Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for her performance as the villainous Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, died in her sleep on Friday at her home in Montdurausse, France. She was 88.
"Well, it looks like you hated me so much that you've given me this award, and I'm loving every minute of it," Fletcher said onstage at the 48th Oscars as she accepted her award. " And all I can say is I've loved being hated by you."
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on July 22, 1934, Estelle Louise Fletcher attended the University of North Carolina, where she studied drama. After graduation, she moved to Los Angeles and began acting in bit parts on TV series like Perry Mason, The Untouchables, and Wagon Train. She made her film debut in 1963's A Gathering of Eagles, starring Rock Hudson and Mary Peach.
Following a break from acting — in order to raise her two children with then-husband Jerry Bick — Fletcher returned to the screen in 1974's Thieves Like Us, which Bick co-produced and Robert Altman directed. The actress had a small role in the crime drama, but it inspired director Miloš Forman to cast her in his next film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Adapted from Ken Kesey's novel of the same name, the film stars Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy, who has himself declared mentally insane in order to avoid serving prison time. Fletcher plays the antagonist, Mildred Ratched, the cruel and calculating nurse who rules over the Oregon psych ward.
"I was the last person cast," the actress recalled in a 2004 interview. "It wasn't until we were halfway through shooting that I realized the part had been offered to other actresses who didn't want to appear so horrible on the screen." (Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn and Angela Lansbury were among those actresses.)
Released in 1975, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was nominated for nine Oscars and won five, becoming the first film since 1934's It Happened One Night to sweep the major categories of Best Picture, Best Director for Forman, Best Actor for Nicholson, Best Actress for Fletcher, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.
Accepting her award, Fletcher said, "I'd like to thank Fred Roos for remembering me. Miloš Forman for choosing me. Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz for taking a chance and giving me a chance. And Jack Nicholson and a cast of actors whose professionalism, humor, and capacity for getting into their roles made being in a mental institution like being in a mental institution."
"And if you'll excuse me," she continued, before speaking directly to her parents, who are deaf, in sign language, "for my mother and my father, I want to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true."
Though her performance as Nurse Ratched is the role that defined Fletcher's career — and to this day remains one of cinema's all-time greatest villains — her career spanned more than 60 years. She earned two Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for Picket Fences in 1996 and Joan of Arcadia in 2004, and played a recurring role on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as the Bajoran religious leader Kai Winn Adami.
She also appeared in such films as Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), Flowers in the Attic (1987), Virtuosity (1995), and Cruel Intentions (1999). Her final film role was in the 2013 romantic drama, A Perfect Man, starring alongside Jeanne Tripplehorn and Liev Schreiber.
"If a part interests me, I don’t mind how small it is," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1982. "People are always telling me, 'You'll ruin your career doing things like that.' But I like to work. And you can't just sit at home and call yourself an actress. The only way to be an actress is to act."
Fletcher is survived by her two sons, John and Andrew Bick.