February 14, 1902– Thelma Ritter
“Nobody’s Invented Polite Words Yet For Killing.”Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Rear Window
I just adore Thelma Ritter. She is one of the classiest character actors. Ritter had cool. She could coolly wither many a co-star away with just a single line of dialogue. She played wives, mothers, maids, wise types, tough cookies, working-class gals, solidly real women, and take-no-lip/mince-no-words females. I love that seen-it-all demeanor and her crackling New York City accented voice.
Ritter’s big showbiz break came relatively late in life. In 1946, when she was 44-years old, her friend, director George Seaton, offered Ritter a small role in what would become a favorite classic Christmas film Miracle On 34th Street. Her role was a walk-on, playing a tired mother doing Christmas shopping at Macy’s department store. That performance made quite an impression on Twentieth Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck who signed her to a contract.
Her second role was another bit part, this one in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s A Letter To Three Wives (1949), which got Ritter her third film job, playing Birdie in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), one of the greatest films of all time. It brought Ritter her first Academy Award nomination, and she held her own alongside powerhouse actors Bette Davis and Celeste Holm. Her performance shows Ritter at her wisecracking comic best.
The Academy loved her and she received a second Oscar nomination for her work in the screwball comedy The Mating Season (1951) with Gene Tierney. She also received Oscar nominations for With A Song In My Heart (1952) and for my favorite Ritter performance in Pickup On South Street (1953). That’s an astonishing four nominations in four years.
Ritter either chose good scripts or the gods of showbiz were smiling down on her because she appeared in many top-notch films during the rest of her career including: Titanic (the good one, 1953), cracking wise in Pillow Talk (1959) opposite Doris Day, and heartbreaking in Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) as the mother of Burt Lancaster‘s character. She received her fifth and sixth Oscar nominations for Pillow Talk and Birdman Of Alcatraz.
In Pickup On South Street, Ritter plays a tough grifter. She is only in the film for about 20 minutes, but every moment is a lesson in crucial, effective, scalpel-sharp acting. Her character is unlike anything else Ritter has ever done. Brilliantly and truthfully written by the film’s director Samuel Fuller, Ritter’s character is a seen-it-all woman, a stool pigeon positioned between the cops and the crooks, selling secrets, knowledge, and alliances. Ritter has a scene that is heart stopping and heartbreaking. She is like a character out of a Tom Waits song. Seek this one out.
In All About Eve, it’s not just the snide quips, the innuendos, the straight-out comedy that are so effective in the way Ritter plays Birdie. She is able to show disdain and judgment in scenes even when she doesn’t have dialogue. There’s that scene where she is severely disapproving of Davis’ Margo Channing, and she displays it simply, yet significantly, by entering Channing’s room, setting down the breakfast tray she’s brought in, walking over to open the shades, all without saying a word. It says so much while saying nothing.
For one of Ritter’s few Broadway appearances, the musical New Girl In Town (1957), choreographed by Bob Fosse, she won a Tony Award, tying with her costar, Gwen Verdon. Ritter liked working on stage and performed in summer stock and national tours of plays and musicals throughout her career. Ritter worked in screen musicals also, most notably in Daddy Long Legs (1957) with Fred Astaire.
In 1968, Ritter ended her film career much as she started it, with a walk-on role in a film directed by George Seaton, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?. She had come full circle. Ritter took her final bow in 1969, just days before her 67th birthday, suffering a heart attack after that fateful appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show, which might have killed me too.
Ritter is probably most famous for Rear Window, and that’s okay by me. Oddly, it failed to earn her another Oscar nomination. It is a Hitchcock masterpiece, and it would not be nearly as great without Ritter’s work. Her nurse character, Stella, admits that she has “a nose for trouble”. A self-described “maladjusted misfit”, Stella weaves herself into all the plot lines in this story. Her dialogue, delivered in that familiar, Brooklyn, working-class cadence is wise and very funny.
Rear Window (1954) is considered by movie fans, critics, and film historians to be one of Hitchcock’s best and one of the greatest films ever made.
Written by John Michael Hayes based on gay writer Cornell Woolrich‘s short story It Had To Be Murder (1942), the film stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr as bad baddie Lars Thorwald and Ritter. From the screenplay:
STELLA: (watching Thorwald washing down his bathroom) Must have splattered a lot. (Jeff and Lisa look at her.) Well, why not? That’s what we’re all thinking. He killed her in there, and he has to wipe up the stains before he leaves.
LISA: Stella, your choice of words …
STELLA: Nobody’s invented polite words yet for killing.
Stella’s plain-spokenness gets to the heart of the matter, you gotta love that.
I always perked up when I heard a casting director announce: “Get me a Thelma Ritter type!” Unbelievable, I know, but I actually played a Thelma Ritter role (sort of). In Applause (1970), the stage musical based on All About Eve, I was Birdie, renamed “Duane” in the musical, and made into a gay male hairdresser for no particular reason at all. Still in my teens when I did this role in summer stock, I still used Ritter’s work in film as my jumping-off place for my character, aping her voice and persona.
I nominate Ritter for Coolest Character Actor Of All Time. Don’t you feel that she deserves it? I would really like to receive a review that would read: “Stephen Rutledge was brilliant as a male version of Thelma Ritter, world weary, wise-cracking and wise…“