If there’s some kind of cafeteria in heaven, I want to sit next to Thelma Ritter. She’ll give me the low-down, tell me who’s full of it, and, the best part, make me laugh. Here on Earth I would love to have a wise, warm, witty woman to talk to, hang with, alert me to bullshit and definitely call me on my own.
If you don’t know who Thelma Ritter is, stop whatever you’re doing right now and watch AllAbout Eve. Right now. I’m not kidding. In addition to the all the great things about About, to borrow from The Notorious B.I.G, “If you don’t know, now you know.” Her part was fairly small, but her Thelma Ritter-ness was so potent she earned herself an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Thelma’s the first one on to the phony (“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end!”) and the first one on to the sinister (“It’s like she’s studying you….”) Her character, Birdie, has been around, and she knows all about people and the ins and outs, of the theatre world (“Next to a tenor a wardrobe woman is the touchiest thing in show business”).
But one of my favorite things about Birdie isn’t just that’s she’s got everyone’s number. One of Thelma’s strengths as an actress is that you don’t just see Birdie as some smartass sidekick. She’s a woman with agency; she’s got her own history and desires, and we want to know all about them. (I, for one, would be more interested in knowing all about Birdie’s life than Eve’s.) When Gary Merrill’s character says he’s going to Hollywood and asks if Birdie’s got any message he should relay to Tyrone Power, Thelma says, “Just give him my phone number, I’ll tell him myself.” For me, that line rivals the famous “bumpy night”.
While her role in All About Eveis her most famous, it’s not Thelma Ritter’s only stand-out. Speaking of famous, her very first time on screen was in Miracle on 34thStreet. She had a teensy role as a harried shopper, and Twentieth-Century Fox’s Joseph Mankiewicz was so impressed he expanded her part. She then got an uncredited role in Mankiewicz’s Oscar-winning Letter to Three Wives. (Never heard of it? Check it out.) She’s the salty, down-to-earth friend of Linda Darnell’s salty, down-to-earth mom. Again, it’s a small part, but her interaction with Linda, especially when she’s a maid at Ann Sothern’s party, is one of the movie’s highlights. Thelma is also well-remembered for her role as James Stewart’s salty, down-to-earth caretaker (see a pattern?) in Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Thelma Ritter makes the most of what could have been a non-memorable character. She goes from being cynical about Stewart’s suspicions to being a full-on accomplice in the investigation. Once again, Thelma makes you totally believe she isher character. The audience totally believes Thelma’s been a nurse for decades. (The off-hand and knowing massage she gives Jimmy tells us she’s done this a hundred times.) Just as we believed Birdie’s seen it all in All About. We believed she is that exhausted shopper in 34thStreet.
Thelma Ritter was nominated for an Oscar 4 years in a row, and nominated several years later several times. Tragically, Thelma Ritter never won. Of all the various Oscar rip-offs throughout history , Thelma’s Oscar-lessness is one of the biggest. (It rivals the WTF-ness of Cary Grant’s.) This is all the more maddening when you’re aware of Thelma Ritter’s impressive range as an actress. Don’t go thinking she only played world-weary but warm women with common sense as noticeable as her New York accent. In The Birdman of Alcatraz, Ritter plays Burt Lancaster’s cold-as-ice mother, so cold she’s the polar oppositeof the fun parts she’s best known for, like Doris Day’s can-drink-Rock-Hudson-under-the-table housekeeper in Pillow Talk. But it’s Thelma Ritter’s performance in Pickup on South Streetthat’s the most impressive, heart-breaking and Oscar-deserving. Ritter plays a woman who sells “personality neckwear” (ties to you) who makes money on the side as a police informant on cannons (pick-pockets to you). (She wants enough money to be able to pay for a decent funeral. “If I was to be buried in Potter’s Field it would just about kill me.”) She plays a wise, experienced woman exhausted by her hard-scrabble life, but with inexplicable soft spots for romantic French music and no-good thief Richard Widmark. But she doesn’t like communists. The poor woman “has to make a living so she can die”, and her she exemplifies the term “world-weary” in this scene. She’s so weary of making her way in this world, I defy you not to tear up during her last scene.
I’ve always been aware, if only subconsciously, that Thelma Ritter added to every scene and movie she was ever in. She always adds something. But then, looking her up today, I see that she was born in 1902. This means that Birdie in All About Eve is younger than I am now. Her pathetic, shattered character in Pickup on South Street is younger than I. Jeez, I’m the same age as the aged maid in Pillow Talk! My first reaction was the realization that, “Holy fuck, I am OLD. I am Thelma Ritter old!” But then I realized that what I honor and respect about all those Thelma Ritter characters I can learn to honor and respect about myself.
In movies, Thelma Ritter has been the gift that keeps on giving my whole life. But maybe now she’s giving me one last gift: the perspective to see that what I celebrate about those fried but fierce women’s lives I could try and celebrate about my own. So hell yeah, I’m as old as Thelma Ritter in those movies, even older. I’m as old, exhausted, and I’m as authentic and astute. I can love in myself what I’ve always loved in you. So, dear friend, “Thelma…thanks.”