VALENTINES AND VITRIOL -- LOUISE FLETCHER
AN INTERVIEW BY REX REED
But wait! Is this an April Fool joke? The languid, lovely ladybug who opens the door to a dimly lit hotel suite is no starchy, steel-faced piranha. The dreaded Nurse Ratched, who gripped the men in the cuckoo's nest with cowering terror, has been sent back to studio wardrobe. The real Louise Fletcher speaks in the liquid molasses tone of her native Alabama. Her manner is warm as a kitten's paw. She has ice-blue eyes that flash intelligence, a smile that offers friendly persuasion, short cinnamon-brown hair, and a shape that lounges in silk pajamas like a mermaid.
She has been up all night on a plane from Rome, where she busily promoted the film with Jack Nicholson, and has spent the morning shopping for a dress to wear to the Academy Awards. By sunset, she will be on another plane to Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband of sixteen years, film producer Jerry Bick (he produced Farewell, My Lovely) and their two sons, John, fourteen, and Andy, thirteen. Her jet lag is understandable. So are the pajamas.
"It's unique what's happening to me, so I'm learning a lot about myself. I've never done publicity before in my life. I did twenty-two interviews in one afternoon in New Orleans. I'm not twenty-one anymore, so I'm exhausted. But I'm not bored." She sips coffee and pinches herself. The coffee is to stay awake. The pinch is to make sure it's still happening. And it is. Nurse Ratched has turned Louise Fletcher, retired actress, lazy housewife, and latent feminist, into what they call a "hot property" in movie lingo.
"I was the lady in the motel who turned in the young lovers to the police in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us in 1973. It was the first time I had worked as an actress in eleven years. I gave it all up in 1962, when I was pregnant with my second child, and I never thought about it again until Altman came along. I didn't think it was a great picture, but it led to Cuckoo's Nest, and I guess you have to love acting to get through that. Ratched was horrible, grueling, the pits. But when the movie was over, I was sad. That's when I realized how much I had missed it."
She's had a strange life, so it's no wonder she was so effective in a strange role. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, one of four kids, with both a mother and a father who were deaf mutes. Father an Episcopal minister, a "man of God"; childhood very traumatic.
"Most children with handicapped parents will tell you its not easy," she says pensively, staring into her coffee cup and chain-smoking while she talks. "You want your parents to be like other parents, and mine were not. Every kid in our family had to have psychiatric treatment. I knew at the age of eleven I was not going to stay there. Still, the idea of doing something 'different,' like acting, was considered bad. So I went into psychoanalysis, and it taught me I didn't have to be the perfect Southern lady to please my parents. I found out it was okay to screw up. If someone doesn't like what I do, I no longer go to pieces or live to please other people. From now on, I come first no matter what anybody says.
"That was my key to Nurse Ratched. She thought she was helping the men in her ward. To do that she had to control her environment because she was afraid of experiencing real feelings. I played it with repressed sexual feelings and fear and took it all out on Jack Nicholson through control and hostility. It made me sick and unhappy to do that film, but at the same time it was the most joyful work in my life.
I was the last person cast on December 27, and we went to work in the mental hospital January 4. I had one week to prepare, during which my house was robbed. I didn't know until two weeks after shooting began that Angela Lansbury, Colleen Dewhurst, Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page had all turned down the role. All I knew was that I was scared. The fact that the whole company responded to me as a professional, and nobody acted like a star, helped me to cope with the changes I was going through. It renewed my self-confidence."
Ellen Burstyn, one of the actresses who turned down the part, recently appeared on TV asking members of the Motion Picture Academy not to vote in the Best Actress category on the basis that the nominees all appeared in supporting roles. There has been speculation elsewhere that Louise was elevated to the Best Actress category because there have been so few starring roles for women this year, and she might stand a stronger chance than the others. It all makes her furious.
"Those are sexist remarks, and I take total exception to them," she states with defiance. "If Nurse Ratched had been played by a big star, it would have appeared above the title in a co-starring position with Jack. So it's not the size of the part. Also, if I had not come off so strongly as the nurse, the film wouldn't have been the same success. If this had been a movie about the Marines, and a male star played the nurse, it would have been a starring part. Why can men play monsters, but not women?
