The depiction of nurses on film has changed greatly over the years: from the heroic candy-stripers of WWII-era flicks, through the bawdy sex comedies of the 1960s and 1970s, to the more heroic characters of the early 90s.
There’s no denying that nurses have roles to play in a wide variety of films: they are
expected to be supportive, caring, and understanding (which makes them good love interests in romantic movies), they are often near the front line of battle in war movies, and they have access to scary medical supplies like lethal drugs and scalpels in horror movies.
Many depictions, however, have been criticized as sexist. Not for nothing has the image of the nurse become associated with naughty Halloween costumes rather than medicine, which make the rare depictions that move beyond the stereotype even more memorable. From Annie Wilkes to Nurse Diesel, we list the 10 greatest movie nurses.
10. Nurse Alex – An American Werewolf in London
Classic comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London is mainly memorable for two things: David Naughton’s incredible transformation sequence (accomplished solely through the prosthetics of effects legend Rick Baker) and the rather comely Nurse Alex, played by Jenny Agutter. Agutter portrays the character as a damaged but caring everywoman who, even though she’s out of her depth dealing with a supernatural werewolf, certainly gives it a good try. She represents the more positive aspects of the UK and London, as a counterweight to the culture clash which the Americans experience in other scenes. Her obvious onscreen chemistry with Naughton also adds to the film.
9. Evelyn Johnson – Pearl Harbor
Lambasted by critics for its lack of dramatic tension, acting and historical accuracy, at least Pearl Harbor boasted Kate Beckinsdale. Here she plays Evelyn Johnson, a suspiciously attractive Naval Nurse working in America during WWII. The English actress manages to pull off a credible American accent and fares far better than her fellow actors involved in the love triangle (which takes up most of the movie’s rather long running time). Personally, we’re just surprised that there was an actual reason to watch Pearl Harbor apart from Cuba Gooding Jr.
8. Nurse Diesel – High Anxiety
Stern, gravel-voiced Nurse Diesel isn’t all she appears in this 1977 Hitchcock spoof; in fact, she’s a murderous maniac with an unhealthy interest in witchcraft (pretty appropriate, considering her appearance). She and her lover Dr Montague are the driving force behind most of the events occurring at the psychiatric ward, including the framing of a Doctor, several murders, and many, many more events that satirize the works of the master of suspense. We suppose Mel Brooks thought it would be ironic to have a staff member at a psychiatric hospital being psychopathic herself – although it’s hardly promoting a positive image of the nursing profession!
7. Greg Focker – Meet the Parents
Forget the diminishing returns which came with its sequels: Meet the Parents still stands up as a fresh and original comedy. Male nurse “Greg” Focker (Ben Stiller) is a normal guy who just happens to have an embarrassing name, until he meets his girlfriend’s ultra-paranoid ex-CIA father and everything goes swiftly downhill. The movie was fairly ahead of its time both for featuring a male nurse as a major character and for portraying the discrimination which non-female members of the profession face (there’s a memorably awkward dinner party scene where Greg tells everyone what he does for a living). Sadly the movie series was also the beginning of Robert De Niro’s decline as an actor, though male nurses everywhere should still be thankful that it came along and brought them into the public eye in a pretty positive way.
6. Nurse Ratched – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Indisputably the evil nurse. Icy Head Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) runs her mental health ward like a police state in the 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although she never raises her voice, her contempt for her patients shows in her every look and action, and she’s such a control freak that she spends most of the movie trying to break down Randle McMurphy for his independence and desire to resist the system. Her crowning moment of nastiness is when she prompts the neurotic Billy Bibbit to kill himself by playing on his fear of his mother, purely because she’s afraid of losing her grip on the patients under her care. Truly the face of institutional evil.
5. Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan – M*A*S*H
Sally Kellerman played the straight-laced blonde bombshell Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the 1970 M*A*S*H movie. While the movie would have arguably been a success regardless, no small amount of its appeal came from Houlihan – to say nothing of the fact that most of the comedy in the early part of the film derived from surgeons Hawkeye and Duke’s plots to drive her completely hysterical. Yet, while she was a rather two-dimensional character in the film, she quickly became a more sympathetic foil for the other characters in the TV series.
4. Madam Pomfrey – Harry Potter Series
In the Harry Potter books, Madam Pomfrey is the best kind of nurse a magic school could have: stern, a skilled healer, but possessing a heart of pure, magical gold. The film version is equally dedicated to her profession, taking care of dragon bites, petrification and various other magical illnesses with equal skill. Being a nurse is a very difficult job in reality, so it must be even tougher in a school where wounds from Sphinxes and falling off broomsticks are an everyday occurrence. Also, oddly enough, there don’t seem to be any doctors at the school. Maybe more seriously injured pupils get to go to magic ER…
3. Amy Nicholls – Fragile
A modern take on the heroic nurse character shows up in the 2005 horror movie Fragile, starring Calista Flockhart. The plot concerns a young woman who is transferred to work on an understaffed and decaying maternity ward. As if that weren’t trouble enough, she’s also faced with a malicious spirit that wants to hurt the children under her care. It plays out in a similar fashion to movies like The Ring, but Fragile‘s ghost is far more intimidating: it appears as a girl strapped into a crude medical treatment device that makes her look like a very low-tech cyborg. Creepy! It’s a welcome counterweight to flicks like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, where medical personnel are portrayed as soulless villains, and it’s also a classic traditional horror movie as well.
2. Cyril – Carry On Matron
The Carry On films came to typify the bawdy English comedy of the 1950s onwards, and one of the gang’s classic settings for hijinks was the hospital. Carry On Matron, released in 1972, features a “cunning” gang of thieves’ attempt to steal a maternity ward’s contraceptives by disguising one of their members as a nurse – in typically hilarious unfeminine drag (clearly they’d never heard of male nursing in the 1970s). Other funny medical characters in the film include Hattie Jacques’ formidable Matron and Kenneth Williams’ shrill and uptight head of the hospital – who believes he is turning into a woman.
1. Annie Wilkes – Misery
Annie Wilkes from the movie Misery is a loner, a former maternity nurse and an obsessed fan of the popular writer Paul Sheldon. At the beginning of the flick, she “rescues” him from a car wreck and forces him to bring his most famous character back from the dead – with the threat of increasingly painful forms of bodily mutilation if he refuses. Despite being a middle-aged recluse, she makes most of Stephen King’s supernatural villains look tame through the sheer force of her craziness.