LOUISE FLETCHER IN SEARCH OF HERSELF
A LADIES HOME JOURNAL ARTICLE
Which is to say that what has happened to Louise Fletcher's life is still so new that there are times when she herself does not believe it. It is not out of the question, after all, for an Oscar winner to be called by another star and be asked, as Peck asked her, to work for his favorite charity. Nor is it unusual, when she calls the studio commissary, for a star to be asked what table she would like. Louise, happily, does not have preferences about tables. Clearly any one with legs and chairs would do. The preferences she does have are strong ones. But they are about other things.
One's immediate impression is that there is something powerful about her, which is, perhaps, an odd, contradictory thing to say about a woman who looks like a cross between Alice in Wonderland and a lady in a detergent commercial. One carries in one's mind two pictures of Louise: a stern-faced Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and a chic and beaming Oscar winner. The woman at the Burbank Studio lot, on this too sunny California morning, is neither. The best descriptive word for Louise, at 42, would be earthy -- a word one would not especially expect to use for a woman raised in the South in the '30s and '40s, a woman whose inevitable model for the right kind of woman was that lady-like great lady in Gone With the Wind, Miss Melanie.
Louise's quality suggests great strength. It gives the appearance of a woman who is "together." "Seeming together has always been my thing," she says. "I've been practicing that one for years." That she had said "seeming" was something I thought about later that day when I watched her work in one of the final scenes of The Heretic, the film sequel to The Exorcist. The stage had been pumped full of smoke. A ruined house lay collapsed behind her. Louise, playing the role of a psychiatrist, had to cry at the exact right moment, and remain weeping as the camera closed in on her. It was a complicated, highly technical shot. There was take after take after take. "What we're doing," the producer explained, as Louise stood there still crying through one of the interminable pauses, "is waiting for the smoke to clear." And, as Louise wept, I felt in her a pain she is able to summon and maintain with such intensity it suggests something that is not always the case with celebrities: that there is much more here than meets the eye. Something, the realness of these tears suggests, is happening in this woman. And it is.
Her life a story
She will never play a character with a life more interesting than her own. It is somewhat hard to believe, after all, a story about a woman who is not only a Southern minister's daughter, but also the child of totally deaf parents, a girl who leaves home to become an actress, becomes one, marries, has two children, then abandons her career -- only to return to it 12 years later -- and, with her second role, win an Academy Award. And the story continues: this woman, heretofore known to her friends as the perfect wife and mother, decides (with her husband) that a separation is necessary, that to realize themselves fully they must -- for a time at least -- leave one another. Still, while the facts are unique, the story has a theme in common with the lives of many women of her time -- possibly yours -- and certainly mine. Namely, that in the course of her life she had learned many things that she would be forced to unlearn later in order to achieve survival.
The house in Birmingham, Alabama, where Louise, her parents, older brother and two younger sisters lived is still occupied by her parents. The sun still comes in the leaded windows and shines on the antique furniture, on the many pieces of china hand-painted by her mother, and on her mother's paintings of landscapes and animals and flowers. It is a large house, and Louise remembers it as having been virtually silent. "For many intents and purposes," she says, "I grew up deaf. We didn't use our voices at all, we talked to our parents without a voice. We read lips." Interestingly, when she went home recently to be with her mother who had undergone surgery, Louise noticed something that somehow had eluded her before. "The house is full of clocks, and they all tick and tock at different times. The thing that struck me was the sound of those clocks, a sound I grew up with but never heard. And I was aware of the loneliness of that sound."
