(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: Repeat offender R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) enters a mental institution and clashes with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) as he shakes up the status quo and tries to inspire his fellow patients to live instead of just existing.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Cuckoo’s Nest won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, and Best Director at the Academy Awards – the first time a film had won the “big five” since It Happened One Night did it in 1934. It’s a tremendous movie, full of heady themes and iconic performances. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you just how incredible the American film scene was in the 1970s.
But here’s my hot take: Louise Fletcher’s tight and controlled performance is unassailable, but Nurse Ratched absolutely does not deserve to be considered one of the all-time movie villains.
I have not read the Ken Kesey novel that inspired this film, and I have no interest in the new Ryan Murphy prequel series about Nurse Ratched character. Apparently, she’s a much more conniving and manipulative character in the book than she is in the movie. But putting those other versions of the character aside and focusing solely on the movie version, Ratched is far from the diabolical monster who ranks as the American Film Institute’s number five villain of all time.
Of all time! That is wild! Ratched is A) a woman B) in a position of power C) in the 1960s D) who’s trying to balance the complex needs of a group of male mental patients. She’s become a shorthand reference for the corrupting power of authoritarian systems, but if you take a closer look at what she actually does (or does not do) in the movie itself, I’d argue that the deck is stacked against her and she does just about as good a job as she can given the circumstances.
Watching the film again last night for the first time in 20 years, I have to wonder if Nurse Ratched’s reputation was constructed (at least partially) by the same sexist views that tried to vilify Breaking Bad‘s Skyler White for not letting her criminal husband have his way all the time. Let’s look at her two most villain-esque actions in the movie.
McMurphy really wants to watch the World Series, but Ratched won’t let him. She points out that it’s not all about him: altering the established routine could be harmful and disruptive to some of the more fragile patients at the facility. The sort of shitty move she pulls here is giving him the illusion of a democracy when she never had any intention of changing the rules; she puts it to a vote and wins the first day, and when McMurphy convinces more patients to vote with him the following day, she ends the session and doesn’t let him win on a technicality. It’s a dick move, but considering she’s right about how changing the routine could be harmful, it’s hard to fully blame her.
Her most villainous decision comes late in the film. (Spoilers ahead.) After stuttering wallflower Billy Babbit (a fantastic Brad Dourif) has slept with a sex worker during an unauthorized party in the ward, he’s lost his stutter and gained a level of confidence he’s never experienced before. But when Ratched walks in and discovers the aftermath of the party, she tells Billy – in front of all his friends – that she’s going to tell his mother about his dalliance. She knows that threat will cause Billy to crumble, but it’s a way for her to regain the control that she’s clearly lost. Even her cruelest moment has a somewhat understandable justification behind it – though she knows Billy’s weaknesses well enough to know that it’s obviously wrong for her to push him to the edge like that. It’s a desperation play on her part, and it backfires when Billy takes his own life soon after.
But still…the number five movie villain ever? Maybe if the book version of the character was directly translated on screen, there’d be a stronger case for that ranking. But as it stands, based on this movie alone, it kinda seems like Nurse Ratched has gotten a raw deal when it comes to her legacy.
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