The Healthy Helpers: The Top 10 Movie Nurses

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Now what would the medical profession be like without the dependable skills of nursing in cinema? Sure, the doctors get their lion’s share of representation in the movies but what about the nurses that serve them? What is so interesting about the portrayal of nurses in film is that they can be characterized beyond the compassionate medical maidens that the public associates them with on a whim. Motion pictures allow for big screen nurses to show some complexity beyond loving bedside manners and juggling bedpans. Cinematic nurses can be caring, comical, crazed, confused or corrupt.

Whatever the complication or consideration of these celluloid servers of health care rest assure that they are a glorified bunch in their devotion to the medical field. Whether flawed or favorable we will take a look at some of the top-notch nurses in film as cited in The Healthy Helpers: The Top 10 Movie Nurses. Perhaps you have your own cinematic nurse to acknowledge?

The Healthy Helpers: The Top 10 Movie Nurses are (in alphabetical order according to the film they are featured in):

1.) Hana from The English Patient (1996)

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Juliette Binoche won an Academy Award for best supporting actress playing Hana, a French-Canadian nurse in the Anthony Minghella-directed The English Patient. Based in Italy during World War II, Hana finds herself nursing a severely injured burned patient within a ruined monastery. Thankfully, the patient she tends to speaks English but refuses to give any details about who he is or what he is about in general.

Of course Hana finds time to romance a British Army bomb detonator in Sikh Kip. In any event, Binoche’s Hana represented the beauty, compassion and innocence in the middle of war-torn circumstances that cultivates the nostalgic essence of Michael Ondaatje’s novel that shares the same name with the film. Binoche’s radiant performance as the love-struck Hana adds to the sweeping sentiment of The English Patient’s sophisticated allure.

2.) Nurse Diesel from High Anxiety (1977)

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Oscar-winner Cloris Leachman figures into Mel Brooks’s wacky world of satire in the comedy High Anxiety by playing an institutionalized facility-bound Nurse Diesel. Naturally, High Anxiety was an ambitious send-up of Hitchcokian suspense thrillers and psychological dramas.

In fact, Leachman’s Nurse Diesel may have been a riotous poke at fellow Oscar-winning actress Louise Fletcher that played the no-nonsense, iron-faced Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Nurse Diesel apparently has a freaky side to her stern persona but then again she is a product of Brooks’s irreverent creation so hey…go figure!

3.) Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan from M*A*S*H (1970)

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Sally Kellerman earned an Academy Award nomination portraying the uptight by-the-book head nurse Major Margaret Houlihan in Robert Altman’s noteworthy off-the-wall military comedy M*A*S*H. Nurse Houlihan, nicknamed “Hot Lips” for her amorous reputation, saw head surgeons Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce and Trapper John MacIntyre as major thorns in her side. She was all-Army and disciplined…or so it seemed. Pierce and MacIntyre exposed the hypocritical Houlihan and her gung ho Army stickler routine as she carried on an affair with inept married surgeon Frank Burns while being nervy enough to judge others at camp for showing little regard for military service protocol. Before Emmy-winning Loretta Swit was able to entertain television audiences for eleven seasons portraying the hard-nosed Hot Lips Houlihan in the TV version of M*A*S*H Kellerman made the role come alive within Altman’s raucous yet reflective military romp.

4.) Gaylord “Greg” Focker from Meet the Parents (2000)

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Male nurse Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) has fallen in love with his woman Pam Byrnes and hopes to make her his wife. Of course before Greg can take Pam’s hand in marriage he must meet and greet her parents Jack and Dina Byrnes (Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner). Hence, the film’s title and built-in premise.

Jack, a former CIA operative, is not too impressed or thrilled by his daughter’s klutzy male nurse lover. Greg tries his best to convince Jack of his worthiness for Pam but comedic mishaps only makes Jack more suspicious of him (and elevates Greg’s nervousness). And thus Pam’s demanding daddy’s spying and interrogation tactics begin as the showdown between future father-in-law and son-in-law Jack Byrnes and Greg Focker unfold with amusing results.

