As portrayed by Louise Fletcher in her Oscar winning performance, Nurse Ratched positively oozes asexuality in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”. An unmarried woman aged well into her thirties (her hospital name tag title is “Miss”), Nurse Ratched’s sexually barren nature does not seem confined to herself, she seemingly discourages feelings of sexual intimacy in others: near the end of the movie, when Billy is caught out with Candy, McMurphy’s lady friend, Nurse Ratched skittles any feelings of new-found manhood in Billy by threatening to tell Billy’s mother about what he’s done (the whole “mother” thing always seemed somewhat vague). The hospital is a sterile, soul-destroying environment, strictly regimented by Nurse Ratched, so when sexual conduct is introduced into the building, it turns out to be the final straw for Nurse Ratched. She seems to be indignated by this sort of misconduct in more than a “professional” manner.
However, as I watched the film again last evening, I noticed when Nurse Ratched turns up for work at the beginning of the film, after being greeted by several male employees, she encounters the rather cute, much younger Nurse Pilbow in the office. Upon exchanging pleasantries with Nurse Pibow, Nurse Ratched shows more warmth than at any other point in the film, gives a rare unforced smile (her care for the patients seems so phoney), and (watch closely) treats herself to a good old leer at Pilbow’s ass. Think I’m kidding? Take a look for yourself (and note the VERY friendly tone of voice she uses when greeting Pilbow).
So my question now is this: is Mildred Ratched an unfeeling asexual, or is she in fact a man-hating lesbian who relishes wielding such authority over her all-male inmates? I saw throughout the film, Nurse Pilbow is like a little doe-eyed pet sitting next to Nurse Ratched. Also note the scene where McMurphy asks Pilbow what’s in the medicine, followed by McMurphy making lewd sexual overtones at Pilbow (who is clearly shaken by McMurphy’s sexually suggestive behaviour). It seems as if all the women in the hospital are repulsed by anything resembling heterosexual behaviour. Not even poor old Scatman Crothers could get lucky in that joint.
Between this film and “The Shining”, I really think Scatman should have considered careers that would’ve brought him in closer contact with the female of the species. Working inside the nuthouse and toiling as a chef inside a haunted hotel just aren’t the best ways to meet chicks.
Perhaps some of you who have read the book could provide insight as to whether Ken Kesey featured such elements in his novel, or whether these aspects were manifested only in Milos Forman’s film adaptation.
Second only to Princess Leia as best hairstyle in a 70s film.
I always felt that Ratched hadn’t yet realized that she was a lesbian … but I could very easily be reading into it. I think a lot of the cinematic interpretation of Ratched’s character goes to Louise Fletcher (who apparently embodied her character so fully that the actors actually felt intimidated and rather avoided her for awhile off-set), because the novel doesn’t really say anything concrete beyond what’s expressed in the film – regarding Ratched’s sexuality at least. Of course, McMurphy makes predictable commentary on Ratched (which is great), but you never really find out definitely.
One thing I think it’s important to note is that Ratched is not a hypocrite. Everything she admonishes and subtlely intimates throughout the couse of the novel/film is wholeheartedly believed (rather like a kind of “militant methodist” perspective – it’s the way she chastises with words and implications that gives me this impression), so this is also why I tend to think that she wasn’t (yet) a lesbian – because it would be something she would feel repulsed by … however, I think perhaps her realization of such attractions might actually begin her on the road of becoming less of a bitch and more tolerant and understanding of others different from herself. A lot of this is speculation on my part, so perhaps this paragraph can be disregarded.
In the novel, the “Chief” is the protagonist who is narrating the story and McMurphy’s actions are simply reported by the Chief, so I thought it was interesting that the film kind of put the Chief in the background for a lot of the film – it makes the ending a little more impacting IMO (was it shown in the film that the Chief was given electroshock therapy? I forget). One major difference between the novel and the film is that when Ratched returns from her injuries (caused by McMurphy’s attempt to strangle her), she is unable to talk. In the film she’s just a little hoarse, but I liked the novel’s decision to rob her of her only weapon. Another major difference was that, in the novel, the Chief is practically alone in the ward when McMurphy is returned from the lobotamy ward, which prompts the Chief to suffocate him before the other “inmates” could see him “defeated” (as the Chief puts it). I liked this better as well, but it’s a minor detail I suppose.