Until the years when Louise studied piano, the unheard clocks were the house's only sound. Much later, her parents got a television set, but, oddly, while the picture is perfect, the audio doesn't work and never has. "It's as if the television knows," Louise smiles. And in this silent house, Robert and Estelle Fletcher taught Louise to have a dream -- taught her that she, her brother and sisters could accomplish anything. "My father had become an Episcopalian minister to the deaf. He did a tremendous job, traveling all over the state, preaching to different congregations. Today, 35 people are doing what he did alone. He would say, 'Look at me and how life worked out for me. If I can do this, being half blind and totally deaf, think what you, with every faculty, can do.' And I bought it totally. I still do." And thus, in this house, many years later, her parents sat in front of their soundless television set and watched Louise thank them with her hands for teaching her to have a dream, watched as she accepted the Academy Award and told them in sign language that they were watching her dream come true.
Had to be trusted
"By the time we were three or four, we children were very adult people," says Louise, "because we realized that our parents could not communicate and what that meant for us. They are one step removed from reality, and don't conceptualize the same way we do. We had to be trusted totally, and we were. We made up all our own rules. Generally speaking, when children create their own rules they are far stricter with themselves than their parents would be. So even when I was little I was grown-up.
"Not to make it totally grim," she went on. "I did have a grandmother with whom I spent the summers, and she made up for all the rules I didn't have during the year. If I wasn't at the table when the clock struck twelve, I didn't get to eat. I loved it. I was delighted there was somebody to say no."
So, from the beginning, Louise was an obedient, good girl. The fact that she was forced to be her own parent is another matter, and one that must have caused resentment and anger. "It did," she says, "but at the time I was unaware of those feelings." In fact, she was almost 40 before those emotions surfaced.
She has a long, long string of happy memories. Remembrances of people who came to the house, and of one woman in particular who arrived wearing a dreadful hat that Louise and her sister joked about in front of her assuming, wrongly, that the woman was deaf, as most visitors there were. Memories of ordering ruffled organdy dresses to wear to dances, and of being given flowers to wear "like a goiter" in her hair, although this last memory is tinged somewhat with pain, since her parents could not go to dances, and she was uncomfortable about having experiences they couldn't have. "I felt guilty about my parents' deafness," she recalls. "My brother, sisters and I used to fantasize about becoming doctors and curing people who were deaf. Of course, our parents' case was hopeless. They have total nerve deafness. There is no cure. So I was never very comfortable telling my mother details of evenings like that. My parents didn't demand that we tell them everything. I was never faced with constant questions and answers. But I was careful, too careful, about what I told them. My brother, sisters and I had a bond to protect these two people, a bond that was like a rope tied around us all."
The protection took a logical form. Each night, when the family gathered around the dinner table, and the four children acted out the day's events for their parents, they would meticulously omit any unhappy or unpleasant thing. "It gave my parents a completely distorted view of reality," Louise says. "Now my brother, sisters and I have stopped doing it, but you can imagine what a shock it was for them to find out everything was not always wonderful, to find out I was not Miss Perfect. And the price of it was very high for me," she continues, "because I not only pretended everything was all right, I came to feel it had to be." And so, never verbalizing her feelings, she grew up, quite literally, without a language for them; she did not have the words to communicate any emotion that would not be appropriate in a musical comedy. Eventually, years of leaving those feelings unexpressed made her automatically push them down, negate them, as if it just seemed pointless to have negative feeling or emotion if you could do nothing about it. Finally, she could experience only what was pleasant. "I was able to feel in love when I met my future husband," she says, "but a few years earlier, when my grandmother died, as much as I loved her I couldn't feel the loss at all, I had no pain about it."
She describes her thinking in those days as "duty, guilt and I owe it to them," and these three tenets were powerfully reinforced each year when she went to collect her scholarship money from the Archbishop of Alabama. "He was a huge man who looked, I thought, like God. And as I would leave he would put these enormous arms around me and say in a booming voice, 'Remember who you are and what you represent,' and for years those words just vibrated in my head. This year," she smiles, "my father took me to see where the Archbishop is buried, and I saw that those words that I had tried to live up to and had haunted me for years, are engraved on his tombstone. He had said them to everybody."
