The following is an entirely subjective summary of Louise Fletcher's work. I have chosen to concentrate on material which is still widely available. If you would like to see Louise Fletcher's filmography, click here.
The film swept all the major Academy Awards. leading some commentators at the time to suggest that the relatively unknown Fletcher won her Oscar because of the momentum in a year without many strong roles for women. But in retrospect it seems obvious that the opposite was true: if Fletcher hadn't been so brilliant in Cuckoo's Nest, neither the script, the directing, nor Nicholson's acting would have had the impact they did. It's no accident that people conjure Nurse Ratched to evoke her personality type -- a tribute to the performance, since Big Nurse didn't share her name. Nurse Ratched placed fifth on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 all-time greatest movie villains, behind only The Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lechter, Psycho's Norman Bates, Star Wars' Darth Vader and The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West.
2) Kai Winn Adami on DEEP SPACE NINE
One of few memorable female villains in the 30-year-old Star Trek franchise, Winn antagonized nearly every regular on Deep Space Nine and proved an invaluable foil for both Captain Sisko and Major Kira as they struggled to accept their roles within Bajoran spiritual life. Winn's role was small but ultimately vital, providing a humorous contrast with rule-bound Starfleet characters, but also permitting a frightening glimpse at the unchecked megalomania of self-righteous religious figureheads.
Fletcher has marvelous chemistry with Avery Brooks, who often breaks typical Sisko form to play outrage against her quiet confidence. She also shines with Nana Visitor's Kira, condescendingly calling the younger woman "my child" while sabotaging her work and trying to destroy the men she loves. In the end, however, it is Fletcher's scenes with Marc Alaimo's Dukat that steal the show. Their twisted love story plays out against the backdrop of intergalactic war and offers a glimpse into the spiritual vacuum of a spiritual leader. It's sexy, shocking, and a lot of fun.
3) Dr. Lillian Reynolds in BRAINSTORM
Somewhere in a vault, someone must have the original script for Brainstorm -- the one that was overhauled (and nearly scrapped, along with the movie) when co-star Natalie Wood died in the middle of filming. I'm dying to see that original screenplay, because there are suggestions throughout this choppy, flamboyant film of complications and convolutions just beneath the surface. Wood and Christopher Walken's estranged partners get most of the press, but Fletcher's passionate scientist is much more interesting. Her finest moments come just after the best onscreen heart attack I've ever seen, when she flashes back through her life. She's also wonderful telling a bunch of military goons where they can stick there hardware.
Although Wood and Walken play lovers, there's a keen erotic undercurrent between his character and Fletcher's. Lillian Reynolds wears comfortable shoes and at one point makes a speech about how her work has always meant more to her than relationships, but Fletcher gives her an earthy physicality which complicates the formulaic career-woman cliche. There's also some jealous tension between Fletcher's and Wood's characters, marvelously understated since they work together and must get along no matter the personal cost. I'm not a fan of the overblown religious ending of this film, but until that point -- while Lillian and her work are the center of Brainstorm -- it's stunning.
4) Countess Elizabeth in MAMA DRACULA
Even if this movie were not hysterically funny, it would be worth seeing for Fletcher in all the fabulous clothes she gets to wear...not to mention her outrageous accent and killer fingernails. Mama Dracula is Fletcher's sexiest performance, though unfortunately she doesn't actually get to seduce anyone, unless luring a beautiful virgin bride for her sons counts. (I think it does, especially since Maria Schneider portrays the bride as having a swell time when Countess Dracula sprawls across her bed and takes her in her arms to tell the story of her secret past.)
The Countess is a centuries-old vampire who must bathe in the blood of virgins to rejuvenate. And bathe she does -- onscreen, with her sons, naked from the waist up though shot from the back. She also checks out attractive prospects who frequent her vampy clothing store, flirts with local law enforcement who could wreck her scheme, and discusses her problems with a harried therapist who is appalled to learn that she became a woman at age...well, too young to remember. The main plot concerns a scientist hired to manufacture virgin blood so the Countess can stop killing pretty girls, but the poor man keeps producing gold instead. It's a grand excuse to get Louise in feathers and very low necklines. I enjoyed Mama Dracula more than the classic lesbian vampire flick The Hunger, and that's saying a lot.
5) Dr. Gene Tuskin in EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC
It's fashionable to revile this movie as a dreadful sequel to a classic original. But Fletcher is the only standout in a big-name cast (Richard Burton, James Earl Jones), though it's hard to say whether their performances or the dreadful editing should be blamed for the film's mediocrity. Her Dr. Tuskin, originally written to be played by a man, is the only believable intelligent character in the film despite the pseudo-science she uses to incorporate hypnosis into her psychiatry. She's also the only character to pay lip service to the idea that demons may be psychological rather than physical, which makes a lot of sense in this film, given the sexual repression of the main characters.