“It seems as if all the women in the hospital are repulsed by anything resembling heterosexual behaviour.”
I think it was such things as chronic masturbation and impulsive dancing that they found rather off-putting. I can’t say I blame them, I mean, of course these people can’t help it because of their condition, but yeah, who would want to get lucky in such a joint?
Anyway, I thought the film adaptation of the novel is one of the best ever (“It’s like .. the best ever!” – you know what I mean). The few things it does change (or rather deemphasize/emphasize) is really better suited to the cinematic medium. I’m a big fan of the film and feel it deserves every accolade that it can be given … of course, that’s not what this discussion is about, but I thought I’d throw that out there.
Btw, didn’t Scatman’s character in Coonskin get a few chicks?
Chief is not shown receiving electro-shock during the film.
You said, in the novel, Chief takes care of McMurphy when the ward is practically empty, so the inmates never realise McMurphy has been “deafeated”. However, in the film, the inmates don’t know that McMurphy is defeated, either. There’s a rumour floating about, but Taber (Christopher Lloyd) doesn’t buy it. When Chief throws the fountain through the window, Taber yells “THEY made it!” (my emphasis), and everyone else follows along in this belief.
As for Nurse Mildred Ratched, if she is a lesbian, I think she realised it long ago.
If anyone in the film could have yet-to-be-realised sapphic tendencies, it’s Pilbow. She’s like the “straight-looking” little kitten that predatory lesbians like to “recruit”, and it’s almost as if she clings close to Ratched’s side because she’d be lost in the nuthouse without her. Pilbow has typically feminine traits (panics and intimidates easily), whereas Ratched is nigh unflappable until McMurphy decides to readjust her collar size. One could perhaps even read a link between pent-up sexuality and violent release into the scene where McMurphy chokes Nurse Ratched—it’s probably the most “intimate” she’s ever been with a man.
Princess Leia’s hairstyle couldn’t top this one (and yes, Blake Edwards’ “10” is a 1970s film)…
Jane Fonda’s “Klute” shag is also hard to match…amazing how many women (and men) ape this (badly) nowadays…
“However, in the film, the inmates don’t know that McMurphy is defeated, either.”
Ah, my memory’s faulty then, my bad. Still though, I remembered the cheering and that seemed a little too Hollywood for my tastes … anyway, I’m side-tracking the subject.
“One could perhaps even read a link between pent-up sexuality and violent release into the scene where McMurphy chokes Nurse Ratched—it’s probably the most “intimate” she’s ever been with a man.”
Heh, that could very well be true.
Yeah, if you look at the position McMurphy takes atop Mildred, it looks like he’s mounting her. She might have enjoyed it if she’d been able to breathe. It’s definitely one of the most cathartic scenes I’ve experienced—Nurse Ratched really showed what an inhumane so-and-so she was with her treatment of Billy.
Interesting point, Mark, but keeping with the institutional nature of the theme, I believe Ratched’s friendliness with her coworker implies a segregation from equal regard for the feelings of the sane and insane, and how even the people who treat you nicely in the real world can also be regarded as monsters for how they treat others not like you.
Nurse Ratched does not extend QUITE the same friendliness to Washington and company as she does to Nurse Pilbow. It’s in the tone of her voice, how she smiles and the way she checks out Pilbow’s can.
how even the people who treat you nicely in the real world can also be regarded as monsters for how they treat others not like you
Stalin was great father….
Why is Nurse Ratched’s sexuality important at all?
One of the ways the novel fails (as an interpretation of the film) is that it tries to interpret the novel literally. In the novel, we’re locked into the POV of Chief Bromden, who’s prone to hallucinations and delusions. The Chief’s perceptions are often colored by these hallucination and delusions, and often these are meant to be read metaphorically rather than literally—“the combine” and “the fog machine,” for example. In the novel, Ratched is sometimes referred to as “Big Nurse,” which is an allusion to Orwell’s Big Brother, and at seems she appears to be mechanical: the Chief describes her as growing to the size of a truck, and says he can smell the machinery inside her working. At the same time, you get her described as being large-breasted, which she attempts to conceal beneath the heavily starched white nurses uniform (and are later exposed when McMurtry tries to strangle her).
