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The Career of Thelma Ritter

Six-time Academy Award nominated actress Thelma Ritter is known for playing the supporting roles of dry, sarcastic, “street smart” women. Her performances were always delightful to watch, no matter what kind of film she appeared in. However, there was a time where Thelma Ritter was virtually non-existent to Hollywood. Thelma was otherwise known as a wife and mother to two children living in New York. She would be termed as a “late-bloomer” when Thelma started her career at forty, but as the old saying goes, “It’s better later than never.”

Initially, a young Thelma Ritter completed her formal training at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. Afterwards, she establish a stage career on Broadway, appearing in a comedy titled “In Times Square” and another dramedy titled “The Shelf.” Thelma also had a brief career in radio before she met and married Joseph Moran. Then, Thelma settled down, had two children of her own and it looked like her career in show business came to end.

But at forty years old, her career would start again. During the filming of “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), Thelma was asked to fill an uncredited “walk-on” role. She accepted it and appeared in the film as the mother who has trouble trying to find a toy her son wants for Christmas. After, Thelma made a few more uncredited appearances in films until her on-screen presence shined as “Birdie” in “All About Eve” (1950). As “Birdie,” Thelma was Bette Davis’ assistant, who is first to see through Eve’s facade. While the other characters weep over Eve’s tragic story, Birdie makes a dry, sarcastic remark, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”

Thelma’s portrayal won her first Golden Globe and Oscar nominations in the “Best Supporting Actress” category. Hence, the character “Birdie” became the set-up for the characters Thelma would put a stamp on as her on-screen persona. Her supporting characters would offer “street smart” wisdom and little life lessons with playful humor and attitude, but they never became boring or felt as if Thelma was type-cast.

Compare the differences between two of her most notable characters, “Stella” from Alfred Hitchcock's “Rear Window” and “Isabelle Steers” from “The Misfits” (1961).

“Stella” was the home care nurse who looked after “L.B. Jefferies” (James Stewart) after he broke his leg and entertains himself by watching his neighbors in their apartments. At first, Stella cautions and jibes Jefferies about being a “peeping tom” but ends up becoming one herself when she is intrigued by the macabre possibility that a murder may have occurred in one of the other apartments. Who could forget the scene where Stella embellishes on her ideas of how the body could have been disposed? It made Jefferies lose his appetite.

Then as “Isabelle Steers,” Thelma portrayed a woman who had a little bit more of a hardened shell and knew what its like to be a newly divorced woman in Reno. She dispersed some of her wisdom and philosophy down to her tenant Marilyn Monroe.

Although Thelma’s career only lasted a mere twenty years, she left a legacy of being known as one of the greatest character actresses ever.

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