fun.

The movie was filmed in the midst of the Watergate scandal, and Fletcher said she tapped into her outrage with abuse of government power to create Nurse Ratched's steely demeanor.

"Uppermost in her mind was she knew what is best for everyone without ever stopping to think she might be wrong," she said. "Then, this person appears and starts messing with her reality."

She relied on advice from actor Karl Malden, who told her, " 'you don't play a heavy heavy.'

"You make them friendly and human and it's much more scary," she said. "So, there I was smiling and being friendly and telling the patients that as long as they played by the rules, everything would be OK."

"Cuckoo's Nest" dominated the Oscars in 1975, winning awards for Best Picture, Supporting Actress for Fletcher, Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Director for Forman and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It had originally been turned down by several major Hollywood studios and was made on a $2.2 million budget raised by producers Saul Zantz and Michael Douglas.

Nicholson, she said, makes acting look easy in the film, but behind his seemingly "breezy" style is a strong work ethic and a devotion to his craft.

In a scene in "Cuckoo's Nest" when Nurse Ratched allows the patients to watch baseball on television with the sound turned off, Nicholson called the play-by-play. It was completely improvised, Fletcher said.

"He made it up in his head," she said.

The film won critical acclaim and was a box office success, but Fletcher was stunned when her name was called at the Oscar ceremony.

"When I got nominated, I had to go to Mexico for a week because I was freaking out," she said. "When they called my name, I couldn't get any spit in my mouth I was so nervous."

Fletcher later starred in several sci-fi and horror films, including "Brainstorm" (her personal favorite), "Exorcist II: The Heretic" and "Firestarter." Her recent films include "Aurora Borealis," with Donald Sutherland, to be released this spring. She has appeared on television in "Picket Fences" and "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine." Early in her career, she appeared on television's "Wagon Train," "77 Sunset Strip," "Bat Masterson" and "Perry Mason."

Born in Birmingham, Ala., to deaf parents, Fletcher graduated from the University of North Carolina's drama school and headed to Hollywood. As a child, she would go to the movies with her mother and explain in sign language what had happened afterward.

"My mother loved movies, and that was a huge influence in my life," she said.

In retrospect, Fletcher said she feels she made the right choices in her life.

"I love what I do now," she said. "I don't feel cheated."

If you go

What: "Finding Home" at the Sarasota Film Festival starring Louise Fletcher

When: 6:30 p.m. Jan. 30 and 11 a.m. Jan. 31. Fletcher is expected to introduce the film and conduct a question and answer session at both screenings. (Screening and celebrity appearance schedules are subject to change.)

Where: Regal Hollywood 20 Cinemas, 1993 Main St., Sarasota

Tickets: $7

Information: 364-9514 or www.sarasotafilmfestival.com. The Sarasota Film Festival box office is located at Main Plaza adjacent to the Hollywood 20

Donna Hartman, features writer, can be reached at dhartman@bradentonherald.com.

Copyright 2004 The Bradenton Herald.