"Ellen Burstyn's remarks are tacky. It's none of her business, and it's hurtful. I would never be presumptuous enough to criticize another actress's work. I didn't want to play Ratched like science fiction -- with big breasts, red lips and smoke coming out of her ears. I played the truth. There's nothing feminist about that."
While she was making the film, she says, "everybody supported everybody. Jack could not and did not carry the movie alone. It was a total ensemble piece. We got so involved that some of the actors actually took on the psychotic problems of the patients they played. I insisted on remaining apart from the cast and ignored the actual patients who worked on the film in the hospital scenes. I wanted to maintain the nurse's aloofness. I isolated myself. It was lonely, lousy, and horrible.
"I never laughed or got involved with the actors' shenanigans. I was so wretched people started avoiding me on the set. It was very painful, but it worked. I wasn't permitted to see daily rushes, so I had no idea how I was being photographed. I was shocked when I finally saw the picture. Nothing was ever funny to me when we filmed it, so I was also shocked that it was so warm and funny. But basically, I was truly moved and pleased. And I don't think it's a depressing downer, either. How many men give up their lives for their friends? I thought it was a noble, uplifting story."
Movie-crazy in those years of escape from childhood reality, she dreamed of heading for Hollywood instead of New York, although when she graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1957, she did some stage work in summer stock playing Helen of Troy in a production of Tiger at the Gates in Bucks County opposite a young unknown named Robert Redford. Then she drove to Los Angeles with two roommates and $7 in her pocket, got a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office and studied at night with acting coach Jeff Corey. Jack Nicholson was in her class.
She appeared in TV assignments, but it was the time when seven-year contracts were dying out, so she "started having kids and went back to sleep. I wasn't aggressive, wouldn't go to parties. I just gave up. My family loved me, I didn't have to prove anything to them. It was warm in that role. Then in 1973 the Women's Movement crept in through my pores and made me crawl out from under my comfortable rock. I realized I could be a wife, mother, and actress at the same time. Other women were doing it. I had to prove to everyone who I was all over again. My major concern now is to find a director who will give me a part that isn't a heavy."
It almost happened with the Lily Tomlin role in Nashville. It was written for Louise. Much of it was written by Louise. It was the story of her life. Altman watched her with her deaf parents, created the role from her own experience, then gave it to a bigger name. Now they don't speak to each other.
"It's one of those things that happens," she shrugs. "People start hating you, and you don't even know why. You just have to ignore that pain and get on with your life. If I had done Nashville, though, I might be competing with myself this year in the Oscars in two different categories."
She has never been to an Academy Awards show, but she's been watching them all her life. "It's an arena I never thought I'd be in. The competition is fierce, the trade-paper campaigns and the pressures and the infighting -- I thought I'd have a nice, quiet career. But it's thrilling, and I'd be lying if I said it meant nothing.
"I've watched those people with the cameras on their faces when their names are announced, and I know it's a terrible ordeal. But I'm American clear through, and I know about winning. It's like getting thirty thousand red roses at one time. I never won anything in my life except a beauty contest with eleven other contestants in Vicksburg, Mississippi."
She has no illusions. "Success breeds success. After Cuckoo's Nest, I got a big agent and a lot of big offers. Now they say, 'You've got twenty-four hours to read this script,' and the phone rings thirty times in one hour and sometimes I feel like I'm having a nervous breakdown. But I've been through a lot in my life, and I feel like I know real joy from make-believe. I just want to do good work.
"I think things are improving for women. I'd rather be an emotional optimist than an intellectual pessimist. We're going through a revolution, and women have no sense of humor while they fight the battle.
"When I went to California I was five foot ten, brunette, and flat-chested. I didn't fit into any category. Now there are no categories. So I think it's improving. At least everyone is beginning to recognize all types. My life is too important to spin my wheels worrying about some nonexistent role that might or might not be written. I'm not in it to wave flags. I'm in it for the joy I can get out of it."
If she wins an Oscar on March 29, she doesn't know who to thank. "There are so many people taking credit for me getting the role of Nurse Ratched it's like Rashomon. Milos Forman saw Thieves Like Us and called me. But Jack Nicholson says he suggested me for the part. Then there are those stars who turned it down. Listen, I've been having fantasies about Oscar speeches in my head since I was fifteen, but if I win I don't know who to mention." She grins, unashamed. "Maybe I'll just thank them all."
Copyright 1977 Dell Publishing.