Dear Thelma Ritter:
We think you’re the best thing since all-you-can-eat chocolate fondue.
As an actor, you never were leading-lady material, yet when we’re watching your movies, we can’t wait until your next appearance on screen. You can do no wrong in our eyes. Who cares that you stole just about every scene you were in? We expect that of you!
You made over 30 Hollywood movies, and were nominated for six Oscars, none of which were awarded to you. (This irks us every time we think about it, but we digress.) You did win a Tony in 1958 for Best Actress (Musical) for New Girl in Town. But even that was a tie, a shared victory with your co-star, Gwen Verdon. Public recognition by your peers in the most prestigious ways was never to be yours.
Why is that? Is it because you were famous for playing mothers, nurses, maids, assistants – maternal characters who only served the lead actors? All your famous roles, and your Academy Award nominations, were for these types of supporting characters.
No matter what role you played, you were utterly charming. You could wear an unattractive oversized coat and a squashed hat, yet we never really paid much attention to these. We saw only you, and your character’s humanity, and we loved you all the more for it.
Your first film role was in Miracle on 34th Street, and your name didn’t even appear in the credits. It wasn’t a big role; you played a harried mother and Christmas shopper trying to fight her way through the crowds. But producer Darryl F. Zaunck was so impressed by you, he insisted on giving you more screen time.
You proved you could hold your own against Bette Davis in All About Eve. You were Davis’ assistant, Birdie, a no-nonsense woman who gave Davis good advice that she airily dismissed. Davis was the star, Thelma, but you kept the movie grounded and we relied upon you to give us perspective.
Our favourite movie of yours is The Mating Season. Here you were Ellen McNulty, the unsophisticated hamburger-flipping mother of John Lund, who marries rich society girl Gene Tierney. You were completely credible in the unusual situation the character finds herself in, and you proved you could pull the rug out from under famed scene-stealer Miriam Hopkins.
Alfred Hitchock needed you as the no-nonsense nurse, Stella, in Rear Window. There had to be a character telling wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart to mind his own business, and to remind the audience that there was a big world outside of Stewart’s claustrophobic environment.
Thelma, you went all-out as the perpetually hung-over Alma in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk. You were Doris Day’s maid, but in your scenes together, Day’s impressive comedic talents seemed pale compared to yours. Your performance is so funny we find we’re constantly clicking the re-wind button. How could you say some of those lines and not be doubled over with laughter?
We liked you in The Misfits, but truthfully we’re annoyed that you were written out of the script too early. Here you were Marilyn Monroe’s friend, telling her to cool her jets with aging Clark Gable. It’s a magnificent, serious film, but it feels somehow wanting with your character’s early exit.
You also appeared on radio and television. It was in 1969, shortly after you taped an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show, that you suffered a heart attack from which you did not recover.
Thelma, you knew what it meant to be in the movies. You knew that audiences expected charisma and perfection, and you gave it to us. Thank you for that, and for giving us some of the most enjoyable moments on film.