When friends come over to visit Louise Fletcher at her Los Angeles condo, many are eager to take a look at one eight-pound object, which sits on a bookshelf along with other gadgets and mementos in her small office. “It’s usually the first thing they want to see, even before they see me,” Fletcher told TheWrap with a hearty laugh. “They always ask if they can hold it and they always say, ‘Oh, it’s heavy.'”
For sure, it is heavy. Fletcher is referring to the Academy Award that she won 45 years ago, on March 29, 1976. Gerald Ford was president, the United States was celebrating its bicentennial, and Fletcher was terrifying audiences all over the world with her cold-eyed, leading portrayal of Nurse Ratched, an iconic movie nemesis, in Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
But that night, people watching the Oscars saw a very un-Ratched expression of emotion from the stage. Fletcher delivered one of the all-time great Oscar acceptance speeches. In barely more than a minute, she moved from bright, self-deprecating humor to tearful tribute, as the actress honored her mother and father, who were both deaf. Fletcher, her voice breaking, spoke to her parents in American Sign Language.
“I wanted to say thank you for teaching me to have a dream,” she said on stage, as her finger made a curling motion next to her head with the word dream. “You are seeing my dream come true.”
In a recent interview days before this year’s Oscar ceremony — which includes six nominations for an onscreen depiction of the deaf experience, “Sound of Metal” — Fletcher spoke to TheWrap about her parents and her memories of that night in 1976. “I don’t know how so many years could go by so fast,” she sighed. “It was 45 years ago and I wasn’t too young when I made the movie. Well, I mean, I was 41, and that seemed old to me back then. Which is a funny thing to say now that I’m 86.”
Fletcher had begun her acting career as an ingenue, albeit one who stood five-feet-ten-inches tall, appearing on television in episodes of “Maverick” and “The Untouchables” in the 1950s. But after marrying in 1960 and having two sons, she stepped away from acting for more than a decade, returning for a supporting role in 1974’s “Thieves Like Us.”
Around that time, Forman was casting “Cuckoo’s Nest” and having a difficult time finding an actress who would agree to play Nurse Ratched. Ratched, the hospital administrator who jousts with Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy, is one of filmdom’s great antagonists. While the head nurse in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel was more of a robotic authority figure, the film’s version of Ratched has become the universal face of bureaucratic control: rigid and joyless, but also clever enough to use her gifts at gaslighting to maintain her power.
The role didn’t appeal to anyone Forman approached, a list that reportedly included Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda, Colleen Dewhurst, Ellen Burstyn and Geraldine Page. Fletcher once sat across from Fonda at a Hollywood event and was tempted to ask if she’d actually turned the part down, but didn’t broach the topic. “Maybe they were scared of the role or maybe they just hadn’t sat down to talk with Milos,” Fletcher said. “You don’t know anything about Nurse Ratched. She leaves the hospital at night and comes back in the morning. So Milos did a very clever thing by breaking her down to simple parts to help me understand.”
Along with Forman, Fletcher decided that Ratched was a virgin, a detail that would never be revealed in the film. And her hairstyle, curved up into cat ears, was a deliberate throwback to the pin-ups of the 1940s. “The hair was my key into the character,” Fletcher explained. “It said to me that Nurse Ratched’s life had kind of stopped decades earlier. Everything every day is the same, nothing ever changes. That’s how she stays safe and stays in control.”
Fletcher described the filming of “Cuckoo’s Nest” as profound, but she said she didn’t regain a decent smile on her face again for about a month after the movie had wrapped, having lived so long in Ratched’s dour, disapproving persona.
That most certainly was not the case on the night of the Academy Awards. When presenters Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland read Fletcher’s name, audiences watching at home saw a beaming, cheerful woman in a peach-pink silk dress, bounding energetically to the podium. Fletcher had shed any traces of Ratched, but she acknowledged her character in her first remarks: “I’ve loved being hated by you.”
