Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Greatest Character Actress


In 1947 a 42-year old unknown actress from Brooklyn who had trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts but had appeared in only minor stage and radio parts made her first movie. The role was uncredited and she appeared in a brief scene near the beginning of the movie. In that scene she played the mother of a fractious child who cannot find the Christmas present her boy wants at Macy's and is directed by the department store Santa Claus to a competing store. The scene was devised to highlight the integrity of the possibly delusional elderly man playing Santa Claus (who calls himself Kris Kringle) and to advance the plot by placing his job in jeopardy. The Santa was played by the great character actor Edmund Gwenn in the role of a lifetime that would earn him the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. But it was the unknown actress who dominated the scene, effortlessly stealing it from its intended focus and creating an unforgettable impression. The movie was, of course, the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street and the actress was Thelma Ritter.

The tiny role also did a great deal to set the screen persona that Ritter would, with only minor variations, later turn into a twenty-year-long career. As the mother in Miracle on 34th Street Ritter immediately made a strong impression as an outspoken, determined, confident woman who tolerates no nonsense and is in full control of herself and the situation. What was the origin of these basic qualities that seemed to emerge in nearly every character she played? Was it an intentionally created image, either by her agents or by the actress herself? Was it an example of studio typecasting (most of her early pictures, including Miracle on 34th Street, were 20th Century-Fox productions)? Was it the conscious or unconscious projection of traits she actually possessed? Nobody can say for certain. What one can say is that the "Thelma Ritter character" in a movie is typified by certain elements that don't vary a great deal no matter what the role or the context.

Thelma Ritter is always candid. Completely lacking in pretense, she is the plain-speaking, straight-spoken voice of reason. She is the person who keeps things grounded in reality when willful blindness to reality threatens to send the situation out of control. She is the one who tries to keep things down-to-earth when flights of fancy seem about to overcome normally reasonable and practical people.

As Stella, James Stewart's nurse in Rear Window, it is Ritter who repeatedly warns Stewart of the folly of his pastime of spying on his neighbors. She is the oracle predicting the danger in allowing a seemingly harmless way to while away the hours spent confined to a wheelchair to become an uncontrollable obsession, of allowing wanton curiosity to metamorphose into voyeurism. When outright warnings don't work, she attempts to redirect Stewart's attention by counseling him to marry his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) instead and inject some stability into his peripatetic life as a news photographer. But after Stewart ignores her advice in both areas, Ritter willingly jumps right in to help him out of the trouble he has brought upon himself and literally bails Kelly out of the criminal charges she faces because of Stewart's obsessive behavior.

Thelma Ritter is always wise. But her wisdom is not of the intellectual variety and certainly not learned in any formal institution of education. She has instead acquired her wisdom as the result of innate intelligence, copious experience, and perceptive observation. She has the self-taught ability to penetrate beneath the surface of life and perceive its underlying reality. She is a self-trained psychologist with a thorough knowledge of human behavior and motivation.

In All About Eve, in which she plays Margo Channing's maid Birdie, herself a retired stage performer, she is the only one who is immediately suspicious of Eve Harrington, the seemingly adoring acolyte and protégée of the great actress. Everyone else accepts Eve's tale of her sad past and her idolatrous attitude toward Margo without question. Only Ritter openly expresses dubiety about Eve's motives, realizing that her harmless exterior actually conceals a devious and scheming nature.

Thelma Ritter is highly opinionated but rarely judgmental. She doesn't condemn anyone for honest failings, weakness, or bad decision-making. She knows that human beings are by nature flawed creatures, and she is enough of a realist to know how difficult it is for people to recognize and transcend their own shortcomings. As long as they are honest (or at least honestly self-deluded), she accepts others for what they are. It is pretense and dishonesty that she abhors. And she can detect and gauge insincerity like a Geiger counter measuring radioactivity.

In The Mating Season (a delightful romantic comedy directed by Mitchell Leisen that deserves to be better known) Ritter plays the mother of a loving but social-climbing son who is a junior executive engaged to a rich socialite. The owner of a money-losing hamburger stand, Ritter sells up without telling her son and travels to the town where he lives to surprise him. As soon as she arrives she can tell that he is apprehensive about the impression his unsophisticated, working-class mother will make on his fiancée, his employer, and his new social set. She doesn't seem to resent this, for although she knows that money and status have nothing to do with a person's worth, she knows enough about the world to accept that they are important to her son's social and career prospects. Later when the son's new wife innocently mistakes Ritter for her new cook, Ritter goes along with the mistake and persuades her reluctant son to join her in the deception. She genuinely likes her daughter-in-law, a naive and guileless young woman, and does all she can to help her manage the household, a task clearly beyond the bride's experience and capability.

When the daughter-in-law's domineering and flighty mother, played with drollery and quite convincing pettiness by Miriam Hopkins, shows up and attempts to seize control of the newlyweds and their household, Ritter recognizes a phony through and through. Here is a wicked mother-in-law motivated by self-interest and the desire to control her daughter's life for her own advantage. And unlike her daughter, Hopkins is condescending and bossy to Ritter. The battle lines for control of the newlyweds are drawn, but with Ritter's ability to deflect falsity and to direct genuine good will in others, the outcome is never in doubt.

