Louise Fletcher, the imposing, steely-eyed actress who won an Academy Award for her role because the tyrannical Nurse Ratched in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” died on Friday at her home within the town of Montdurausse, in Southern France. She was 88.
The death was confirmed by her agent, David Shaul, who didn’t cite a cause. Ms. Fletcher also had a house in Los Angeles.
Ms. Fletcher was 40 and largely unknown to the general public when she was forged as the top administrative nurse at an Oregon mental institution in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film, directed by Milos Forman and based on a well-liked novel by Ken Kesey, won a best-actress trophy for Ms. Fletcher and 4 other Oscars: best picture, best director, best actor (Jack Nicholson, who starred because the rebellious mental patient McMurphy) and best adapted screenplay (Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauber).
Ms. Fletcher’s acceptance speech stood out that night — not only because she teasingly thanked voters for hating her, but additionally because she used American Sign Language in thanking her parents, who were each deaf, for “teaching me to have a dream.”
The American Film Institute later named Nurse Ratched probably the most memorable villains in film history and the second most notable female villain, surpassed only by the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.”
But on the time “Cuckoo’s Nest” was released, Ms. Fletcher was frustrated by the buttoned-up nature of her character. “I envied the opposite actors tremendously,” she said in a 1975 interview with The Latest York Times, referring to her fellow forged members, most of whom were playing mental patients. “They were so free, and I needed to be so controlled.”
Estelle Louise Fletcher was born on July 22, 1934, in Birmingham, Ala., one among 4 hearing children of Robert Capers Fletcher, an Episcopal minister, and Estelle (Caldwell) Fletcher; each her parents had been deaf since childhood. She studied drama on the University of North Carolina and moved to Los Angeles after graduation.
She later told journalists that because she was so tall — 5 feet 10 inches — she had trouble finding work in anything but westerns, where her height was a bonus. Of her first 20 or so screen roles within the late Nineteen Fifties and early ’60s, about half were in television westerns, including “Wagon Train,” “Maverick” and “Bat Masterson.”
Ms. Fletcher married Jerry Bick, a movie producer, in 1959. They’d two sons, John and Andrew, and she or he retired from acting for greater than a decade to boost them.
Ms. Fletcher and Mr. Bick divorced in 1977. Her survivors include her sons; her sister, Roberta Ray; and a granddaughter.
She returned to movies in 1974 in Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us,” as a girl who coldly turns in her brother to the police. It was her appearance in that film that led Mr. Forman to supply her the role in “Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“I used to be caught by surprise when Louise got here onscreen,” Mr. Forman recalled of watching “Thieves Like Us.” “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She had a certain mystery, which I assumed was very, very vital for Nurse Ratched.”
Reviewing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in The Latest Yorker, Pauline Kael declared Ms. Fletcher’s “a masterly performance.”
“We will see the virginal expectancy — the purity — that has become puffy-eyed self-righteousness,” Ms. Kael wrote. “She thinks she’s doing good for people, and she or he’s hurt — she feels abused — if her authority is questioned.”
Ms. Fletcher is usually cited for example of the Oscar curse — the phenomenon that winning an Academy Award for acting doesn’t all the time result in sustained movie stardom — but she did maintain a busy profession in movies and on television into her late 70s.
She had a lead role because the Linda Blair character’s soft-spoken psychiatrist in “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977) and was notable within the ensemble comedy “The Low cost Detective” (1978), riffing on Ingrid Bergman’s film persona. She also starred with Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood as a workaholic scientist in “Brainstorm” (1983). But she was largely relegated to roles with limited screen time, especially when her character was very different from her Nurse Ratched persona.
After a turn as an inscrutable U.F.O. bigwig in “Strange Invaders” (1983), she appeared in “Firestarter” (1984) as a fearful farm wife; the police drama “Blue Steel” (1990) as Jamie Lee Curtis’s drab mother; “2 Days within the Valley” (1996) as a compassionate Los Angeles landlady; and “Cruel Intentions” (1999) as Ryan Phillippe’s genteel aunt.
Only when she played to villainous stereotype — as she did in “Flowers within the Attic” (1987), as an evil matriarch who sets out to poison her 4 inconvenient young grandchildren — did she find herself in starring roles again. And that film, she told a Dragoncon audience in 2009, was “the worst experience I’ve ever had making a movie.”
Later in her profession, she played recurring characters on several television series, including “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” (she was an alien cult leader from 1993 to 1999) and “Shameless” (as William H. Macy’s foulmouthed convict mother). She also made an appearance as Liev Schreiber’s affable mother within the romantic drama “A Perfect Man” (2013). She appeared most recently in two episodes of the Netflix comedy series “Girlboss.”
Although Ms. Fletcher’s most famous character was a portrait of sternness, she often recalled smiling continuously and pretending that every thing was perfect when she was growing up, in an effort to guard her non-hearing parents from bad news.
“The worth of it was very high for me,” she said in a 1977 interview with The Ladies’ Home Journal. “Because I not only pretended every thing was all right. I got here to feel it needed to be.”
Pretending wasn’t all bad, nevertheless, she acknowledged, at the very least when it comes to her occupation. That very same 12 months she told the journalist Rex Reed, “I feel like I do know real joy from make-believe.”
Mike Ives contributed reporting.