Although her career has also sagged since Cuckoo's Nest, Fletcher has at last found a role to showcase her talent in the current film Brainstorm. Playing the hot-tempered workaholic scientist Lillian Reynolds, she has garnered critical raves. "It's the best-written and most colorful part in the film," she says. "I think workaholics are like other 'holies'—they are people who are afraid of life." Fletcher modeled the character on her eighth-grade English teacher. "She was passionate about teaching," she says. "I admired her. At the same time I felt sorry for her. I could see she was on the wrong track." Although Fletcher acknowledges that being labeled a character actress "can be a nice way of saying you're too old to be a leading lady," she relishes the meaty roles of strong women—Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo's Nest, Brainstorm's Lillian Reynolds—that have made her reputation.
Most critics agree that Fletcher's performance is the high point of Brainstorm, yet the actress recognizes that "some people will go out of curiosity to see Natalie Wood's last performance." Fletcher has fond memories of her co-star, who drowned in an accident during the film's production. Says Louise, "She taught me a few things—how to bounce back and laugh off the frustrations of moviemaking."
Resilience is something that Fletcher has acquired painfully. Even though it was a mutual decision to end her marriage to producer Jerry Bick, she calls the divorce "the biggest bad thing that ever happened to me." Explains Louise, "We had been having marital problems and we tried for many years to make it work. The last thing in the world I wanted was a divorce."
Soon after the breakup, Louise encountered Morgan Mason, the son of actors James and Pamela Mason. A few months later, when they both happened to be in London, they met again, and a romance began, even though Morgan, then 21, was less than half her age. "He was so much more mature in some ways than a lot of 40-year-olds that it was never a problem for us," she says. "I never called him 'You punk kid' and he never called me 'You old bag.' " Morgan agrees. "It worked perfectly for us," he says, "although everybody else seemed to be confused by it." The three-and-a-half-year affair ended in 1980. "He was very important to me, and still is," she says. Morgan, who spent two years as a special assistant to President Reagan after they split, harbors no ill will. "She's so unlike an actress," he says. "There's nothing narcissistic about her."
Louise was born in Birmingham, Ala., the second of four children of the Rev. Robert and Estelle Fletcher. Both parents are deaf. (She addressed them in sign language on television when she accepted her Oscar.) Moving to Hollywood after her graduation from the University of North Carolina in 1957, Louise quickly found work acting for television. But in 1963, four years after marrying Bick, she cut off a flourishing career to be a full-time mother to her sons John, now 22, and Andrew, 20. "I decided I really wasn't giving up anything so fantastic, and what I was leaving at home every day was something fantastic," she says.
Her reentry into the movie industry 11 years later was almost accidental. Jerry was producing Thieves Like Us, and director Robert Altman insisted that Louise play a villainess. Reluctantly, she agreed. "I got very good reviews from that movie, and it felt good, even though I hadn't consciously missed acting that much," she recalls. "My kids were older, so I felt, 'Hey, I can try this.' " Not long afterward she was cast in Cuckoo's Nest.
She has worked steadily since, although mostly in second-rate movies. Last month in North Carolina she filmed Firestarter, based on Stephen King's novel. Fletcher is content with her career, if not her roles. "I haven't made any movies that have been as successful as Cuckoo's Nest, so people always remember me from that," she says. "And I guess they always will, and I'm not complaining."
Fletcher spends at least a third of the year on the country spread near Leesburg, Va. that she purchased five years ago; her parents and siblings live close by. They are frequent and welcome visitors to her retreat. "Things are not always terrific," she admits. "Everybody has bad times. But whether times are good or bad, I can always count on family."
It's a long way from Hollywood, the white clapboard farmhouse perched behind a white wrought-iron gate and surrounded by 11 acres of fields, woods and gardens. Here in the Virginia hunt country, with her books, her cigarettes and her two German shepherds, Louise Fletcher, 49, lives alone. She has yet to find a long-term relationship to replace the 17-year marriage that ended in 1976, the year she won the best actress Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "Maybe there isn't a nice man left in the world," she says in mock despair. But she has adjusted. "It amazes me today that I don't mind being alone," she admits. "Sleeping alone is no fun, but I'm getting more and more used to it."