If you can get past the kinkiness of the early scenes where Linda Blair's Regan gropes at Dr. Tuskin's chest to stop a demon from ripping the psychiatrist's heart out, the two actresses have a nice mother-daughter sort of chemistry. Fletcher and Burton are a lot of fun quarreling and discussing the hardships of their work (best exchange: "Don't you ever need a woman, Father?" "Yes.") It's hard to feel much for Regan and her priest after their over-the-top confrontation with Pazuzu, but it's easy to feel for single mom Gene Tuskin, who suffers through a car crash and a suicide in the final minutes of the film.
6) Marlene DuChard in THE CHEAP DETECTIVE
Fletcher plays Ilsa to Peter Falk's Rick in Neil Simon's send-up of Bogart movies. All the characters are dumpier than their classic counterparts, taking film noir staples to extremes - Madeline Kahn's Maltese Falcon-esque dame has two dozen names, for instance, and you don't want to know what she does to main character Lou Peckinpaugh's raincoat. Falk loses control when Fletcher enters a bar and the pianist starts to sing not "You must remember this..." but "Jeepers creepers, where'd you get those peepers."
The two have entertaining chemistry; Marlene's finest moment comes when she starts to describe all the sexual experiences she's had since Lou saw her last. Like Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, Fletcher must balance her character's wistfulness for an old lover with her committment to saving her husband...in this case, by helping him get a permit for a French restaurant. She's terrific, funny and touching at the same time, with an amused tolerance towards the half-dozen other women who demand her detective's attention. She also looks beautiful in the mock-'40s clothes and sepia-tone shadows.
7) Maureen in ISLANDS
An odd little film, barely an hour in length, it feels as though Islands must have lost a B-plot somewhere. Still, what's here is an engrossing story about two women who feel disconnected from the world - one because she gave up a child, the other because she has no knowledge of her birth parents. Only the older woman knows that she is the girl's birth mother, yet she cannot tell her when the girl is sent to spend the summer with her while the girl's frustrated parents travel abroad.
Maureen represents an interesting set of contradictions, but Fletcher weaves them into a believable, conflicted character. She lives as a hermit, yet wears her emotions on her sleeve. It is clear that she wants to reach out to the girl, and also that she doesn't know how - nor does she want to betray the girl's parents, old friends who took in her child when she lost her livelihood after getting pregnant years before. She shows some envy as well as protectiveness towards her wild child, whose overstated adolescent rebellion flabbergasts Maureen as well as her daughter's parents. When the two finally bond, the scene is very moving.
8) Dr. Nora Bloom on VR5
Sometimes I watch Louise Fletcher projects just because she's in them, but this short-lived series would be one of my favorites even without her. Lori Singer plays Sydney Bloom, who repairs telecommunication lines by day and escapes at night into the world of virtual reality. There she tries to come to terms with her father's drowning and her mother's drug-induced vegetative state while working for a sinister agency called The Committee, to which her father had unexplained ties. Though Nora exists in the real world staring unseeing into space, Sydney can reach her mother's consciousness through VR.
During her brief appearances, Fletcher plays extremes: while the comatose Nora remains vacant and expressionless, the virtual Nora comes in bright colors with a wide range of conflicting emotions. Unfortunately VR5 had just begun to explore her past job as a psychologist and scientist before the series was cancelled, so many of her scenes focus solely on her role as a wife and mother. But those are powerful, heartrending moments, and Fletcher and Singer are marvelous together, particularly when Sydney must choose between trying to reach her mother and trying to find out how much she really knew about Joseph Bloom's work.
9) Principal Evelyn Doyle in HIGH SCHOOL HIGH
An unexpected treat in an otherwise uneven film, Fletcher's mean principal first appears to be a caricature. She hits students with a baseball bat, threatens and curses at teachers, then demands the return of her imprisoned assistant from vicious school gangs. Like the gleefully nasty schoolteacher Fletcher played in Tobe Hooper's flimsy remake of Invaders From Mars, Principal Doyle's behavior creates a hilarious contrast with the overly serious main characters, played by an earnest Jon Lovitz and the charming Tia Carrere.
But in a twist I never saw coming, Fletcher turns out to be the true villain of High School High! And if she's funny as a kid-hating principal, she's even more so as the leader of a crime ring, trading insults with hardened thugs. My favorite scene is one in which Lovitz inadvertently unravels her wool skirt while she lectures him about teaching, but it's hard not to appreciate her growling response to Christmas carolers, and the priceless snarl when she's accused of wearing a Wonder-bra.
10) The Grandmother in FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC
This is a dreadful film based on a terrible novel. But the sordid story of incest and murder holds undeniable appeal for me - a member of the generation that passed around dog-eared V.C. Andrews books during junior high school silent reading hours. The Grandmother we read about was an archetype of evil masquerading as religious righteousness; she makes Kai Winn look balanced and fair. It's remarkable that Fletcher could turn such a caricature into a believable if despicable person.
