On the new Netflix series Ratched, Sarah Paulson takes on the role of Nurse Ratched, but she’s not the only actress to play the part. The character was first introduced in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The book was adapted into a Broadway play in 1963, and became a major motion picture in 1975. Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky created the Netflix series, which is a prequel to the events of the film, focusing on the WWII nurse’s early days at a Northern California psychiatric hospital.
The events of Kesey’s novel take place at an Oregon psychiatric hospital. The time Kesey spent working at the Menlo Park Veterans Hospital and as a test subject for experiments involving LSD and other hallucinogenics served as his inspiration. The narrative centers around the antagonistic relationship around a rebellious patient, Randle Patrick McMurphy, and Nurse Ratched (also known as “Big Nurse”), who oversees the ward with an iron fist. McMurphy is a convict who fakes insanity to serve out his sentence at the hospital instead of a work farm. McMurphy recruits other patients in his efforts to undermine Nurse Ratched, with tragic consequences.
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In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, Kesey said Nurse Ratched was based on the head nurse of the psychiatric ward where he worked. Paulson, who also serves as an executive producer (the multi-faceted Paulson also directed an episode of American Horror Story), is the latest actress to tackle the role of the iconic villain. Several other actresses have portrayed her in stage productions, on the big screen, and on a long-running television series.
In 1975, Milos Foreman (Amadeus, The People vs. Larry Flynt) directed the movie adaptation of Kesey’s book. Jack Nicholson stars as McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched. Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Page, and Angela Lansbury all turned down the role before Foreman cast Fletcher, who lobbied six months for the role. In a 1997 interview, Foreman called Nurse Ratched an “instrument of evil.” In an interview with Vanity Fair, Fletcher said of her character, “They’re in this ward, she’s looking out for them, and they have to act like they’re happy to get this medication or listen to this music. And make her feel good about the way she is.” In the book, Ratched doesn’t have a first name, and it’s Fletcher who came up with Mildred.
Amid all the yelling and screaming, Fletcher’s Ratched manages to be an imposing presence despite rarely raising her voice. She’s cold, unyielding, disapproving, and when challenged, her retribution is swift. She knows McMurphy isn’t crazy, but she uses her considerable influence to make sure he remains committed. Ratched is less interested in rehabilitation than retaliation, using the patients’ weaknesses against them when it suits her. A reviewer for THR stated, “Fletcher gives a human dimension to this inhuman creature that makes the characterization frighteningly real and true.”
Fletcher won an Oscar for Best Actress, and Nurse Ratched is considered to be the role that defined her career. AFI named Nurse Ratched the fifth-greatest villain in film history in their “100 Years … 100 Heroes & Villains.” Following her star-making turn in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fletcher was either passed over for or turned down roles in Terms of Endearment, Norma Rae, and Carrie. She appears in the films Flowers in the Attic, Blue Steel, The Player, and Cruel Intentions.
The stage adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest made its Broadway debut on November 13, 1963. Actor Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) played McMurphy, and Joan Tetzel starred as Nurse Ratched. The play was considered a flop, closing just over two months after it premiered. Douglas retained the stage rights, and spent years trying to secure financing for a film version. He eventually handed over the rights to his son, actor Michael Douglas (Wall Street), who produced the movie.
Tetzel began her career on radio. In 1947 she appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Paradine Case, alongside Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, and Charles Laughton. Her other films include Duel in the Sun, Hell Below Zero, and The File on Thelma Jordan. Tetzel was an accomplished stage actress. Before playing Nurse Ratched, Tetzel’s Broadway credits included the original production of I Remember Mama, The Winner, Red Gloves, Strange Bedfellows, Peepshow, and Harriet, among many others. Her picture appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in February 1948. During the early ’70s, Tetzel appeared on the London stage, and had a recurring role on the TV show, Policewoman.
In 2001, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company staged a revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Gary Sinise (Forrest Gump) played McMurphy, and Amy Morton made her Broadway debut as Nurse Ratched. UPI gave the overall production a rave review, but skewered Morton’s performance. “Morton, a tall and not unattractive blonde, is every bit as asexual in the role but is unable to give it much dimension. She plays it too unflappably, without any visible reaction to the threat to her authority represented by McMurphy.” The production won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, and Sinise was nominated for Best Actor in a Play.
Morton received two Tony nominations for her work in August: Osage County in 2008 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 20013. Her film credits include Up in the Air, 8mm, and Falling Down. Her television appearances include Homeland, Private Practice, ER, Blue Bloods, and Girls. She currently stars in Chicago P.D. as Trudy Platt.
Ingrid Torrance portrays Nurse Ratched (also known as Severe Nurse) on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. The character makes her debut on season 1, episode 12, “Skin Deep.” Her inclusion among the multitude of beloved fairy tale characters serves no purpose other than she oversees the town’s asylum. Torrance’s Nurse Ratched is a diluted version of Fletcher’s, and this small-screen perversion of Fletcher’s heartless authoritarian is nothing more than a cranky babysitter. Torrance has worked steadily in television with roles on The Killing, Supernatural, The Tomorrow People, and The Good Wife.
Sarah Paulson has played multiple characters on American Horror Story, and Ratched feels like another installment of the popular horror franchise. The origin story borrows from the source material in name only, which raises the question of why Murphy set his sights on the famed villain at all. Murphy told Vanity Fair:
“I feel like Nurse Ratched is sort of a shorthand for barbarism. She became almost like a catchphrase for any sort of institutional abuse of power. What was interesting was trying to create an emotional character from a reputation that’s very cold…trying to figure out every little detail about her childhood, her relationships, her sexuality. Because when people think of Ratched, they think of her as shutoff and cruel and uncaring.”
Kesey’s intention with Nurse Ratched was to show how even the smallest bit of power can corrupt a person. Some may consider her to be a monster in a hyperbolic sense, but Paulson is the real thing. Fletcher, whose understated performance iconized the character, never viewed Ratched as “pathological.” In a recent interview with HuffPost, Fletcher stated, “All I can say is, every single day we were on that set, Miloš Forman emphasized natural behavior. He didn’t want mental illness to be part of the villain.”
This wayward interpretation doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to enjoy Paulson’s performance as a sinister and manipulative angel of mercy. Like all of Ryan Murphy’s projects, the aesthetic is highly-stylized; one word to describe Ratched is sumptuous. It’s a feast for the eyes: from the bright red lipstick that all the nurses wear to the breathtaking vistas to Nurse Ratched’s place of employment. It’s more reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in its heyday than a mental hospital. It also contains the copious amount of sex and gore that are Murphy trademarks. Sadly, it isn’t an origin story because Ratched‘s splashy, glamorized version of the character strays so far from the counterculture novel and Foreman’s bleak drama. It’s impossible to connect the dots.
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