Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher)
Giver of Orders
Nurse Mildred Ratched is a real piece of work, don't you think? She's pretty much every rebel's worst nightmare—a Dolores Umbridge for the over-30 set.
In the opening scene of this movie, we watch Nurse Ratched walk through the mental hospital while all kinds of people say "Good Morning" to her. It's clear from the get-go that she is in charge when it comes to the mental ward—and she likes it.
Later on, the head doctor even says that "Miss Ratched is one of the finest nurses we've got at this institution." We can see the trust put in her by the fact that she's in the room while the doctors are discussing McMurphy's condition.
Nurse Ratched might use a soft tone when she's talking, but don't let it fool you. She treats the patients like children, keeping their cigarettes from them and keeping them on a strict routine. Even after finding Billy Bibbit dead, she says "The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine." Nurse Ratched is a firm believer in routine. No matter what the situation, she believes that the best way to deal with mentally ill people is to put them on a schedule that never changes.
It's also important for Nurse Ratched to let the patients know she's the boss. But she does this in a really clever way. She makes them think they have a voice when they actually don't. For example, she puts McMurphy's idea of watching the World Series to a vote. The first time, the patients vote it down; but then when they vote for it the second time around, she still finds a way of denying them without seeming unfair, saying "There are eighteen patients on this ward, Mr. McMurphy." Clever girl. This is exactly the kind of thing that makes McMurphy say that Nurse Ratched "likes a rigged game."
Barely Hidden Cruelty
On the surface, Nurse Ratched only wants what's best for the men living on her mental ward. And it's hard to deny this throughout the movie. Yes, she tricks the patients into doing what she wants. She always does it with such a calm demeanor that you might think she really just wants what's best for people.
But there are a few occasions that suggest this isn't the case. She's especially cruel when she talks to Billy Bibbit. On more than one occasion, she mentions Billy's mother in order to make Billy feel shame, saying "What worries me is how your mother is going to take this." Toward the end of the movie, Ratched uses Billy's mother to make Billy feel ashamed about having sex with a woman. Billy pleads with her not to tell, but Ratched answers, "Your mother and I are old friends. You know that." This is actually what leads Billy to commit suicide and it's the most obvious abuse of authority that Ratched commits.
Of course, we never get any real insight into Ratched's personality because she never drops her calm, cold attitude. The only time we really see her riled is when McMurphy tries to kill her, and that's plenty understandable. At the end of the day, it's tough to say just how deep Ratched's cruelty goes. Sure, she might get a little too much enjoyment out of controlling the men on her ward, but we can only speculate as to how much she likes it.
Another place where Ratched shows her true colors is when she requests for the doctors to keep McMurphy in then mental hospital instead of sending him back to prison, saying "I'd like to keep him on the ward. I think we can help him." You see, she knows that the hospital can keep him for as long as it wants, whereas McMurphy will get back out of prison in a few months if they send him back. Now it's possible (but doubtful) that Ratched really wants to help McMurphy, but it's also possible that she wants to keep him around until she finally breaks his spirit and turns him into a well-behaved little boy.