7 Movies Featuring Nurse Characters
By Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC
There’s no denying that the portrayal of nurses in movies hasn’t painted the most accurate representation of this highly regarded profession. Certain films have portrayed nurses as nothing more than candy stripers, others sexualize nurses and have them serve as love interests for doctors, while others provide comic relief from “serious” doctors. There are few movies depicting nurses as the kind, compassionate, and heroic individuals they truly are.
A 2008 study entitled Celluloid angels: a research study of nurses in feature films 1900-2007 examined 280 feature films with female nurses as one of the lead characters.
The study concluded that the majority of films portrayed nurses in a negative fashion, focusing heavily on romantic liaisons. Themes included nurses who joined the profession to meet a rich doctor, nurses who were threatening or evil, nurses as subservient to physicians, and nurses who were sex objects.
The list below includes seven well-known movies featuring nurses in a major role. Enjoy!
Character: Evelyn Johnson
Actress: Kate Beckinsale
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 25%
Kate Beckinsale portrays an American Naval Nurse stationed in Pearl Harbor, and the events leading up to the infamous attacks. While Evelyn is the center of a complicated love triangle, she is depicted as caring and strong in the face of the bombings. This film is a must for those interested in WWII-era nursing, but be warned: the role of the nurse is small and not the main focus of the film.
Character: Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan
Actress: Sally Kellerman
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 87%
“Hotlips” Houlihan was inspired by a real-life Korean War head nurse. The nickname originated due to Houlihan’s character sleeping with fellow character Frank Burns. Houlihan is depicted as a by-the-books nurse who uses her looks and relationships with men to further her career. The character of Nurse Houlihan was later portrayed in the M*A*S*H television series.
Character: Nurse Ratched
Actress: Louise Fletcher
Rotten Tomatoes Score: No Score
Nurse Ratched is undeniably the most evil nurse ever portrayed in film. She is the head nurse at a mental institution where she exercises complete power over patients’ lives.
Some compare the running of the mental institution to that of a police state. While it is noted that she never actually raises her voice, her disgust for the patients can be seen in every look and movement.
The character of Nurse Ratched was voted the fifth greatest villain in film history by the American Film Institute. In 1993, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry.
Character: Amy Nicholls
Actress: Calista Flockhart
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 47%
This film depicts a heroic nurse in a classic traditional horror film. The movie follows a young woman sent to work in an understaffed, decayed, and haunted hospital ward.
Charlotte, a patient who died at the hospital, haunts the children’s ward and causes “accidents” in patients who are close to death. The movie follows Nurse Amy as she tries to find the cause of these accidents and help the patients under her care.
Character: Greg Focker
Actor: Ben Stiller
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
In Meet the Parents, a hapless male nurse tries his best to impress his fiance’s parents, especially his father-in-law (Robert DeNiro), a tough-talking retired CIA agent. The fact that the character is a male nurse makes him the butt of numerous jokes.
Character: Betty Sizemore
Actress: Renee Zellweger
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 84%
After witnessing the murder of her husband, a waitress suffers from a nervous breakdown and becomes obsessed with an actor who plays a doctor on her favorite soap opera. As a result, she assumes the identity of a nurse.
The movie follows Betty’s delusional fantasies and persistence in trying to convince others of her romantic connection with the soap star. Zellweger won a Golden Globe for her role.
7. Wit, 2001
Character: Susie Monahan
Actress: Audra McDonald
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Wit is an adaptation of Margaret Edson's play of the same name, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. This film focuses on the life-changing ovarian cancer diagnosis experienced by Vivian, an English professor and scholar played by Emma Thompson.
The only healthcare professional portrayed as caring and loving when interacting with Vivian is her primary nurse who wants to provide care consistent with her professional obligations and basic human decency. This goal brings her into conflict with the physicians pushing Vivian's experimental chemotherapy treatments.
While the women seem to have very little in common, an intense bond forms as a result of the compassionate nursing care at the center of their interactions. Susie is one of the most powerful feature film portrayals of what a good modern nurse actually does, making this a favorite film for the current generation of nurses.
If you’ve seen a negative or positive depiction of a nurse in the movies, please share your reflections on our Facebook page -- we’d love to hear from you!
Kathleen Colduvell RN, BSN, BA, CBC graduated with a degree in English and journalism before going back to nursing school. After graduating from Villanova University, she became a Neonatal Intensive Care Nurse. Currently, she works at one of the leading children’s hospitals in the country in the NICU, PICU, and CICU, as well as working as a Certified Breastfeeding Consultant.