Don't get me wrong: the role is one-dimensional, and the actress doesn't look like she's having much fun with it even while brandishing a whip or slapping smarmy Kristy Swanson. The dialogue is just awful, especially in this sanitized film which keeps the child abuse but cuts the brother-sister love story. Yet it's impossible to imagine anyone else playing the Grandmother without looking ridiculous. Fletcher instead looks like she owns the part. She certainly owns the movie. The only reason for watching is to wait for the scenes in which she appears.
SOME OTHER MUST-SEES
Strange Invaders is pretty bad as science fiction goes, but it's hysterical to see Fletcher playing the equivalent of The X-Files' Cancer Man -- a character in collusion with the U.S. government to hide the presence of extraterrestrials. Same goes for Invaders From Mars, a bad alien film with some great villainy from the actress. Evil schoolteachers are one of Fletcher's strengths: she's one of the best things in Frankenstein and Me, an overly earnest story about a boy trying to incarnate a circus mummy, as the disgusted teacher who wants the kid put in reform school.
In both Heartless and Nightmare on the 13th Floor, Fletcher plays characters who get involved in nasty stalking situations -- though in the former she's among the stalked, and in the latter she's one of the stalkers, hiding behind a philanthropic cover. Then there's Dead Kids a.k.a. Strange Behavior, in which she's one of the hapless adults. Story-wise, I prefer the gothic Haunting of Seacliff Inn, which is beautifully filmed, though the ghost story gets silly and Fletcher's not in the movie enough. Fans of VR5 will enjoy the radically different films Virtuosity, where she plays a drug czar fighting a high-tech crime war (Russell Crowe, who plays the bad guy, is absolutely stunning), and Tollbooth, in which she plays a woman who recovers from fits of narcolepsy to bond with her daughter (played by the terrific Fairuza Balk).
Two Moon Junction and its sequel both have scenes that are practically soft-core porn, which you may consider a good thing or a bad thing. The first film is wittier and smuttier, but the acting in the second is much better with the exception of the dreadful Fabio-lookalike male lead. Fletcher gives her scenes grace and class. Though her lines in the first film have more snap and her character comes across as tougher, she gets more believable emotional material and more screen time in Return to Two Moon Junction.
Speaking of soft-core, Fletcher keeps her clothes on in Time Served but she's just about the only woman in the film who does. She plays the jailer collaborating with the misogynistic warden who recruits women for an illicit strip bar. This comically bad film has all the usual low points of a woman's prison flick -- strip searches, lesbian rapists, sleazy law officers, etc. Sins of the Mind, which sounds nearly as sordid on paper -- an accident victim becomes a sex addict -- is a better film, with Fletcher as the psychiatrist of a troubled young woman whose family fights to save her. The therapist she plays in The Boy Who Could Fly is more competent but gets less screen time.
In that much-maligned genre, the chick flick, Fletcher has had several terrific outings. Someone Else's Child, the story of a single mother who learns her infant was switched with another at birth, then sues for custody of both boys, has Fletcher in nearly every scene playing a down-to-earth, concerned grandmother. Similarly, she plays a concerned parental figure in Married To a Stranger, sharing some moving scenes with the less convincing Jaclyn Smith. It amazes me that she can be so believable both as warm-hearted maternal types and in more sinister roles like the "bad mothers" of In A Child's Name and The Karen Carpenter Story. One of Fletcher's most powerful roles, though brief, is the battered wife who mothers Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel.
Being Jewish myself, I am very picky about how non-Jews play Jewish characters especially when there's Hebrew involved, yet I found Fletcher completely believable leading a Passover service in the terrific Holocaust film The Devil's Arithmetic. In The Lady In Red, which must be hunted down on video, emigrant Anna Sage must choose between her safety in America and the life of a mobster in love with a girl who once worked for her. Fletcher's Aunt Helen is not in Cruel Intentions nearly enough, but Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe are so good in that remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that it's worth renting anyway.
Fletcher has appeared in many guest roles on television, starting in the 1950s on Westerns and continuing to the recent remake of Fantasy Island. In a hilarious Tales from the Crypt, she appears as a greedy agent who flosses her teeth while dismissing her less-successful clients. On both Brimstone and Profiler, she plays the mother of serial killers, a very moving portrayal of a delusional religious woman in the former. If you check around, you can find Columbia House video of her episodes of Perry Mason and Maverick.
One of Fletcher's most moving appearances is on the Oscar's Greatest Moments tape. Viewers like myself too young to remember can watch her give her Academy Award acceptance speech, part of which she signed to her deaf parents while fighting back tears. It's a lovely tribute to them and -- as MPAA president and narrator Karl Malden points out -- an event which caused Hollywood to rethink its neglect of hearing-impaired viewers, which changed so dramatically that a decade later, deaf actress Marlee Matlin won an Academy Award for a role in which she did not speak.