Who was the best nurse Ratched actress – Louise Fletcher (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) or Sarah Paulson (Ratched)? Separated by 45 years, the respective performances of Mildred Ratched remain similar in tone but differ through small character nuances. Still, one of the Ratched interpretations is significantly more impactful. Nurse Ratched first emerged in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the character later became an iconic figure in cinema due to Miloš Forman’s 1975 movie adaptation. Jack Nicholson stars as Randle Patrick “R.P.” McMurphy, a psychiatric ward patient who fakes insanity and constantly challenges Ratched’s authority.


However, in the 10-part Netflix series, the narrative takes place in 1947, making it a prequel to the events depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and an origin story of sorts to the character. With Netflix’s Ratched, Paulson has significantly more material to work with, albeit in a story that’s been criticized for not having enough depth. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Fletcher receives plenty of screen time, however, the narrative mostly focuses on the collective personalities of the male patients. Here’s how each actress approached the role of Nurse Ratched.

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Interpreting The Nurse Ratched Persona

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Fletcher makes a strong impression, making her case as the best nurse Ratched actress, during her first appearance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Dressed in all black, Nurse Ratched exudes a witchy persona, though her humanity shines through via interactions with colleagues. Fletcher relies heavily on side-eye glances and long stares for intimidation purposes, which betrays her soft voice and gentle manner of communicating information. As McMurphy’s antics become more ridiculous, Ratched’s demeanor becomes more stoic and stern.

In Ratched, the story calls for a more balanced interpretation. Sarah Paulson effectively captures the prideful nature of her character, but must also show a vulnerable side through the series. Whereas Fletcher’s performance is mostly non-verbal, Paulson’s role requires heavy amounts of dialogue, which affords her more opportunities to be domineering one minute and emotionally fractured the next. The Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is highly skeptical and dismissive of others; the Netflix version is wide-eyed and weary. She hasn’t been fully pushed to the edge yet.

The Challenges Of Each Nurse Ratched Performance

Mildred and Gwendolyn in Ratched.

Ratched’s 10-episode format seems like the perfect opportunity for Paulson to show she is the best nurse Ratched actress, but the script doesn’t allow for any big acting moments, unfortunately. There’s an intriguing story in place, but the collective melodrama doesn’t correlate with one of the year’s most unforgettable performances. Paulson could’ve delivered a strong interpretation in a 120-minute movie adaptation, a format that would’ve forced the screenwriters to focus on a tighter script. Netflix’s Ratched is hampered by interweaving stories that never lead to any big performance moments, as Paulson remains perpetually on edge without ever unloading feelings of happiness, sadness, or rage.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is cold-hearted and cruel, but one could also make the argument that she’s simply doing her job. As an actress, Fletcher doesn’t give the audience a lot to work with, as she mostly keeps her cool and remains firm in her interactions with McMurphy. Crucially, though, Fletcher imbues her character with the sensibilities of a parent watching her children play from afar. She’ll allow for a little fun but knows exactly when to shut the party down. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would’ve been much different if Fletcher’s Ratched was simply a cold woman with an axe to grind.

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Louise Fletcher Is The Better Nurse Ratched

Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over The Cukoo's Nest.

Louise Fletcher’s nurse Ratched performance is so incredibly impactful because she’s not necessarily a huge movie star. Despite this, she remains the best nurse Ratched actress. In fact, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was just Fletcher’s second credited performance in a feature film after appearing in Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us. This particular version of Ratched has a weariness about her, but she’s also a glamorous woman. All the close-ups are especially effective because Fletcher’s face conveys so much. In one of Murphy’s better outings, Paulson retains Fletcher’s stoicism as Ratched, but her performance suffers from the fact that she’s Sarah Paulson—a recognizable actress.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s the unknown that makes Fletcher’s Ratched so magical and iconic. There’s a wink-of-the-eye aspect to her early conversations, as she plays it nice but shows little mercy. Netflix’s Ratched feels the need to outright identify Paulson’s character as an “Angel of Mercy”, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest trusts the audience to pick up on the subtext. Fletcher delivers a loud performance with few words.

Sarah Paulson’s Nurse Ratched Was Let Down By The Show

Sarah Paulson as Ratched on Netflix.

It is easy to see both actors work as quality versions, but the best nurse Ratched actress has to be Louise Fletcher – and it is not a choice based on the quality of the actors involved. Instead, One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest remains one of the best movies in cinema history. Ranking in the top 20 of the IMDb top 250, the movie won five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Nicholson, and Best Actress for Fletcher. Fletcher’s version of nurse Ratched also ranks near the top of the greatest villains in movie history list for the American Film Institute.

Sadly, while Ryan Murphy has proven to have a deft touch with stories about villains, his version of nurse Ratched ended up let down by a story that was mostly lackluster, despite her incredible performance of the younger woman who became a despicable movie villain. Fletcher definitely deserved her Oscar for the role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as she took a woman who could have been a generic villain and made her evil in an almost understated manner. However, Paulson had every chance to match her performance, but the series itself never allowed her to really reach that next level that Fletcher sat at regally.

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