Forman saw what Fletcher was going for, but he wondered if what she was doing was right. On the first day of shooting, he told Fletcher not to tilt her head because it would read as weak, but Fletcher wanted to emphasize the soft and placating attitude this woman puts on for her inmates, and Forman eventually saw that she was right and re-shot this scene her way.
Even knowing some of Fletcher’s own back story for this character, her Nurse Ratched remains basically mysterious, and that is the value of this performance, which cannot be entirely rejected or shrugged off no matter what solid objections we might have to the gender imbalance or sexist basis of the material. It was Fletcher who saw this role as an opportunity to say something large about all the insidious people in this world, female and male, who are bureaucrats at heart and use the pointless rules of their bureaucracy to their advantage.
Think of that face beneath the nurse’s cap Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched wears: steely, yet somehow soft, but is the softness weakness or is it a kind of moral decay that has started to show on her face? Think of the dated hairstyle Nurse Ratched wears, as if she has never felt the need to update it because to her it is always wartime, and she lives in the past and takes revenge on the present. Think even of the nasty humor she reveals when she tells Nicholson’s McMurphy that if he does not want to take his medication orally, then he can have it another way: “But I don’t think you’d like it, Mr. McMurphy,” she says, with that mild look on her face.
And how can we forget the way Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched immediately says, “The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine” after finding the very bloody dead body of Billy (Brad Dourif), who has committed suicide after she shamed him for having sex and threatened to tell his mother about it. When McMurphy goes in to strangle Nurse Ratched, her eyes nearly pop out of her head, and it feels like we are finally seeing the non-human side of her that Kesey wrote about in his novel.
In our final glimpse of Nurse Ratched, after McMurphy has been lobotomized, she wears a neck brace, and her manner is very soft, very “kind.” But we know what she is underneath. Fletcher has shown us. Anyone who has had to deal with bureaucracies knows that there are Nurse Ratcheds, both male and female, in every one of them, and their voices are “friendly” as they twist their knives. There is no other performance by any actor that shows this type of person in such a substantial and revelatory way.
Fletcher won the Academy Award for best actress for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and she gave one of the most touching acceptance speeches when she thanked her parents in sign language. Her career didn’t work out too well after her Oscar win, but she had made her mark. See just one image of Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched and you know what it means: the face of petty authority, more machine sometimes than human, but human in some of the worst ways underneath.