LOUISE FLETCHER AND HER MEN
A TV RADIO TALK ARTICLE
Thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, there's a new love in Louise's life. There's Jerry 'n' John 'n' Andrew . . . now meet the newest addition - OSCAR! Louise's latest film is The Heretic.
No actress in recent months has elicited more critical acclaim than Louise Fletcher, for her role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She won an Oscar for her fine performance in the film.
Yet Louise landed the role only after five famous actresses, including Ellen Burstyn and Faye Dunaway, turned it down.
"It's their misfortune and my luck,' Louise told me, while on a recent trip to Europe to promote the movie. "I'd like to give a party for these ladies to thank them for the break. Suddenly, I've become a celebrity. And I now have more film offers than I can handle."
"Frankly, I can understand their reasons for turning the film down . Cuckoo's Nest is essentially a downbeat picture, since it is set in a male mental institution. Not in our wildest dreams did we expect the movie would have this fantastic box-office success, and get nine Oscar nominations.
"Also, the part of Nurse Ratched does not offer an actress the opportunity for any great dramatic fireworks. It all has to be underplayed. While she is a neurotic character, she is nonetheless in absolute control of her emotions. A lot has to be implied, then, with the eyes or just a slight intonation of the voice."
Louise smiled, her face all alight, then she sighed, and said, "I've waited a long time to make a comeback - at forty-one - and I'm absolutely thrilled!"
On her last few words, thereby hangs a tale.
Louise abandoned her career for eleven years to become a housewife, devoting herself completely to raising her children, Andrew, who is now thirteen, and John, fourteen. Her husband is Jerry Bick, former literary agent, and producer of such films as Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye and Thieves Like Us.
"Living out in Hollywood, as we were at the time, I saw too many marriages break up because the wife was busy with a career and didn't care enough about her husband and family. I was determined that wouldn't happen to me and Jerry. And it hasn't. We're celebrating our seventeenth wedding anniversary this year!"
Louise explained how they met.
"I'm afraid our first encounter wasn't extraordinarily romantic, but quite usual and normal. We were introduced by mutual friends at a dinner party they gave. Eight out of ten women probably meet their future husbands in this way.
"I hadn't gone out with many men before Jerry, because I was a rather reticent person, and I was also too busy trying to get ahead with my career, believe it or not! Anyway, Jerry and I got along famously at the party. He asked me for a date. I said I'd be delighted. We went out, and after that, I never went out with anyone else!"
She sounded like an old-fashioned girl, I said. Was she?
"It's just that I never felt the need to date another man. I guess I was fortunate, since I met the man of my life when I was still comparatively young. Perhaps that's being old-fashioned. I don't know. But at least I've avoided those emotional crises which can occur in women of my age who haven't had a satisfying marriage and the joy of children.
"Fortunately with my mentality, I don't fall in love with my leading men - and they don't get that way about me, either. Men don't perceive me as a sex symbol, that's all. This means I don't get propositioned at auditions, so it has its advantages. And since I don't flaunt myself, I am considered a serious actress. I am disciplined and behave in a professional manner, so men act accordingly.
"The mirror tells me that I'm attractive. As does my husband. So I have no ego problems with which to cope. That's most of the battle, I feel."
A great deal of Louise's upbringing and North Carolina background came out in her manner, as we talked.
"I had a strong religious and moral upbringing, since we were Episcopalians. I was taught, at an early age, to have respect for other people and be considerate of them. I've still found that to be a general rule in life. After all, you get exactly what you give to others.
"I seem to have wanted to become an actress for as long as I can remember. But I promised my father I would finish school. So I graduated from the University of North Carolina.
"I was twenty-one when I finished college. It was a toss-up between the theater in New York, and the movies in California. But I had been influenced more by the movies, since we didn't get to see too much theater in North Carolina. Anyway, I wanted the experience of living on my own, far from my parents. So I headed west.
"I didn t get acting work immediately. So I took a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office, and enrolled in Jeff Corey's acting classes, which I heard were the best on the coast. Oddly enough, Jack Nicholson went to the same school, but after I did.
"Television was very big at the time, since many of the programs had just transferred from New York City. Movies were at the beginning of a decline. The large studios were cutting down on production and dismissing contract actors. My best bet, I figured, was to work for the small screen.
"I did walk-ons and bits on various television shows for a short time, until finally director John Frankenbeimer gave me a break with a major role on one of the Playhouse 90 series. From that, I was able to get an agent - MCA.
"The important thing was, that I now started to make a living from my acting. Warners offered me a seven-year contract, but I turned it down. I'd seen too many actors sitting idly around, collecting their weekly paychecks, with contracts which didn't offer precise roles. Besides, I felt it would be to my advantage to be independent. And eventually it was. I might not have been able to become an ordinary housewife, if I'd been under contract."
There was no trace of the hardness and impermeability of Nurse Ratched on Louise's face or in her manner as she talked. That extraordinary demode upsweep hairdo which Louise wore in the movie was gone too. Now, her reddish brown hair fell softly down around her face, slightly covering her forehead. She wore only a bit of eye shadow and lipstick. And her voice was warm and welcoming, unlike the steel monotone she employed for the character in the movie.
When I mentioned this to her, she laughed. When she laughs, there is a quality about her which reminds one of Ellen Burstyn or Shirley MacLaine.