Jerry Bick, Fletcher’s husband at the time (they divorced in 1977 and he died in 2004), assisted with the next part of her speech. “Before the ceremony, I had said to him, ‘If somehow I won, I’d never be able to stop crying.’ So he said, ‘Say something funny then.’ He was a very funny guy and he came up with the line to praise my colleagues on the film: ‘You made being in a mental institution like being in a mental institution.’ The audience laughed, which was reassuring.'”
But then Fletcher’s tone changed completely as she said, “If you’ll excuse me,” and spoke to the world in her first language, American Sign Language.
Her mother, Estelle, was born deaf and her father, the Reverend R.C. Fletcher, lost his hearing at the age of 3. After the couple met at Washington D.C.’s Gallaudet University, her father entered the Episcopal seminary and eventually opened 42 churches for the hearing impaired in 11 states throughout the South. In Birmingham, Alabama, where Louise was raised as the second of four children, her father oversaw two churches; one was built specifically for African-Americans, who could not worship in the other because of segregation.
“We had the most amazing childhood, my brother and sisters and I,” Fletcher recalled to TheWrap. “My parents would tell us, ‘You can do anything you want with your life, whatever you choose is fine with us.’ I didn’t fully realize it until later how rare that is.”
In the weeks leading up to the Oscars in 1976, Fletcher knew what she needed to say. “If I got the chance, I would have to thank them. I was compelled to thank them. I don’t know how to impress on you what it meant to be their child. It was such a beautiful, rich childhood for all of us. I needed my parents to know that they were the reason that I succeeded.”
She didn’t tell anyone that she intended to sign a portion her speech. Except for her sister Georgianna, whom she called up for a quick ASL tutorial. “She had studied deaf education,” Fletcher said. “And at that time there was a great debate about sign language, because ASL is more symbolic than verbatim spoken English. You mainly use the nouns and verbs in a sentence, but as a result a lot of deaf people would have a full education but they would lack the ability to write proper English.”
Fletcher’s sister told her that she should use a version of ASL that would be understood as perfect English. “So instead of saying, ‘I want thank mother father,’ she coached me on how to sign all the little words in between. There were no camera phones back then, so it took awhile for her to explain everything to me.”
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next” won five Oscars that night, for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay. Only “It Happened One Night” and “The Silence of the Lambs” have achieved the same sweep. In Alabama, R.C. and Estelle Fletcher were watching the show on TV.
“The local ABC affiliate went to their house with a camera crew,” Fletcher said with a laugh, “and of course my parents just opened the door and let them to come in. So I got to see a video of them watching me on television when I won. I saw their reaction in the moment, which was such a wonderful thing. They were so moved and so proud.”
Fletcher’s father died at the age of 87 in 1988. His death was reported in major newspapers, which wrote of his trailblazing work in founding congregations for the deaf. Her mother died six years later, at the age of 91. Fletcher is close with her two sons. They were texting their mom on a group thread, in fact, during TheWrap’s interview.
And though she has continued to act in films and on television (“Flowers in the Attic,” “Picket Fences,” “Shameless”), she’ll always be identified for her performance as Ratched. She still receives loads of fan mail, from Russia and China and Greenland. Some people send her photos of the most intense moments in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” like when Ratched is being strangled by McMurphy, for her to sign. She obliges.
Her Oscar speech has a legacy all its own as well, especially this year, with the deaf-community drama “Sound of Metal” in the thick of the race and major heat for this year’s Sundance hit “CODA,” a coming-of-age drama about the daughter of deaf parents. Perhaps because of the juxtaposition of such a sincere, lovely sentiment being delivered by the embodiment of a classic movie villain, or just the sheer unexpectedness of it, Fletcher’s onstage moment still resonates.
Fletcher said she’s touched when people, still to this day, recall the speech. “I didn’t actually think I would get a chance (to be onstage),” she said, “but I knew I wanted do it the right way if I did win. It was actually very simple. I wanted my parents to know they gave me the kind of love that every child should have. The luckiest day of my life was when I was born as their daughter.”