What makes Nurse Ratched such an amazing villain? How could you construct a similar character?
You have probably been hearing a lot about Nurse Ratched these days. That's because there's a new Netflix miniseries from Ryan Murphy that builds out a backstory for the infamous character from the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Now, did we need this backstory? Some say no. I am personally a big fan of the original movie and have been keeping an eye on the reviews for the Netflix take. (Uh, they're pretty bad. Like, bad.) Either way, I felt like it was a perfect time to reexamine the film, and in particular its iconic villain. The role landed Louise Fletcher a Best Actress Oscar, after all.
Luckily, The Vile Eye put together an awesome video essay examining multiple elements of Nurse Ratched's character and Fletcher's performance, digging deep into what makes her so evil and so fun to watch.
Check out the analysis below, then dive into the key takeaways!
Put your characters in a world
Nurse Ratched keeps an iron grip on the way the psych ward runs. She has a tidy little world and a preferred way of functioning and makes sure things run exactly the way she wants under the guise of "what's best for the patients" and the ward's bureaucratic structure. She has found a place of power, and she'll do whatever she must to protect it. Defiance must be quashed—quietly, and with the tools available to her in the world she's created.
As a screenwriter, you're attempting to create an entire human being on the page. Of course, you hope an actor will bring a lot of their own insights as well, but you want to build a strong foundation for their performance.
One way to do that is to consider how your character moves through the world. How do they view other people? How do they treat other people? Even the smallest interactions can reveal key aspects of their personality.
Let's consider Nurse Ratched. She instills fear into her patients from the very beginning, but a first-time viewer might not know how to parse her quiet, icy demeanor and the nervous tics of the ward residents. But if you watch closely, the characters clam up around her. They avoid her gaze, while she stares them down.
McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a bit more forward and outgoing, unaware he should fear her. This results in Ratched speaking down to him as if he is a child, with forced patience, trying to put him in his place within her tidy world.
Know their motivations
As we've established, Nurse Ratched has created a position of power within the ward. She has a clear idea of how people should behave and how her workplace should run, and if that is disturbed, it must be dealt with. This remains her motivation throughout the film.
That's why McMurphy's arrival is such a big disruption. She had an equilibrium before he came, and all of the patients under her thumb. He is someone who is loud, challenges her authority, questions her decisions, and tries (in her mind) to undermine her. He wants to watch the World Series, but that's not in Ratched's schedule. If he tries to work around her rules, she dismisses him through the use of semantics and treating him like a child.
The video illustrates this through the movie's therapy session sequences. McMurphy tries to hold a vote, and Ratched claims it's unfair as not everyone is casting a vote. Later, when McMurphy gets the majority with an additional vote, Ratched says it doesn't count because the meeting has ended. She then blasts the record player McMurphy hates so much, reasserting her control.
This is just excellent writing. Two characters acting as foils for each other can create some of the most compelling storytelling, even when their goals are somewhat small and mundane (baseball vs. talk therapy). How they express themselves and work toward these goals can stilll have massive effects on the world around them and other characters.
Give them a journey
This isn't something you always have to do, but journeys are compelling for a reason. It's exciting to see a character grow and adapt to their circumstances and emerge better (or worse) on the other side of a struggle.
In the case of Nurse Ratched, she does devolve slightly in the face of growing chaos within her ward. McMurphy doesn't back down. Other patients begin to challenge her.
She even has a chance to send the clearly sane McMurphy away at one point. But she doesn't, because she's been pushed to her limits, and now she's willing to go a step further and get revenge against him for disturbing her tidy little world. The audience doesn't know how far, until the end.
Her behavior changes. She's no longer always composed, chilly, and calm. She speaks through her teeth. Her face turns red. She raises her voice.
The last straw is the Christmas party, which infuriates her. She uses her orderlies to rough up the patients. She draws upon her patients' deepest secrets and darkest fears and uses it to trigger them, like when she threatens to tell Billy's (Brad Dourif) mother about his behavior. After he commits suicide, she simply insists that everyone goes on with their day. Order is more important to her than messy things like grief and death.
After this tragic death, McMurphy is ultimately lobotomized. But this means order is restored. Ratched wins, in a sense. Her calm psychological manipulation and mistreatment of the patients keep everyone in their place. Her iron grip on the ward remains, with no one left to challenge her.
Because we understand her place in this setting, and because we know what her motivations are, and have seen the arc she traveled to reach this point, she's a character who feels very real despite her lack of backstory or fuller character development. So maybe we didn't need Ryan Murphy's Ratched after all.
What's next? Explore more villains
Did you watch Ratched? What did you think? Does that portrayal measure up? Let us know in the comments!