Fletcher won a Best Actress Oscar for her role as a cruel nurse at an Oregon mental hospital, terrorizing her patients, including Randle McMurphy, played by actor Jack Nicholson. Will Sampson, Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd also played patients in the film.
The Milos Forman-directed film was adapted from the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey and won critical acclaim, winning Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay in 1976.
The story follows power tensions between McMurphy as he becomes the de facto rebel leader of the patients, defying the ruthless and cold authority of Nurse Ratched as she hands out harsh punishment.
“I loved being hated by you,” Fletcher told a crowd of stars as she received her Oscar.
Other actresses such as Ellen Burstyn and Angela Lansbury reportedly turned down the role, with Fletcher telling the press that they “probably didn’t want to appear so horrible on screen”.
Fletcher was in her 40s when cast in the film and relatively unknown – having struggled to land prominent roles in part because of her 5ft 10 height, meaning she was often taller. larger than its acting counterparts. She had also taken time out of her career to raise her two sons with the late producer Jerry Bick, whom she later divorced.
“I made the choice to quit working, but I didn’t see it as a choice,” she said in a 2004 interview quoted by The Associated Press. “I felt compelled to stay home.”
Her return role in 1974’s “Thieves Like Us” was scouted by director Forman who cast her as the freezing nurse who would define his career.
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Born Estelle Louise Fletcher on July 22, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama, she was the second of four children. Her parents were both deaf and in her Oscar acceptance speech she shocked the crowds when she took a moment to sign part of her speech to her parents.
“To my mom and dad, I want to say thank you for teaching me to dream,” she said. “You see my dream come true.”
A young Fletcher left home to study acting at the University of North Carolina. “I had decided what I wanted to do with my life,” she said in a 1977 interview with Ladies’ Home Journal. “I was totally determined.”
She then moved to Los Angeles, inspired by actress Ginger Rogers, to pursue her dream. She worked as a medical receptionist while taking acting classes. “I had a kind of blind courage at that time. Really blind,” she said.
Although she never gained the same prominence in future roles after playing Nurse Ratched, she continued to appear in ‘Mama Dracula’, ‘Exorcist II: The Heretic’ and ‘The Boy Who Could Fly’ as well. than in television shows such as “Joan of Arcadia” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”.