With that as preface, in the novel it’s pretty clear that she’s intended to represent social forces of control/repression (“ball-cutter,” in McMurtry’s parlance) more than she is a realistic woman. The film, by removing much of the subjectivity of the Chief’s POV in favor of a more objective camera, forces you to confront the characters on more realistic terms, and I suppose it opens up questions like this. My recollection of the film is not very fresh, Mark, so I can’t comment on your interpretation.
Well put, Matt. Bromden’s narration is classic ‘unreliable narrator’ syndrome. It would’ve been a very different film if the novel was adapted unchanged.
But it’s one of those cases where “less is more” IMO, in regards to the novel. By solidifying the Chief’s questionable interpretations of events (because of his history of delusions, as Matt mentioned), the film becomes more focused on the theme itself rather than that other facet of the novel which deals with Chief’s hallucinations and that kind of “sub-plot” of the unreliable narrator (is everything he’s describing actually happening in reality or is his viewpoint distorted?).
The film then becomes a kind of fairy tale portrayed in realistic terms, which I found to be such a great way to still maintain that underlying theme of control/repression (well, in the novel, it’s not ‘underlying’ at all, but very much in the forefront, as Matt said, such descriptions as “the combine” are constantly being used throughout the novel) and at the same time not just be “copying” the book to film medium. Anyway, you bring up a great point, Matt.
D.L.B., why is anything about any character in a film important? It’s as good a subject as any, a starting point to tap into Nurse Ratched’s psyche, especially since she deals with a nearly all-male environment and an apparent sex maniac in McMurphy (relatively speaking). It just seems to me it’s strongly suggested she’s sexually sterile—I don’t think many film characters have been asexual, so it’s intriguing—yet upon rewatching the film there seemed to be lesbian subtext in the way Nurse Ratched first greets Pilbow. Plus I hoped to draw out people’s thoughts about the novel. That said, can anyone give a deeper explanation of the whole thing about Billy’s mother? Was this some sort of hallucination on Billy’s part? Did he even know his own mother? Is this explained in the book? I believe I have a hand-me-down copy sitting around somewhere, I must dig it up someday.
I’m not sure what you’re asking exactly, Mark. Do you mean what is wrong with Billy that causes him to be child-like and afraid of his mother? Rather than a literal mental illness, I would say Kesey’s intent was to dramatize the Freudian concept of castration desire: “the desire to lose the penis to strengthen identification with the mother, to deny difference and thereby maintain the phantasy of fusion. Castration desire is therefore linked to the regressive part of the personality that seeks to avoid differentiation . . . castration anxiety is seen as a later development that actively promotes separation and individuation from the mother.” Does that help?
@ MARK D VANSELOW
She’s gay because she’s a tough nurse?
I read the book and watched the film a few months ago, in quick succession so the lines between the two are a little blurry.
I think Billy’s illness is more a result of him being a victim of other people’s illnesses. He is thirty-one years old and has never been allowed to mature. His mother is the one with the issue, not wanting her baby boy to become a man, for whatever number of possible reasons, and preventing his growth through oppression and repression.
Nurse Ratched is an accomplice in keeping Billy in a perpetual state of adolescence. Her issue is that she needs to be in control—of everything. Her desire in the ward is not to actually help any of the men get better, but to simply keep them under her rule. If there weren’t sick men in her care, there would be no reason for her to be. She and Billy’s mother are close friends and Nurse Ratched uses her position to keep Billy in check, both as a favor to Billy’s mother and because it is in line with her desires. Billy is a voluntary patient. In order to keep him from growing, his mother has convinced him he is sick and he is checked in to the ward where Nurse Ratched is better able to keep Billy repressed, using her relationship with his mother to manipulate him with guilt.