5.) Annie Wilkes from Misery (1990)

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Poor novelist Paul Sheldon (James Caan)…why couldn’t his number one fan be a nurse of stability instead of instability? Sure, nightmarish nurse Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) saved Paul from a horrific snowy car accident and brought him back to her house to tend to his wounds while rescuing him from a winter-bound wasteland outside. However, Annie has plans for the recovering Paul Sheldon (as well for his literary heroine Misery) that leads into the torture and torment that will befall him at the hands of his Florence Nightmaregale hostess.

Bates won the well-deserved best actress Oscar portraying the sadistic and child-like psychotic nurse with the unbalanced fixation on doomed writer Paul Sheldon and immense affection (actually obsession) for his novel’s lead character. Nurse Annie Wilkes is the off-kilter funny yet haunting creation of Stephen King (who else?) whose chilly antics and delusional destruction make for Misery’s twisted taste of thrills. Word of advice: it is not ideal to deceive a disgruntled Annie when she is carrying a sledgehammer and your exposed foot gives her some hints for retribution. Just keep this in mind. Indeed, Misery’s Annie Wilkes is one medical Unstable Mabel.

6.) Betty Sizemore from Nurse Betty (2000)

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The disillusionment of Kansas diner waitress Betty Sizemore (Renee Zellweger) might be somewhat understandable given her mental state of mind in acclaimed filmmaker Neil LaBute’s skillful black comedy Nurse Betty. Basically, Betty’s nervous breakdown is triggered upon witnessing the slaying of her shady husband (Aaron Eckhart) by the hands of a couple of hitmen (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). So how does Betty deal with such a tragic episode in her life? That’s easy…she develops a healthy crush on her favorite soap opera character in dashing Dr. David Ravell (Greg Kinnear).

A trip to the west coast eventually results in Betty finally meeting actor George McCord who plays Dr. Ravell on her cherished soap opera A Reason to Love. McCord, mistaking Betty for an aspiring actress without realizing that she is not in her right mind, lobbies for her to get a part on his TV program playing a nurse. Truthfully, George is intrigued and attracted to the bewildered Betty without realizing her full blown obsession with him. Geez, talking about nursing a major romantic hold for the good doctor!

7.) Abby Russell from Nurse 3-D (2014)

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Sometimes what is considered someone’s trashy findings is indeed another person’s treasure. Co-writer/director Douglas Aarniokoski may very well fit this sentiment with his inspired horror showcase Nurse 3-D , a relentlessly cheapened and chilly small-scale piece of grindhouse cinema that registers its exploitative muster with winning, sleazy results.

Nurse 3-D explores the killing tendencies of a naughty nurse in particular named Abby Russell (Paz de la Huerta). During the day she does her duty well as a registered nurse at New York City Hospital but during the nighttime hours she uses her sex appeal to lure cheating men towards their death as she renders some womanly wickedness on their sorry carcasses. Abby’s murderous medicine-dispensing maiden routine becomes increasingly glaring when she focuses on fetching newcomer blonde nurse Danni Rogers (Kantina Bowen) only to find that her affections for the curvaceous co-worker are challenged by the obstacle at hand–Danni’s boyfriend Steve (Corbin Bleu). When there is a frustrated Abby that certainly does not spell relief for the patients, visitors or staff at the hospital as the body count rises beyond ridiculous numbers.

Clearly, the recommended prescription for the delusional Nurse 3-D is a deviant hard pill to swallow…and that is not necessarily a bad thing either.

8.) Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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Perhaps the greatest villainous nurse in modern cinema is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Cold, robotic, unfeeling, no-nonsense and intimidating, Nurse Ratched treated her patients at the mental institution as trained cattle. These mentally ill men were supposed to be obedient and expected to flinch when she expected them to without provocation. Nurse Ratched was a witch in white stockings whose authority in that facility resonated with much disdain by her frightened patients.

