Who’s that girl?: Thelma Ritter

One of the most visible and beloved supporting players of the 1950s was a middle-aged, theater-trained actress from Brooklyn, Thelma Ritter.

You may not know her name, but if you’re a classic movie fan, you know her face. Ritter appeared in supporting roles in a series of big-name films opposite some big-name stars—Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Lancaster, James Stewart, Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Gregory Peck, Grace Kelly, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, and Doris Day among them—in a two-decade-long Hollywood career. And along the way, Ritter racked up an impressive six Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress (four of them consecutively between 1950 and 1953).

It’s always wonderful to pop in an old movie and see Thelma Ritter’s name appear in the opening credits. Whether she’s tackling comedy or drama, her performance is always one that draws the eye. Even in her first movie, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street (for which she was uncredited), Ritter’s short scene as a mother seeking the “perfect” fire engine for her son is a memorable one within the film.

Her “big break” came in 1950’s All About Eve, in which Ritter plays Birdie, the long-suffering personal maid to stage diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Down-to-earth Birdie is the first person in Eve to grow wise to the title character’s machinations, and Ritter does a wonderful job in helping the audience see the first glimmers of deception in Eve’s story. And it’s no wonder Ritter is so phenomenal in the role: the film’s writer/director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wrote the part with Ritter specifically in mind after having worked with her in the previous year’s A Letter to Three Wives. Ultimately, Ritter’s performance was noteworthy enough to garner her first Academy Award nomination (one of fourteen nominations for that film, incidentally).

I was first exposed to Thelma Ritter in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), in which she plays James Stewart’s no-nonsense nurse, Stella. It’s a relatively small role, but Ritter is phenomenal in it—in fact, I’d argue that it’s the best role of her career. Initially skeptical of her employer’s claims that the man across the way murdered his wife, Stella eventually becomes an enthusiastic accomplice in their quest to uncover the crime. Ritter shares a great on-screen camaraderie not only with Stewart, but with costar Grace Kelly, as the two women actively investigate the mystery while Stewart remains frustratingly confined in his wheelchair. I’m just surprised that Ritter didn’t score another Oscar nomination for the role.

One of my favorite Ritter roles is in the 1959 romantic comedy Pillow Talk. She plays Doris Day’s housekeeper, Alma, who shows up for work every morning with a killer hangover and spends her days mooning over Day’s dreamy party-line partner, Rock Hudson. The scene in which Hudson’s character, Brad, tries to get Alma drunk in order to finagle a relationship with Day—only to have Alma out-drink him into a stupor—is one of the best parts of the movie:

Brad: “I know a nice little bar, right down the street.”
Alma: [grabs his arm and pulls him along] “I know a better one.”

Her hilarious role in Pillow Talk presented Ritter with her fifth Oscar nomination.

Though she found a great deal of success in Hollywood, Ritter was also an accomplished stage actress, winning a 1958 Tony Award for Best Leading Performance in a Musical for her role in New Girl in Town, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie (which was so memorably brought to the screen as Greta Garbo’s first “talkie” in 1930). Ritter shared the award with her costar, Gwen Verdon.

The 1960s brought Ritter several more acclaimed roles, including a supporting part in the final completed film for actors Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, The Misfits (1961); a sixth Oscar-nominated performance as the mother of the titular character in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962); an appearance next to Debbie Reynolds in the star-studded Western epic How the West Was Won (also in 1962); and a reunion with Day in 1963’s Move Over, Darling.

Ritter passed away in 1969, just shy of her 67th birthday. She left behind a body of work comprising more than thirty films and a wide variety of stage and television performances. She never won an Oscar, but not for nothing was she one of the most-nominated actors of all time. Despite having only spent two decades in Hollywood, Thelma Ritter certainly left one hell of a mark on the classic cinematic landscape.

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