Oh, boy, how I've been looking forward to writing about Thelma Ritter! You know how there's always that one actor you see over and over again in movies and/or TV that you like, but can never remember their name? This was more of a thing in the pre-Internet days, when information about a given movie or star was not always at one's fingertips. Anyway, Thelma was the embodiment of this trope for me back in my video store days. I'd see her in something - always as a supporting character, never as a lead - and I'd always like her, but I could never remember who she was.
But the important thing is that I did like her - and so did the Academy. Some would consider being Oscar nominated six times without a win a failure, but in recent years, I've had reason to believe that winning an Oscar is not all it's cracked up to be. We talk about it, we fuss over it, we make a big deal when our favorite actors or directors win them - I've done it before, and I'll do it again - but you know, it's all just a game. It's a popularity contest, actually, and if thespians like Ritter - and for that matter, Deborah Kerr, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Annette Bening and Glenn Close - never grabbed that little gold man despite being nominated multiple times, how can that be seen as a negative? After all, they must've been doing something right if they kept getting nominated, no?
So. All About Eve. Birdie is basically Margo's sidekick and comedy relief, true, but she's also there to keep Margo honest, because she knows where Margo's been. Their relationship works both ways, though: she's not anywhere near as cultured as Margo, and Margo lets her know whenever she puts her foot in her mouth. And she has a life separate from Margo, or at least she did. Birdie may not be essential to the story, but she deepens it, and Thelma made the most of the role.
But Thelma was just as skilled in drama as with comedy. Just look at Pickup on South Street, probably her best role. (Unfortunately, it came during the year of From Here to Eternity, which dominated the Oscars.) Thelma co-hosted the Oscars the year she was nominated for Pickup. She wasn't exactly Billy Crystal, but she was there on stage, in a live feed from New York, talking to Bob Hope in LA. You can see it on YouTube here, beginning at about 3:36.
Did you know Thelma won a Tony? New Girl in Town debuted on Broadway in 1957, and Thelma starred in it with Gwen Verdon, who was just coming off of Damn Yankees. Verdon played a hooker who comes back home to live with her father, trying to escape her sordid past. Thelma played Verdon's stepmom, and the two of them split the Best Actress in a Musical award. Yes, Thelma sings, and while she was no Ethel Merman, she wasn't bad.
In these days of instant stardom, coming quicker and for younger people, you rarely see an actor achieving success later in life. Thelma was 45 when she first appeared on screen, after a career in theater and radio, in an uncredited bit part in the original Miracle on 34th Street, but she was good enough in that bit part to get noticed, and the rest is history. You gotta admire that. Thelma may not have been a leading lady, but in the hearts of movie fans, she was and remains an A-lister for sure.
Next: Douglas Fairbanks
Films with Thelma Ritter:
Miracle on 34th Street
Pickup on South Street
Jack Lemmon Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson Rita Moreno
Frank Capra Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell James Dean
Ethel Waters William Powell
Tod Browning Edith Head