It’s not unusual for actors to take on roles that have been played by other actors before them. But most actors aren’t faced with the challenge that Sarah Paulson took on in the Netflix series “Ratched” — playing a character indelibly linked to Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for the role in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Fletcher’s performance as cold, hard-hearted, passive-aggressive and quietly vicious tyrant Nurse Ratched was so indelible the character became a metaphor for abuse of power. And the 1975 film took home a total of five Academy Awards — best picture, best director (Milos Forman), best actor (Jack Nicholson), best actress (Fletcher) and best adapted screenplay. It’s considered a classic of American cinema.
So, yes, Paulson admitted she found it “incredibly intimidating ... to try to take this on. And yet, because of the nature of its prequel-ness and its origin-story component, I felt a little bit more liberty and freedom.”
“Ratched” — which starts streaming Friday on Netflix — is indeed an origin story, set in 1947, 16 years before the events in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” (The movie is based on Ken Kecey’s 1962 novel and a 1963 play by Dale Wasserman adapted from the novel.) And Paulson said it was an “enormous plus” that she saw Fletcher deliver “one of the most masterful performances in cinematic history” as Ratched.
“No pressure or anything,” she added with a laugh. “It’s both a blessing and a curse because I do recognize that some people will be looking for Louise Fletcher.”
The series opens with deranged Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) brutally murdering four Catholic priests, then jumps to Mildred Ratched heading to a mental hospital in northern California in search of a job — because Edmund is about to be transferred there. (She has her reasons, which will be revealed, eventually.)
Mildred is cold, hard and manipulative, and everybody at the hospital — from the head nurse (Judy Davis) down — hates her. But she’s very good at getting what she wants.
And she’s in the middle of more than a little crazy. The man in charge, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), is, um, ethically challenged, and he’s allowing himself to be used by California’s ethically challenged governor (Vincent D’Onofrio). There’s an ethically challenged private eye (Corey Stull) working for a mega-rich woman (Sharon Stone), who has a vendetta against Hanover — for good reason.
About the only truly good character is the governor’s press secretary, Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon), who inexplicably falls for Mildred.
Newcomer Evan Romansky got his spec script into the hands of Ryan Murphy, who executive produces and directs multiple episodes. There are more than a few similarities to Murphy’s “American Horror Story” franchise, particularly the “Asylum” season — albeit somewhat less insane. But it’s still plenty nuts, and occasionally so slow moving that the look of the show overwhelms the plot.
But what a look! “Ratched” is visually arresting — a technicolor film noir with locations, costumes and sets that are absolutely gorgeous. And there’s more than a smidgeon of camp — it’s sometimes completely bonkers, so you just have to go with it.
You don’t have to have seen “Cuckoo’s Nest” to get “Ratched.” And, making Paulson’s job easier, no doubt many Netflix viewers have never watched that 45-year-old film.
(Weird note: Paulson was 11 months old when the movie was released. And she’s five years older than Fletcher was when she played the 16-years-older version of Nurse Ratched.)
Netflix ordered two seasons of “Ratched,” and, reportedly, Murphy & Co. are planning for four — which would take the narrative up to the events in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Assuming, of course, they can find an actor brave enough to step into Nicholson’s shoes as Randall McMurphy.