Throughout the story, McMurphpy’s antics help the men progress in their own ways, to assert themselves and to free themselves from the psychological oppression. This of course upsets Ratched. Once Billy loses his virginity he finally becomes a man in a way. He is more self-assured as a result and even loses his stutter. Ratched uses guilt, reminding him of his mother and questioning what she would think of him now. It works—too well. Billy has tasted the freedom, was reigned back in, knew he couldn’t return once he had been freed, and knew of only one escape route.
Nurse Ratched is a very feminine figure, physically. In the novel the men debate her sexuality. They can tell she has a remarkable body, but could any of them imagine actually having sex with her? I’ve always tended to think of her as asexual. Regardless, she does repress her sexuality. If it’s to repress some sort of latent lesbianism, that’s a possibility. Any such undertones in the movie I see as more a mark of misandry, her deep-seated hatred of men, and just being more congenial to women in general as a result. But that don’t mean she ain’t a dyke, I s’pose. I think what really causes her to repress her sexuality is as a means to maintain her domination. If the men saw her as a sexual being, she would lose some of her power and control over them, something that can’t be compromised at any expense. In the novel, when her breasts are exposed in the altercation with McMurphy, her sexuality is exposed and that is part of her downfall.
I think the film and the book are both great. This is one odd occurrence where the novel and the film differ significantly but neither one suffers greatly for it. Really, in this case, it’s hard for me to say one is better than the other. I think they compliment each other very well and are made better as a result of the other. The novel has more depth and reading it can bring a fuller understanding to the film, and the film brings these characters to life better than many film adaptations do. Somewhere I had read a debate about just how evil of a villain Nurse Ratched was. For those who saw only the film, people were not quite as convinced. To read the novel, there is little to doubt the insidious power and control she wields, not only over the patients but the staff and administration. In the novel Nurse Ratched’s character seems even more insidious when recalling Louise Fletcher’s icy stare and cold manner. Same for McMurphy, the novel gives him more depth, but reading the novel is so much better when he has Nicholson’s voice and animation.
I think what David Lincoln Brooks and I are both saying, Mark, is that Nurse Ratched’s sexuality does not effect the themes of the movie either way. The director may have included your peep scene (which, if I had my copy with me, I’d review to see what you were talking about, but it’s halfway across the world now) as a little nod to his interpretation of Ratched’s motivation for being Ratched, so certainly an reading can BE there, but the thing is, the idea is not fully developed or framed throughout the rest of the movie. To sit as a consistent theme, it must be returned to.
I bought my copy of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” second hand, so maybe I have your old copy that is “halfway around the world”!
I never suggested what you proposed. Now you’re assuming as to what I’m assuming. If anything I’d say she’s asexual and this adds another layer to her character (sterile, killjoy, repressed), but after seeing her leer at Pilbow, I had to ask if she was in fact a lesbian. I’ve yet to read the book, plus I want to know what others think. I’m just offering my interpretation.
And I don’t think she is tough at all, I think Mildred is actually quite manipulative and a bully, signs of weakness. If she were compassionate and not so separated from the concept of being a human being, she’d be tough.
If you must know, D.L.B., in my own life experience, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of cowardly lesbians. I do not correlate strength in women, physical, emotional or otherwise, to an abscence of heterosexuality. Case in point, the lovely Ms. Sheila Bleck…
But I digress.
McMurphy is the toughest person in the film, because he could have easily jumped out the window and fled with his gal pals to Canada, but stays behind out of concern for Billy.
I’m just wondering if Nurse Ratched really IS “old friends” with Billy’s mother, or just says this to petrify him, perhaps knowing that Billy has the problem you have so clearly illustrated. I’m not saying I don’t “get” this complex, I understood what Nurse Ratched was getting at with her comments, but it also seems like she (possibly) is bluffing…Billy’s mother could be dead for all we know, for all BILLY knows…“Mother” could just represent something else entirely. I accept your explanation, it’s just another topic in itself.
In thinking about this particular question, I am reminded of David Mamet’s conviction:
Mamet actually believes that an actor’s role is to come out onstage……..and speak his lines, the lines the playwright wrote. Period.
In other words, he does not believe in the Stanislavskian idea that an actor needs to construct a detailed “backstory” on his character, nor does the actor need to use memory and imagination to “feel in the moment”, Strasberg-style, what the character is feeling!
