OSCAR'S GLORY IS FLEETING:
ASK ONE WHO KNOWS
A NEW YORK TIMES ARTICLE
HOLLYWOOD, March 26 -- Nineteen years ago, Louise Fletcher won the Academy Award for best actress for her frightening, riveting performance as the monstrous Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. On Monday night, Ms. Fletcher plans to sit in her apartment watching the Oscar ceremonies with a group of friends, and wishing, somehow, that she could give some advice to the winners.
"Just enjoy it; it'll make you wonderfully happy for a night," she said. "But don't expect that it'll do anything for your career."
Elegant at 60, blunt, funny and without a hint of bitterness, Louise Fletcher is sometimes depicted as a casebook example of an artist for whom an Oscar amounted to very little. But she's hardly alone. Despite all the hype, the awards often carry little impact, especially for actresses no longer in their 30's. Dianne Wiest, a nominee for best supporting actress for Bullets Over Broadway, said the other day that her award for Hannah and Her Sisters had had little effect on her career.
Ms. Fletcher, pouring tea in her West Los Angeles apartment, agreed. "Sure, it changes your life enormously in personal ways, but it was not a guarantee of anything. I'm realistic. I have to be. I got the Oscar when I was 41. If I was 23, it would have been hard to deal with. Hell, at my age it was hard to deal with. It was like being thrown an explosive."
She still recalls standing backstage that Oscar night with Milos Forman, the Czech-born director of Cuckoo's Nest, and Jack Nicholson, her co-star. "Milos said, 'Now we're all going to make flops,'" she recalled. "It was true. I made The Heretic - the second Exorcist - and it was a huge flop. Milos did Ragtime. And Jack did Missouri Breaks. That's Czech prophecy."
But Mr. Forman made other big films, including Amadeus. And Mr. Nicholson became, well, Jack Nicholson. But although she has worked steadily over the last two decades, Ms. Fletcher never attained stardom. She has appeared on numerous television series and in such forgettable films as The Cheap Detective (1978), Strange Invaders (1983) and Two Moon Junction (1988). One of her favorite parts, as a research scientist in Brainstorm (1983), went unnoticed because the movie's star, Natalie Wood, died during the filming. "It's as if everybody wanted that movie to go away," Ms. Fletcher said.
"Frankly, how many parts are out there for people like me?" she said. "I'm not going to be a person who complains about roles for women; there's a long line of people doing that. I'm working. Even if I don't think something is so great, I still do it. I'm one of those actresses who have to work for a living. I don't have huge savings."
Unlike many Oscar winners, who blame agents, studio executives, the system for failing to exploit the triumph, she said she viewed the award without illusion from the outset.
"I was up for a lot of good parts, but the competition is keen," Ms. Fletcher said. "I think I'm not that easy to cast. Other actresses are associated with different kinds of roles. I'm associated with strong, sort of realistic women. I'm trying to do some comedy now. I would have loved to have done the mother's part in Terms of Endearment, but if I was casting that movie, I wouldn't have put me in it either."
She shrugged. "Some of us will always have to answer the question 'What have you done lately?' We get older and the executives get younger. You have to keep proving yourself. I'm not bitter. It's just the truth."
Currently Ms. Fletcher appears in a recurring role as Vedek Wynn in Paramount Television's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. She compared it to being in an opera. "You can overact and it's O.K. I play a character who's sort of like the Pope. The Pope in space."
She has also won a juicy role in Virtuosity, a futuristic action film starring Denzel Washington. "I play the crime czar," she said. "You know, like William Bennett was the drug czar. It's a very good role. She reminds me a bit of Jeanne Kirkpatrick." Ms. Fletcher also has plans to produce and star in The Apocalypse According To Doris, which she describes as a film about "a not very bright woman who predicts earthquakes."
When she accepted her Oscar in 1976 Ms. Fletcher used sign language to thank her deaf parents, one of the most genuinely touching moments the awards show has ever produced. She says her experience as the daughter of deaf parents, both of whom have since died, helped root her in reality after she won the award.
"You know, I lived in the real world," she said. "I grew up around handicapped people, lots of times deaf people. My father was a missionary to the deaf. You cannot come from that kind of background and suddenly feel like a movie star."
Ms. Fletcher has two sons in their 30's, one a film producer, the other the manager of a restaurant. She has been divorced from Jerry Bick, a producer, since 1977 but remains close to him.
How she got the role in Cuckoo's Nest was something of a Cinderella story. Ms. Fletcher hadn't acted in 11 years while her sons were growing up, and she was living with her family in London in the 1960's. Under prodding from the director Robert Altman, she reluctantly accepted a small part in Thieves Like Us, which Mr. Bick produced. Mr. Forman saw the film and asked her to audition for Nurse Ratched. She auditioned repeatedly for six months and was finally given the part.
"When I was making the film, a journalist asked me, 'How does it feel to be doing a part that was turned down by every major actress in Hollywood?'" Ms. Fletcher said. "That made me feel good."
The role, a monster nurse in a mental hospital, was carefully shaped by Ms. Fletcher and Mr. Forman. "The point was to make Nurse Ratched a real person, the lady next door, the woman on the bus, the librarian, the person you recognize as being perfectly nice," she said. "That's what's scary about her." Ms. Fletcher said she couldn't smile for six weeks after the film was completed. "I had been in this vise so long I was scared," she said.
Then came the moment of glory.
"When I die, I know that'll be at the top of my obituary," she said. "'Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for...' That changes your life. People around you change; they think you have some special wisdom or magic touch. You become familiar-looking. With me it's usually, 'Do you work in my bank?' or 'Do you teach at my son's school?'"
Louise Fletcher is a member of a particularly elite club: co-stars who have won the top acting awards for the same film. This has happened only six times. Here are the members: 1991, Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster for The Silence of the Lambs; 1981, Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn for On Golden Pond; 1978, Jane Fonda and Jon Voight for Coming Home; 1976, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch for Network; 1975, Louise Fletcher and Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; 1934, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert for It Happened One Night.
Copyright March 1995 The New York Times.