I don't think it's a stretch to say that Thelma Ritter was a genius of sorts. Nondescript in appearance, middle-aged, sporting a constantly-irritated expression and the kind of Brooklyn accent actors are no longer allowed to have, she spent her entire career stealing both scenes and entire films -- Rear Window, Pillow Talk, The Misfits, The Mating Season, etc. etc. etc. -- from glamorous, big-name stars. She stole them, however, not through hamminess or attention-getting ticks. Instead, she was simply so real, and so convincing that it was impossible to meet her on screen, and then forget her. Once spotted, we instantly want to know everything about her character: Where is she from? Does she live alone? Why is she so pissed off? Or, alternately, why does she pretend to be so pissed-off when we know her heart is broken?

Ritter was nominated for six best supporting actress awards, including nominations four years in a row between 1950 (All About Eve) and 1953 (Pickup on South Street). The fact that she never won is somehow fitting for an actress whose career was built on of unappreciated characters, but if you watch Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, you'll realize that it's also a crime. In the film, Ritter plays a small-time crook named Moe. She looks and acts like she's about 400-years-old, worn down by the street, and the daily tedium of survival. One of her friends, Skip (played by an unusually subdued Richard Widmark), has gotten them both into big trouble, and the two grab a safe moment together in an all-night diner. The scene is a wonder to behold, and Ritter is glorious. Every day of Moe's life is etched on her face, and the resignation in her voice somehow lets us see every single day of her grinding, hard-scrabble life. There's no weeping or gnashing of teeth here, simply an adult letting her guard down for a second, in quiet a moment of shared regret. Ritter lost that year to Donna Reed in From Here to Eternity; I like to think that, knowing the truth, she just laughed.
categories Features, Cinematical