The most eloquent message from last week's 48th Academy Awards went by hand. It said: "Thank you for teaching me to have a dream. You are seeing my dream come true." Louise Fletcher, who had just won an Oscar for Best Actress of the Year, was passing along the good news in sign language to her deaf parents watching television in Birmingham, conscribing the words, etching the phrases, with smooth movements of arms and hands, as tears edged down her cheeks.
Fletcher's acceptance was the third stage of a five-way sweep for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Before her award, the movie had already won statuettes for best-adapted screenplay and for Milos Forman's direction. Cuckoo would proceed to win Jack Nicholson his long-deferred Best Actor Oscar and, finally, take the Best Picture prize. Not since It Happened One Night in 1934 had one film copped the five principal Oscars and, lest this point be overlooked, Cuckoo Co-Producer Michael Douglas hastened to remind everyone of it.
Battered Wing. The evening's other winners (Lee Grant for Shampoo, George Burns for The Sunshine Boys) were honored for supporting performances in films made snugly within the studio system. Cuckoo, distributed by United Artists, took 14 years to get together and took off on a battered wing and a profane prayer. Movie rights to Ken Kesey's intricate, explosive 1962 novel had been owned by Kirk Douglas for well over a decade. Douglas had played the role of the roustabout McMurphy on Broadway, and wanted to make the movie himself. There were no backers. Prospective producers were put off by the requisite casting of Douglas (too old, they thought, for the part), turned off by the trying subject matter, mayhem in a mental ward. Finally, in 1972 Douglas turned the rights over to his son Michael, then 27, and told him to give it a shot.
Michael, bored with his Streets of San Francisco TV series, got in touch with Fantasy Records Chairman Saul Zaentz, who had grown similarly restive in the music business. Zaentz pulled the financing together, and the two fledgling producers hired Czechoslovakian Director Milos Forman and persuaded Nicholson to play McMurphy. Nicholson was enthusiastic about the part, but, lest idealism crowd out commerce, the actor demanded a salary of $1 million and something like 10% of the profits. The casting of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, however, represented quite another kind of risk.
Pump People. The part had already been turned down by, among others, Anne Bancroft, Ellen Burstyn, Colleen Dewhurst and Geraldine Page, either because they considered the character, the steel-tempered nurse, offensive to women or because, on a more practical basis, the role was neither as large nor as strong as McMurphy's. Fletcher was not in a position to be choosy. At 41, she had appeared in only one previous film (a supporting part in Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us) and, indeed, had dropped out of acting almost entirely after making a bright start in television in the late 1950s. Married to Jerry Bick, an agent turned producer, she had devoted most of her time to raising two sons, who are now teenagers. Forman cast her, he says, "on instinct." He liked her "peculiar detachment, her removal."