It would take a rebellious misfit in Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) to challenge the iron fist of Nurse Ratched while trying to instill some humanity in his fellow “wackos” through unconventional means. The misery and inflexibility of Nurse Ratched’s dragon lady demeanor would ultimately cost the lives of suicidal stuttering Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) and of course her pesky nemesis McMurphy. Fletcher’s antagonistic Nurse Ratched would rightfully earn her an Academy Award for best actress in a riveting, divisive performance.

9.) Nurse Evelyn Johnson from Pearl Harbor (2001)

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Filmmaker Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor may have been a bloated and generically overstuffed war epic dipping in romance and drama that a majority of critics could not quite stomach but the cure for witnessing this elaborate dud was redeemed by the sultry Kate Beckinsale as Nurse Evelyn Johnson. After all, what male patient would refuse to take their medication upon the advice of this alluring wartime Miss Feel Good? Well, a dumb one…that’s who!

Luckily, Tennessee native Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck)–a First Lieutenant in the Air Corp–would capture the heart of Evelyn where eventually the historical attack on Pearl Harbor would…ah, you know the rest of the story. The cure for the common cold (or any discomfort for that matter) is definitely concentrating on Beckinsale’s Nurse Evelyn Johnson. It is too bad that one has to sit through the monotonous Perl Harbor to get of decent dose of her romantic radiance.

10.) John McFadden from Precious (2009)

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All her life 16-year old Harlem-based Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) has known adversity and definitely in the worse possible way. Morbidly obese and abused physically, emotionally and psychologically by her welfare scamming critical mother Mary (Oscar winner Mo’Nique), Precious is simply a defeated youth looking for some relief out of her dreary young life.

Precious is about to have her second child (both her children are products of her biological father raping her) and is lost and confused–an understatement of the century. Because of her despicable father’s perverse actions against her it would seem understandable as to why Precious would be cynical towards older men in general. Enter kind-hearted male nurse John McFadden (as played by rocker Lenny Kravitz). McFadden genuinely cares about the vulnerable Precious and shows her the male-oriented positive support and concern that she requires without evidence of exploitation or sinful mistrust. John McFadden is patient, trusting, compassionate and serves as the guiding mentor that Precious should be exposed to in repairing whatever self-imaging damage that had plagued her from a dangerous dysfunctional environment.

–Frank Ochieng



By Frank Ochieng

Frank Ochieng frequently guests on Boston s WBZ NewsRadio 1030 AM (2003-present) as a panelist/contributor for the "Movie Night/TV Night" broadcasts and had previously written film reviews for the independent urban newspaper The Boston Banner (now "The Bay State Banner"). Ochieng has been an online movie reviewer for such outlets as Filmcritic.com, MovieEye.com (now defunct), TheWorldJournal.com, SF Crowsnest, Yahoo! Voices Movies and Focus of New York Magazine. Additionally, he is a member of The Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and Internet Film Critics Society (IFCS).

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2 Responses to The Healthy Helpers: The Top 10 Movie Nurses

  1. Sara September 15, 2014 at 6:00 am

    Loved the healthy helpers.I Remember most of the movies. Who could ever, ever forget nurse Ratched? I nursed around for 15 years, loved every minute and have met and worked under nurses like these. At different places, with different people. You can always tell(even on TV)which nurses are in the profession for the money, job availability(always) and those that truly love their job. That last one was me.Loving my job. Nurse Ratched was burned out and should have been transferred to ICU.Nobody awake to bother her. Nurse Betty must get into the med.sample room and self medicate herself, it aint working. You don’t get to act like that in the real world of medicine, not totally. She could have nurse Ratcheds job.TV nurses are just that,TV,not really real. I enjoy them all. There is a nurse to act like one of the 10 movie nurses. Every where, every shift.Hot lips was a great nurse. She was nurse 911, to her patients. Misery made the movie nurse list? Fabulous? Glad she made it to the list, Surprising, but awesome. I really, really enjoyed this. Thank you. Always be nice to your nurse, your comfort and happy healing IS your nurse. Just saying

    Reply
  2. Tam June 20, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Great article. One of your best. :)

    Reply

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