Her early youth was influenced by necessities caused by World War II. "It was a strange time," she recalls, "because we were especially poor then, but living in a huge house. Finally, we took in boarders." They were spinster ladies, and to use Louise's term "hearing people" -- people who were not deaf. "I was very hung up with playing the piano at the time. I would play one piece over and over until I got it right. I loved it and never felt guilty about it because my parents would sit with me, and put their hands on the keyboard and feel the vibrations. Also, it was visual, and I could share that with them. But when these women came, they would complain if I played too loudly. I resented it terribly." There were, however, some advantages to living with hearing people. "One of the women helped me with my speech class," Louise remembers. "What she had to do," and here she pauses, looking for the right word. When she finds it, the way she says it is emphatic and touching. "What she had to do was listen, because she was an adult and I wasn't, and I wanted an adult to listen to me. One night," she continues, "the woman was out. I had a speech to give the next day and it must have been on my mind when I went to bed. In those days I was a sleepwalker, and in the middle of the night, I sleepwalked into her room and scared her to death. All the boarders left shortly after that."
The sleepwalking was to continue through her early adolescence, and interestingly, when I asked what she thinks it meant, despite the fact that she defines her youth as essentially happy, she answers, "Getting up and getting out of there."
She planned to do this by becoming an actress. Acting things out had been, after all, her way of communicating with her parents, it had always been her means of self-expression. And, always, the movies were her relief from the unreal reality she had created. She loved them passionately, and for the exact opposite reason most people do. For her they were not an escape from reality; they were an infusion of the real feelings of life. At the movies she did not have to maintain her "happy face." She could cry and feel sorrow. "I loved watching real people have real emotions," she says.
"When I was about eleven," she recalls, "I saw Lady in the Dark, and it changed my life. It was about a woman who wore manly clothes and was tough on the outside, but who inside was soft, feminine, a completely different kind of woman. I watched it in a trance. I didn't go to the bathroom or get a bag of popcorn. I just sat there until the theater closed down. And I realized, for the first time in my life, that you could seem like one thing and be something else.
"The breakaway from home was easy," she recalls, "because my parents expected me to go. I don't know how to explain it except to say that they wanted their children to have more. And their distance from the hearing world turned out to be my salvation, because they didn't have the same sense of role definition that most people did -- they were not interfered with by any kind of reality. They believed in the impossible, and I did too. I mean, can you imagine what it's like for a normal, upper class Southern girl to become an actress?"
Theater her aim
All four children had promised their father they would graduate from college. "It was his ambition for us," Louise says. And so, she enrolled at the University of North Carolina. "I had decided what I wanted to do with my life," she remembers, "and I was totally determined. For the years I was a drama student I was completely absorbed in it. I walked around in a leotard and raincoat for two years and was considered very strange. I dated only one man, and him briefly. All I wanted was to work in the theater. And I did."
After graduation, she and two friends drove across country to Los Angeles. She arrived there with seven dollars. "I had a sort of blind courage in those days. Really blind. The second day here I got a job as a receptionist to a man who is still my pediatrician. One day an actor came in with his kids. He said he was doing a Playhouse 90 TV show. He got me a job as an extra and introduced me to John Frankenheimer, who was directing it. Frankenheimer kept using me in things after that."
And, in those first few months, something else happened: she fell in love with a young literary agent named Jerry Bick, the man who would become her husband. "At the time," she remembers, "I never thought much about the future. Somehow, I thought I would get married and keep working. But it was in the back of my mind that when children came along I would stop. Children, I thought, that's what we're here for."
Just before her marriage she was cast in what was to be an important film, Where the Boys Are. But, while she and Jerry were honeymooning, the part was given instead to Paula Prentiss. It might have been her big break, and she missed it. Still, getting the part could not have altered the course of the next 12 years. "The handwriting was on the wall," Louise believes. "What happened was inevitable. I'm convinced that when you get married -- if you don't know better -- you repeat your model. Mine was my mother, who was always home. I continued working after John was born in April, 1961, and until I was four months pregnant with Andrew, who was born in December, 1962. But after that, I gave up having a dream and went into the pattern of being a wife and a mother. It was inescapable behavior."