Ritter is always selfless. She cares about others more than about herself and always puts their welfare before her own interests. Perhaps this helps explain why she usually seemed to play a character at the service of others—a maid, housekeeper, nurse, or cook—for she is a born helper. Reliability is essential to her nature; she never lets anybody down. And she is always protective of her charges, urging them in the right direction, giving them sage advice, and protecting them from themselves and others.

Ritter had perhaps the largest role of her career in The Model and the Marriage Broker. Although billed third, she is in every way the star of the movie. For once she is the prime mover in the plot, not a wise-cracking bystander whose function is to comment on the characters and action while they make it happen. In this George Cukor-directed movie, she plays the middle-aged owner of a marriage bureau. A self-employed small-business owner she may be, but even in her profession she devotes herself to helping others.

Unhappy in love herself in youth, she specializes in matchmaking for the hopeless and pathetic, exactly those most in need of her services. She departs from this pattern when she decides to find a mate for an attractive young model foolishly wasting her time on a married man. After many complications and misunderstandings, Ritter finally uses her skills to sort out and fix several relationships beset with problems, including the model's and that of the woman who stole her own husband from her years ago. In this case her selflessness pays off when she even succeeds in reviving her own dormant love life.

But Ritter's greatest professional triumph came in what is possibly her least typical role, a dramatic part in the cynical thriller Pickup on South Street. In a movie that is masterfully directed by Samuel Fuller and full of accomplished performances, including arguably the best ever by Richard Widmark, it is Ritter who in a supporting role creates what is for me the most indelible moments in a great film. She plays Moe, a down-and-out character just a step away from being a bag lady. Moe is a small-time street peddler and police informant. When the police want to locate a pickpocket (Widmark) who has stolen top-secret microfilm destined for spies from the purse of the villain's girlfriend, they go to Moe to find him.

Unfortunately, the villain (played with real menace by Richard Kiley) also goes to Moe for the same information. But Ritter has promised Widmark she will not betray him, and Ritter always honors her promises, even if she must die to keep her word. Ritter's demeanor during this encounter is a marvel. Completely gone is the typical Ritter resolve. Here she is a woman exhausted from a long and difficult life, a resigned woman who knows what lies in store for her and also knows that any opposition will be futile. She simply lies on the bed in her shabby rented room and offers no resistance as Kiley takes out his pistol. She looks in the other direction and waits for the inevitable to happen. The panning camera follows her gaze until she is out of the frame, and as a phonograph plays in the background we hear a single shot. In unexpectedly playing against type and appearing in a film quite different from her usual fare, Ritter transcended her own image and fashioned an unforgettable performance that seems all the more remarkable when considered in the context of her entire body of screen work.

Thelma Ritter received six Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress but never won. She did occasional work on television and continued to make a handful of feature films in the 1960's. But the heyday of her career was the 1950's. There has never been a character actress quite like her. She was one of those rare performers who are truly one of a kind, with an identifiable style and screen persona that nobody else can touch. For me she will always be the greatest character actress of all time.
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Pickup on South Street plays on Turner Classic Movies on Monday, August 11 at 5 p.m. (PDT). The next edition of The Movie Projector will appear on Monday, August 18.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mr. Finch! I adore Ms. Ritter's work too.

For a second thinking, I also adore another lady who we called Ethel Barrymore, completely different personality from Ritter, but what a delight just to see her in any movie. Any comment?

Sam Juliano said...

R.D. This is a truly marvelous piece of writing, filled with all sorts of fascinating information and remembrances of this quintessentially great character actress. That was a deliciously exciting lead-in, documenting that first screen appearance at a relatively advanced age, in a scene I have enjoyed over a hundred times in my time. Who could have predicted how this "candid" and "down to earth" actress would mount such a fantastically distingished career?
I was enthralled reading abour Ritter's reliance of experience and observation, rather than inate intelligence to navigate her roles:

"She has the self-taught ability to penetrate beneath the surface of life and perceive its underlying reality. She is a self-trained psychologist with a thorough knowledge of human behavior and motivation."

I personally rate her performances as Stella and Birdie as her greatest, but I'll have to agree that her Moe is near the top as well. It is indeed her least typical role, and you describe and document it brilliantly.

(as far as Widmark, I'd still give a slight edge to his NIGHT AND THE CITY performance as his best, but it's close with the one you rightly mention here).

I was very moved by this paragraph:

"Ritter is always selfless. She cares about others more than about herself and always puts their welfare before her own interests. Perhaps this helps explain why she usually seemed to play a character at the service of others—a maid, housekeeper, nurse, or cook—for she is a born helper. Reliability is essential to her nature; she never lets anybody down. And she is always protective of her charges, urging them in the right direction, giving them sage advice, and protecting them from themselves and others."

God, how true.

That statistic of no wins in six tries for an Oscar is further proof of the insignificance of AMPAS.

Thelma Ritter would be proud of this writing, R.D.