Nurse Ratched

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Nurse Ratched
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest character
Nurse Ratched.jpg
Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film adaptation
First appearanceOne Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
Created byKen Kesey
Portrayed byJoan Tetzel (play)
Louise Fletcher (film)
Ingrid Torrance (Once Upon a Time)
Sarah Paulson (Ratched)
In-universe information
Full nameMildred Ratched (film, TV series)
AliasBig Nurse
BirthplaceSalem, Oregon, United States

Nurse Ratched (also known as "Big Nurse") is a fictional character and the main antagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, first featured in Ken Kesey's 1962 novel as well as the 1975 film adaptation. A cold, heartless tyrant, Nurse Ratched became the stereotype of the nurse as a battleaxe. She has also become a popular metaphor for the corrupting influence of institutional power and authority in bureaucracies such as the psychiatric treatment center in which the novel is set.

The role in the film version of the novel was turned down by Anne Bancroft, Angela Lansbury, Geraldine Page, Colleen Dewhurst, and Ellen Burstyn before Louise Fletcher received it.[1] Fletcher had only acted once in the 13 years before appearing in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. She was thought of for the role after Shelley Duvall was suggested for an alternative role and Miloš Forman saw Fletcher appear with her in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us.[1]


Author Kesey stated that he based Ratched on the head nurse of the psychiatric ward where he worked. He later ran into her at an aquarium, realizing "She was much smaller than I remembered, and a whole lot more human."[2] The 1940s hairstyle was, according to Louise Fletcher, "a symbol that life had stopped for her (Ratched) a long time ago".[1]

In Ken Kesey's novel, Nurse Ratched is described by Chief Bromden as having a face that is smooth, calculated and precision-made like an expensive babydoll, skin like flesh-colored enamel that is a blend of white and cream with baby-blue eyes, she also has a small nose with pink little nostrils. But the only things on Ratched that doesn’t match her perfect appearance is her having lips and fingernails that are both the color of orange, as well as carrying oversized breasts, completed with a heavily starched white nurse uniform that tightly conceals her top-heaviness to hide her femininity.

In Miloš Forman's film adaptation, Nurse Ratched is shown with pink lips and pink fingernails, skin that almost matches the color of her lips and fingernails, has gray-blue eyes, she still has a small nose with pink little nostrils, she still has a face like an expensive doll, she wears a perfectly clean uniform that indicates her obsession with cleanliness and order, she also wears her uniform loose, she wears a 1940s hairstyle that resembles devil horns, and she is given the full name "Mildred Ratched".

Character biography[edit]

Nurse Ratched is the head administrative nurse at the Salem State Hospital, a mental institution where she exercises near-absolute power over the patients' access to medications, privileges, and basic necessities such as food and toiletries. She capriciously revokes these privileges whenever a patient displeases her. Her superiors turn a blind eye because she maintains order, keeping the patients from acting out, either through antipsychotic and anticonvulsant drugs or her own brand of psychotherapy, which consists mostly of humiliating patients into doing her bidding. Her tyrannical rule and her hurtful personality stems from her time as an army nurse during World War II.

When Randle McMurphy arrives at the hospital, however, he flouts her rules with impunity, and inspires other patients to follow. Her attempts to cow him into submission—at first with threats and mild punishments, then with shock therapy—are unsuccessful, serving only to fuel his defiance.

McMurphy helps organize an unauthorized party late one evening, and they invite two prostitute friends, Sandra and Candy, into the asylum. After noticing fellow patient Billy Bibbitt has a crush on Candy, McMurphy encourages her to relieve him of his virginity. Suddenly, Nurse Ratched catches Billy and Candy in the act. Furious, she threatens to tell his mother. Billy begs her not to tell, and blames McMurphy and the other patients for orchestrating the event. Nurse Ratched then sends him to wait in the ward doctor's office as the authorities are called. When Dr. Spivey finally arrives, he finds Billy dead, having committed suicide by cutting his throat. Nurse Ratched blames McMurphy for his death, and in a fit of rage, McMurphy breaks into the Nurse Station and attacks her, nearly strangling her to death before he is pried off.

Despite having McMurphy lobotomized in retribution, the attack has left Nurse Ratched weakened and bruised, and she is unable to control the ward any longer as the patients are no longer afraid of her.

Other portrayals[edit]

Kirk Douglas (left) as Randle McMurphy and Joan Tetzel (right) as Nurse Ratched in the 1963 Broadway production.

A stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman made its Broadway debut in 1963 with Joan Tetzel as Nurse Ratched.[3] Amy Morton portrayed Ratched in the 2001 Broadway revival.[4]

Nurse Ratched was a recurring character in the ABC series Once Upon a Time. She was portrayed by Ingrid Torrance and works for the Evil Queen as a nurse in the Storybrooke Sanitarium. Although she appeared in several episodes starting in the first season, her name was revealed in the fifth season premiere "The Dark Swan".

Sarah Paulson will portray a younger version of the character in Ryan Murphy's upcoming Netflix adaptation, Ratched, a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest[5] scheduled to debut September 18, 2020.[6][7]


Fletcher won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Ratched in the film. Ratched was named the fifth-greatest villain in film history (and second-greatest villainess, behind only the Wicked Witch of the West of The Wizard of Oz) by the American Film Institute in their series 100 Years... 100 Heroes & Villains.


  1. ^ a b c Harmetz, Aljean (30 November 1975). "The Nurse Who Rules The 'Cuckoo's Nest'". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 May 2016.
  2. ^ Kirkpatrick, David D. (2001-05-10). "Ken Kesey, Checking in on His Famous Nest". The New York Times.
  3. ^ Murphy, A.D. (November 18, 1975). "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Review". Variety. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
  4. ^ Winship, Frederick M. (April 30, 2001). "Chicago 'Cuckoo' flies over Broadway". United Press International. Retrieved September 5, 2020.
  5. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (September 6, 2017). "Ryan Murphy's Nurse Ratched 'Cuckoo's Nest' Origin Series Starring Sarah Paulson Scores Netflix Order; Michael Douglas EPs". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved September 10, 2017.
  6. ^ "Who is Nurse Ratched? Meet the Character Behind Netflix's New Series". Decider. 2020-08-05. Retrieved 2020-08-05.
  7. ^ Ratched, Netflix (Aug 4, 2020). "Official Trailer".

Further reading[edit]