And so she went back to what she knew best because she knew it longest: functioning from a sense of "duty, guilt, and I owe it to them," losing herself in other people's needs. "Good girls," Louise says, as if reciting a litany, "are reactors, not actors. Baby needs diaper; good girls react. Husband needs dinner; good girls cook it -- and a homemade dessert. I became what I thought the perfect wife and mother was. I denied any needs of my own. There is no one to blame but myself. In fact, Jerry kept urging me to work and I wouldn't even discuss the possibility."
In this twin role of wife and mother, Louise gave what can only be described as an award-winning performance. That it was, in fact, a performance seems significant now; at the time the emphasis was on quality only. "In 1969 we moved to London and stayed six years. In those days, each morning I would go to the bakery for a loaf of fresh brown bread, then come home and make a terrific breakfast. I had the ability to throw myself into whatever I was doing, to channel my energy into anything that was happening. I acted out all my creative needs fixing things around the house, building things, cooking, decorating. I was constantly getting up early and running off to do this or that. I had friends, of course, and would go out for lunches, I did do that for myself, and I'd read; go on real jags. We entertained a lot. If I gave a dinner party it was fabulous. I had a professional stove with eight burners and four ovens, and people loved being invited for those five course meals. And every night I served homemade soups and bread. In fact, one of my closest friends said she had to stop seeing me, because her husband always compared us -- and I was so perfect it was ruining her marriage."
Her own husband knew better the toll all this was taking on Louise. "Jerry knew there were problems," Louise says, "and he suggested I see a therapist, and I did." She must have been a frustrating patient, since she still viewed the world from behind her "happy face." That mask assumed to ease the life of her parents, was, by now, a total barrier between herself and her experience. And, since she still was caught up in that pretending, it was not too likely that she would have a successful therapy.
In 1973, the Bicks returned to the U.S., and then a confluence of events caused Louise to see, finally and clearly, what was happening in her life, and made her decide to change things. "The women's movement had been sort of seeping in through my pores," she says, "and I was beginning to get the idea that I don't have to do things because other people expect me to. For instance, I can love cooking, love doing the laundry, if it's coming from the right place: because I want to, not because I have to. And there were," she remembers, "a lot of other things that added up to a sense of disappointment, not just with my own life, but with things generally. Watergate contributed to that. I was obsessed with it. And also, I realized that I was getting older, and who was I kidding."
In the summer of '73, the family moved to Mississippi, where Jerry was producing the film Thieves Like Us. A small but crucial part had not been cast. Robert Altman, who was directing the film, persuaded Louise to play it. Pauline Kael, in a review, praised her work. "I was going back and forth between roles," says Louise. "I worked during the day. At night I cooked for everyone and was the producer's wife. My kids were on location, so I was also functioning in the mother role. When I saw myself on film, it was an awakening," she recalls, "because it was totally different from anything I had done before. And I realized it was real, and good, and I thought, why haven't I been working? And I went back into therapy to try to find out the answer. And finally, I was able to say that things weren't really so great, and I'm not going to pretend they are, either. And it felt wonderful to tell the truth to someone. Finally, I realized that all the sacrificing for others had made me resentful and angry. I voiced that anger to the therapist, and was honest for the first time in my life."
Her next role was the nurse in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She went to Oregon to make the film and began taking what she calls "baby steps." "It was the first separation I'd ever had from my family, and I was amazed to see I could actually make friends, stunned to see how well I could function."
If her own story were a movie, it could end, neatly and triumphantly, the night she won the Oscar. Real-life tends to bypass such happily convenient conclusions. For the decision to return to work was bound to have consequences, and it did. "Although Jerry had always urged me to work, let's face it, there's a difference between the lady who's in the kitchen and the lady who isn't in the kitchen. I mean, she isn't there." And there were, apparently, other difficulties that had existed all along. "Being the sort of person I was," she says, "I never saw anything wrong. I couldn't. I just kept pretending everything was great until it wasn't."