As a trained actor in my 20’s, I was horrified at Mamet’s statements here, because I so believed that the good actor needed to immerse himself in every soup of his character’s situation.
Now—— believe it or not————— now that I am in my late-40’s, let’s just say I might be “coming around” to Mamet’s conviction.
Why? Within film studies, there is that hugely important study by the Russian Kuleshov. Because some MUBI readers here (which ones??) might not be familiar with the experiment, I reprint it here:
In the 1910s and 1920s, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a series of famous experiments that helped express the role of editing in films. In these experiments, he would show a man with an expressionless face, then cut to various other shots. In one example, he showed the expressionless face, then cut to a bowl of soup. When prompted, audiences would claim that they found that the man was hungry. Kuleshov then took the exact same footage of the expressionless face and cut to a pretty girl. This time, audiences reported that the man was in love. Another experiment alternated between the expressionless face and a coffin, a juxtaposition that lead audiences to believe that the man was stricken with grief. This phenomenon has become known as the Kuleshov Effect.
In other words, the viewer is always projecting his own “stuff” onto whatever he sees onscreen. He is even projecting, this experiment suggests, stuff into the film that might not concretely be there, strictly speaking.
I just got through re-watching CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. There is that wonderful scene in the poolhouse in which Martin Landau and Jerry Orbach are discussing the murder of Landau’s mistress (Anjelica Huston). The subject matter is direly important—- cold-blooded murder!—- yet Landau and Orbach simply recite their lines with no visible facial affect.
Do I “get” the horror of that scene? You bet I do. Would the scene have been improved had Landau and Orbach emoted with great passion and physicality their “emotions”? I now perceive that no, it would not have been.
It really is true, as Mamet suggests, that an actor’s first role is simply to come out onstage……… and speak his lines, the lines that the playwright wrote.
All this is my long-winded way of suggesting that Nurse Ratched’s sexuality——— unless it is explicitly revealed in the screenplay——— is of no importance. It’s what she (Fletcher) does with her body and spoken lines that make the only bit of difference…
-I’m just wondering if Nurse Ratched really IS “old friends” with Billy’s mother, or just says this to petrify him, perhaps knowing that Billy has the problem you have so clearly illustrated. I’m not saying I don’t “get” this complex, I understood what Nurse Ratched was getting at with her comments, but it also seems like she (possibly) is bluffing…Billy’s mother could be dead for all we know, for all BILLY knows…“Mother” could just represent something else entirely. I accept your explanation, it’s just another topic in itself-
Gotcha. It is ambiguous in the film, isn’t it? And, as far as I recall, she doesn’t appear in the novel, either, so I’m not sure if what Ratched tells Billy is necessarily true or if it’s just a tool she uses to keep him under control.
Interesting you bring up Mametian vs. “method” acting re: backstory. In one of his biographies, Nicholson is quoted as saying that his take on McMurphy (which he discussed with Fletcher preparing for their scenes together) is that his “tragic flaw” is that he thinks he can seduce ANY woman, thus his downfall when he encounters Ratched.
Billy’s mother does exist. It’s much clearer in the novel. My memory is a little fuzzy, but from what I recall, Mrs. Bibbit and Nurse Ratched are long-time friends, I think even neighbors, so Billy has probably known Nurse Ratched since he was very young.
Billy’s issues stem from his mother’s insecurities. I don’t remember if it is through a memory or a visit paid by his mother where Billy reminds her of his age and her response is something along the lines of, “Do I look like the mother of a thirty-one year old man?” Her efforts, with Nurse Ratched’s help, to keep Billy from becoming an adult is her fear of getting old, and remaining young by keeping her son a child.
Ratched’s horribleness extends beyond the confines of the ward. Someone mentioned her being manipulative and bully as a sign of weakness is true. She needs to wield power over others in order to feel better about herself. There is a story about her delivering a food package to needy neighbors. On the surface it is an act of charity, but beneath it was the feeling she wasn’t doing it out of generosity but to have others indebted to her. I don’t remember the specifics, but I remember reading that and thinking how awful it would be the people on the receiving end of her gift: to accept it would be to feel belittled in some way, and to turn it down would be ungrateful. Either way, she held the upper hand.