"I didn't research the role, or expressly study for it. Rather, I tried to look for the hard core within me, bring it to the surface and expand upon it. I also attempted to take refuge in fact, people who I had met or whom I'd known that possessed similar characteristics. They hadn't necessarily been nurses. I myself have never had anything to do with a hospital, least of all a mental institution. But using my information, it was all a matter of trial and error."
New role, new home. Louise and Jerry, with their sons, just moved into a new apartment in Westwood.
"So much has happened so quickly; my head is still spinning. Our former quarters were too cramped. When we saw this place, we decided to take it. We felt we just had to get out of the old place. It was robbed last year, and we were nervous living there. I didn't have time to assist in the actual moving, because I was involved in publicity for the film. We put everything in crates and labeled them before I went away. It was all moved in during this trip to Europe.
Before 1973, we lived in London for seven years, on Old Church Street in Chelsea. We had a house there. Jerry's mother gave us a lot of her things, which we shipped to England to furnish the place. We left them in London when we came back to the States, because it would have meant the added expense of shipping them back at a time when we were watching our pennies. Now we may bring some of the furniture over.
"For me, who had never been abroad, London was a wonderful experience. Its pace is slower than America, but being southern anyway, that tempo suited me fine. We made a lot of nice friends there, both in and out of the entertainment world, so we might possibly move back one day. But not for the moment. The kids are settled in school in Los Angeles, and they don't want to budge. My career has started to move, and Jerry is in the midst of production.
"Jerry's work is what originally brought us to England. He came to produce a movie, but it never got off the ground. That's the business. His first major project abroad was a picture called Michael Kalhaus, with David Warner, which was directed by Volker Schoendorf."
The resumption of Louise's own career came about unexpectedly.
"Jerry and I were over at Bob Altman's house one evening for a script reading of Thieves Like Us. Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, and most of the principal actors were there. They needed someone to read the part of Maddy, which hadn't been cast, and I was asked. The following day Bob said to Jerry, that since I was going to be in Louisiana anyway, with Jerry, who was producing the film, it made good sense for me to take the role. Until then, I hadn't thought about acting for years.
"I felt that it was the right moment to resume my career. I didn't believe I could wait much longer if I wanted to do something worthwhile, since there aren't that many interesting parts around for grandmothers."
Louise laughed at her last remark.
"It's not as bad a time for my age range of actress as some women would have one believe. For example, there seems to be an abundance of good parts about for Ellen Burstyn and Glenda Jackson, who are my age. I think producers have now become conscious of the fact that there is this talent pool, which is commercial, so they are hunting up properties for them. I have had so many offers since Cuckoo, I can't quite make up my mind.
"It all broke at the good moment for my family too. The kids have reached a point in their lives when they are fairly self-sufficient. During the day, they are away at school, so there is no problem. Even when they are at home, they are independent. They have their own friends and activities.
"Andrew, the younger of the two, is more competitive and outgoing than John. He's athletic and loves sports. John is more into books and art. He likes to spend his spare time reading or going to the galleries. To me, they are as different as day from night. John is, in some ways, a reflection of his father, whereas Andrew has many of my characteristics.
"When I was younger, I was very much into athletics. At one time, I even thought I wanted to become a classical ballet dancer. I had the slim figure for it - I still do, mind you. And I'm the right height - five foot eleven. But that was back in North Carolina, years ago.
"These days, I'm not much into exercise. I'm more into cooking. Jerry loves to eat, and the boys certainly have a hearty appetite. I can do the whole Julia Child bit. In fact, I follow her cookbook closely, and I must say, it does work! My speciality is boeuf bourguignon, but I also do a wonderful chicken kiev.
"When we were living in London, we used to go out regularly to all the best restaurants because they were, so to speak, in our backyard. But in Los Angeles we tend to stay at home. We sure could use that tabby cat we had in London, who'd polish off the waste scraps in no time!
"We're very much home people. We don't belong to any Hollywood set, and we lead a relatively quiet life together. That's why I'm always amazed when I hear all those stories about people sleeping around in Hollywood, and about wife and husband swapping. They don't occur to our friends!"
Would Louise like more children? She smiled when I asked her.
"Two is a nice number, without furthering the population explosion. I don't think it's good for a woman over forty to have children. Abnormalities are more common in the infant after that age. And, let's face it, I spent almost a decade, enjoyable as it was, devoting myself to my sons. Now is my time.
"Even though my career is taking off, I don't intend to allow it to usurp more than a reasonable amount of my life. Two films a year will be the maximum. I've built up a very strong relationship with my family, and I won't sacrifice it for anything, not even my work.
"This is very characteristic of Cancer. Cancer people are homemakers. But I am also aggressive, when necessary, and somewhat of a loner, like Leo. This is because I was born on July 22, which is just between the two signs. I inherited qualities from them both."
Louise said she had an appointment, and stood up to go. I noticed she was wearing a trouser suit, and I remarked upon how lovely it looked.
"I don't think I have any actual dresses in the closet. I love trousers, and especially jump suits. I can't resist a really snazzy outfit, and I think I've over-bought on this trip. Aside from the honor, the wonderful thing about this success of mine, is that we'll no longer have to watch the budget.
"We're not big spenders, but we've had a let of expenses these past years. Like the kids' private school, and the furniture for the apartment."
I walked her to the hotel door.
"I'm glad I didn't become a doctor."
Was she seriously contemplating it, I asked her.
"If I hadn't become an actress, that was my ambition."
Louise has certainly made it to the hospital, and received an Oscar for it, in the bargain.
Copyright January 1977 TV Radio Talk.
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