In the spring of 1976, she and Jerry reached what she calls "a painful, mutual decision to separate." Interestingly, after this happened, she began getting what she calls "hate mail" from women. The letters are angry, yet one imagines that behind that anger is fear: fear that doing what women's groups urge women to do -- go back to work, find ways of self-realization -- would, as it seems to have done in Louise's case, inevitably incur a cost that is too high. "I realize that it looked like cause and effect," she responds, "but it isn't. It also looked like I got a case of 'star-itis,' and that wasn't what happened, either."
"My husband and I were far too dependent on one another," Louise now believes, "and I was acting out neurotic needs all those years, losing myself in the family's problems to avoid mine. I can't do it anymore, and I've decided not to do it.
"I really identify with my kids," she went on, "because I feel this is my first real adolescence. Probably I'll end up going through adolescence and menopause at the same time, because I'm doing what I should have done years ago, which is finding out who I am and what I want. I want to have a choice. And when I make decisions through choice, not duty, it has to be better for me and for the people who love me and the people I love. I see it as an experiment, but it's frightening because I don't know where it will all end. It's really scary, that's what it is."
Still she is certain that she is doing the right thing, and so, these mornings when she is not working, Louise stays in bed and reads the paper. If someone runs to the bakery for the equivalent of brown bread, the woman who lives with the family and helps with the boys does it.
Her Los Angeles apartment is still unfurnished, but the few pieces she does have are old, beautiful wood antiques, and things from the past such as the quilt on her bed that her grandmother made. "When I decorate it, it will be the first time I've ever decorated for myself. I want a really comfortable home, with a living room where people can sit and put their feet up."
The changes she has made are small but important. For instance, if she is going out at night and has no time to make school lunches for the boys, she gives them a dollar to buy it. "And I don't even feel guilty," she reports.
Her professional stove is currently in storage, and the evening I was at her home, dinner consisted of barbecued chicken from a nearby take-out place. And she is discovering that her children, who live with her, love her not for the meals she cooks, nor the hours she spends at home waiting for them. They seem, to her minor amazement, to love her for herself. "All the things I thought I had to do were in my head, not theirs."
Her relationship with her sons seems remarkably free of tension, and, clearly, mothering is still an integral part of her. "When a woman makes large alterations in her life, it's easier on the kids than on a husband, because no matter what, you're still their mother. The other relationship is more difficult."
She would not explain why this is so, but perhaps she gave the reason obliquely when she said of her children, explaining why her relationship with them continues on an easy footing, "They don't expect anything."
Recently she found, pressed in a book, a piece of paper that functions as a souvenir and symbol of the old days. On one side of the paper is her marketing list for Christmas Eve: turkey, ham and also a duck. "One of those good dinners," she smiles wryly. On the other side of the paper, as if on the other side of herself, are some words written by the novelist Edith Wharton, words that Louise says expressed her greatest fear, at that time, about what might happen to her.
"I have sometimes thought," Wharton wrote, "that a woman's nature is like a great house full of rooms. There is the hall through which everyone passes going in and out, the drawing room where one receives formal visits... But beyond that, far beyond, are other rooms, the handles of whose doors never turn. No one knows whither they lead. And in the innermost room, the holy of holies, the soul sits and waits for a footstep that never comes." "That," Louise says, "is what was happening to me. I had covered myself so well in the roles I was playing that the real me, inside, was someone no one could know, and I was completely alone. And I'm determined not to be like that. I don't want to end up functioning beautifully in the outer rooms, as I used to, and hiding myself in doing that. I want people to truly know me. Not everyone, of course, that would be crazy, but I want the choice to let certain people in. Playing roles gave me no choice. Now I'm beginning to have one."
Copyright July 1977 Ladies Home Journal.