Today is the anniversary of the death of my all-time favorite character actress: Thelma Ritter. On February 5, 1969, Ritter died at the age of 66 in Queens Hospital after suffering a heart attack a week earlier.
The actress was already 45 years old when she made her first film. When director George Seaton went to New York to film the classic "Miracle on 34th Street," he called Ritter, a family friend, and asked her to take a tiny part as the exhausted mother of a little boy in line at Macy's to meet Santa. Ritter ends up fighting with the bearded old man when he promises the boy new skates for Christmas. Her second film role, in Joseph Mankiewicz's "A Letter to Three Wives" was also brief and uncredited and also made a huge impact. Mankiewicz thought of Ritter the following year and cast her as Birdie, the veteran theatre actress who works for Bette Davis' Margo Channing in the near-perfect "All About Eve." I say "near-perfect" because my one complaint about "All About Eve" has always been that the character of Birdie inexplicably disappears midway through the film. But when she's there, she steals just about every scene. When Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington first meets the gang in Margo's dressing room, everyone buys the sad, tragic tale of her life and her seemingly innocent idol worship of Margo. Everyone but Birdie, that is. After Eve brings the group to tears with stories of her dead soldier husband and how she found a reason to live by going to see Margo Channing's performance every night at the theatre, Ritter's Birdie breaks the spell with the following perfectly delivered line: "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end!"
The banter between Davis and Ritter as Margo and Birdie is perfect in every scene:
Margo Channing: You bought the new girdles a size smaller, I can feel it.
Birdie: Something maybe grew a size larger.
Margo Channing: When we get home you're going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and a half hours.
Birdie: I couldn't get into the girdle in two and a half hours.
Later, just before Ritter disappears from the film, Margo questions Birdie about her dislike of Eve.
Margo Channing: Birdie, you don't like Eve, do you?
Birdie: You looking for an answer or an argument?
Margo Channing: An answer.
Margo Channing: Why not?
Birdie: Now you want an argument.
Thelma Ritter didn't write that brilliant dialogue, of course, but she delivered every line she was given with such expertise and comic timing that she always left you wanting more, more, more! Ritter got a much deserved Academy Award nomination for "All About Eve" and five other supporting actress nominations in her career. She never won the award but she was highly respected in Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock recognized her talents and cast her as Jimmy Stewart's physical therapist in "Rear Window." In addition to helping him with his broken leg, Ritter's Stella freely dispenses advice to Stewart's Jeff, particularly about his gorgeous girlfriend Lisa played by Grace Kelly. Again, every line that comes out of Ritter's mouth is a gem.
Stella: When two people love each other, they come together—WHAM!—like two taxis on Broadway.
Jeff: She wants me to marry her.
Stella: That's normal.
Jeff: I don't want to.
Stella: That's abnormal.
Hitchcock hired Ritter again in 1956 to play the lead in an episode from his spooky TV anthology, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." I saw her episode, called "The Baby Sitter," just last week and loved every minute of it. When I logged onto the Internet Movie Database to read up on the rest of the cast, I was shocked to find a recent comment from a registered user of the site that described the episode as follows: "Over-acting ridiculously as always, Thelma Ritter is a thoroughly classless mess and ruins any potential this one may have had. I did watch it to the end, though, so I must be some sort of masochist." Flabbergasted by this commenter's review, I went through the laborious process of registering on IMDb just so I could respond.
"What? Thelma Ritter is a 'thoroughly classless mess?' As far as I'm concerned, Ritter lifts every film or TV show she's in, including this one which I just watched. Her comic timing, delivery, and poignancy can't be beat. I find her believable in every scene here. I think the previous commenter is objecting more to the script than the performance. As far as Ritter goes, I think she is one of the most underrated actresses of our time."
Oh well, I hope my passion came through at least! If only I could muster up the same level of enthusiasm for the candidates in today's Super Tuesday Presidential Primary. On second thought, I hereby declare Barack Obama the Thelma Ritter of the 2008 campaign: inspiring, amazingly talented, and able to deliver every line with perfect precision. I name Hillary Clinton the Anne Baxter of the campaign: articulate, skilled, and worthy, but exhibiting opportunistic and ruthless tendencies. And while I'm on my "All About Eve" bender, I'll declare John McCain the George Sanders of the race. Like Sanders' character Addison DeWitt, McCain knows how to turn a phrase for maximum effect and can skillfully appeal to the masses, but it's important that we all take a long look at his overall goals and self-serving agenda. Okay, now I've really lost it (and I may have to nominate this post as my gayest one of the new year)!
I can't think of a single Thelma Ritter performance I didn't love, even when I despised the movie. She was great in films like "The Mating Season," "Daddy Long Legs," and "The Proud and the Profane;" she added priceless comedy bits to two Doris Day movies, "Pillow Talk" and "Move Over, Darling;" and she managed to hold her own beautifully with co-stars Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift in Arthur Miller's "The Misfits." Ritter received her final Oscar nomination in 1962 as Burt Lancaster's mother in "The Birdman of Alcatraz."
Though passed over by the Motion Picture Academy, Thelma Ritter won a Best Actress Tony Award in 1958 for "New Girl in Town" (in a rare tie with her co-star Gwen Verdon) and an Emmy Award for the original TV version of Paddy Chayefsky's "The Catered Affair." Following her death, Chayefsky wrote a poignant tribute to the actress in the New York Times:
I did one show with Thelma Ritter, a television play called "The Catered Affair," an unfocused piece in which the first act was farce and the second was character-comedy, and the third was abruptly drama. There aren't a dozen actresses who could make one piece out of all that; Miss Ritter, of course, did. The fact is, she was never properly publicly recognized as an actress. She was blessed—or cursed—with a tough urban wit and a voice to match so she got all the gravelly Tenth Avenue parts. But anyone who saw her as Burt Lancaster's rigidly obsessed mother in "Birdman of Alcatraz" got an idea of what this woman could do.
In my show, she was enormous, not the sort of epithet usually pinned on Miss Ritter, who was known particularly for the astringency of her performance. Her acting emotion had first to filter through that urban crust of hers before it exhibited itself externally. Her power as an actress was consequently one of depth. Even her sketchiest roles had this substance of human embattlement. Given a role with implications like Linda Darnell's beer-swigging mother in "A Letter to Three Wives" or Marthy in "New Girl in Town," she revealed to her audience the tragedy of the human condition, which is the definition of great acting. She was a supreme comedian and a kind and gentle woman who was esteemed by everyone who ever worked with her.
In the end, that has to be, I suppose, the final tribute to an artist. She had become archetypical in her own profession; for many years now, there has been a wide range of women roles described by casting directors as "a Thelma Ritter type." She was a character actress, which means only that they don't write many starring parts for middle-aged women. The point is, she was a great character actress, the best we had, and she was not expendable.