Let me just say this first—Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is absolutely mesmerizing. His astonishing portrayal of R.P. McMurphy is a reason One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest stays with you long afterwards.
Nurse Ratched, the character that actress Louise Fletcher made bigger than the movie itself, is another reason this movie stays long in your mind. I knew Nurse Ratched by fictional reputation even though I had not the pleasure of viewing Milos Forman’s outstanding movie until recently. Variations of Nurse Ratched often appear at costume parties where, more often than not, she is grossly misrepresented as a nurse version of Michael Myers of Halloween, a horror movie. It is for this reason that I envisioned Nurse Ratched as an ax-wielding nurse spreading terror among her patients.
Fun with Nurse Ratched at Shepherd Center
Many years ago, during a brief stint as Research Assistant at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, my co-workers and I helped to organize a mild Haunted House party for the patients on Halloween. Shepherd Center being a rehabilitation hospital, a Nurse Ratched-like character seemed a necessity for the haunted house. And, indeed, that role landed on me.
For the costume, I prevailed upon the OK Cafe for help, where waitresses wear uniforms that are startlingly like nurses’ of long ago. With that uniform, and a little makeup, I playfully terrorized the Shepherd Center patients.
Mind you, at the time I had not yet seen One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Otherwise, I might have adjusted my act to reflect a chillingly calm character devoid of real emotion. On the surface, the movie character Nurse Ratched, head of the psychiatric ward, appears to take her job seriously by running a tight ship and enforcing rules. In the early scenes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I wondered what was so bad about her.
Not a drop of humanity in Nurse Ratched
However, the close-up cinematography helps the viewer gradually realize that there is something sinister under the surface of Nurse Ratched’s unruffled demeanor. While from scene to scene, we the viewers are touched by the genuine compassion for one another expressed by the mentally ill patients, in contrast, there is not a drop of humanity in Nurse Ratched. Evil is often defined as the absence of caring and lack of remorse. In this case, Nurse Ratched demonstrates evil in its most subtle form.
Viewers are all too familiar with what is taking place. We can empathize with R.P. McMurphy when he makes an appeal to watch the World Series game on TV because we know that Nurse Ratched is not going to show mercy. We are also aware that Nurse Ratched is intentionally humiliating the character Billy at the end of the party scene. We recognize it because each one of us has encountered this kind of evil in varying degrees. We have come face to face with people who do not care in the least bit about us, and even derive pleasure from putting us down or seeing us fail. We all have had to deal with people who refuse to be flexible to make things easier for us. We have experienced the intense frustration that comes with powerlessness in such situations. The character of Nurse Ratched embodies the evil that is real in our world.
The character of R.P. McMurphy represents the effort to fight evil with all that is good in life—positivity, companionship, humor, and love of living. (Nevermind that this fictional character is confined for raping a 15 year-old girl.) McMurphy stirs the pot, shakes things up, rocks the boat, and challenges Nurse Ratched’s iron-fisted control in the psychiatric ward. This discombobulates Nurse Ratched, and releases the evil lurking beneath her pristine white uniform with a silent, yet raging vengeance.
Evil at a local hospital and the best judge of character
Recently, I have made several trips to medical records at a local hospital. Most of the time, a gentleman is there who understands that these records are needed for important purposes, and procures them quickly (under 5 minutes) in a friendly manner. One time, however, I was surprised when I did not see him at his post; and further, I knew my errand was not going to be easy upon introducing myself to the woman who replaced him. She appeared to visibly resent my presence, sent me out to the hall to fill out a half-page form, said it would take 12-14 business days to get documents she could easily print on the spot. There were no smiles during our encounter. Like Nurse Ratched, this woman appeared to be following rules and doing her job. Yet, the encounter was eerily similar to Nurse Ratched’s insistence that R.P. McMurphy’s nine votes to watch the World Series did not count because there were a greater number of mentally unaware patients who could not participate in the vote.
I asked this woman if she could print just one document and she refused. I returned to medical records two days later and was rewarded for the extra trip. The man was back on duty and I was in and out with the document in hand within the usual five minutes. No need to wait 12-14 business days. Some might call that laziness on the woman’s part; some might say, “She just didn’t care;” and some might mark it off as bad customer service. It may be harsh, but I’m going to say that it was a small dose of evil right there. What would happen if every employee acted like this woman?
I believe that the best judge of character is the behavior of a person when in power, whether it be a CEO of a major corporation or a clerk in medical records. Just watch how this person treats people who need something from her but who will never be in a position to elevate her. When no one else is watching, mark whether she actually takes the time to genuinely attempt to help. You will know.
Meanwhile, Nurse Ratched’s evil character preceded her
Right after completing my haunted house duties back at Shepherd Center, I had reported to my 2nd job as Captioning Assistant at the 11Alive news station . I entered 11Alive Newsroom in full costume and immediately attracted the attention of reporters, journalists, and even then-anchor Kimberley Kennedy, who got out her makeup kit to enhance my costume. Whether or not they had seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, they all recognized the movie icon, Nurse Ratched. She is universal because she is a fictional representative of something that is very real. I believe such characters give us a way to cope with that fact. Embellishment is sometimes used to make Nurse Ratched sound scarier, but I think with her two-horned hairstyle, ice-cold blue eyes, and sinister lips, she is scary enough.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is essentially about the fight between good and evil in the unlikely setting of a psychiatric ward in a mental hospital. Good ultimately wins when Bromden lifts the hydrotherapy console, uses it to break down the confining walls, and walks out to his freedom. Evil never stood a chance once R.P. McMurphy came face to face with Nurse Ratched.
Zaentz, S., & Douglas, M. (Producers), & Forman, M. (Director). (1975). One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest [Motion picture]. USA: United Artists.