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Thelma Ritter (1902 – 1967)

Playing Second Fiddle Like a Virtuoso

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 27 days ago 4 min read
6
Bette Davis as Margo Channing and Thelma Ritter as Birdie Coonan in All About Eve (1950)

Margo Channing may well be the most talented actress of her generation, a star. But do you care what happens to her?

Yes, yes you do, because in Mankiewicz’s award winning screenplay of All About Eve (1950), he has written the part of Birdie Coonan; Margo’s wise-cracking, streetwise, ex-vaudevillian best friend:

Margo: This is my dear friend and companion, Miss Birdie Coonan

Birdie: (rolls her eyes and with heavy New York accent) Oh Brother! When she gets like this, all of a sudden she’s playing Hamlet’s mother!

Thelma Ritter played second fiddle to a Bette Davis star role.

But without Birdie’s world-weary, savvy sarcasm we would struggle to care about the leading lady’s plight.

So this is in praise of the character actor, Thelma Ritter, who made sure the stars of the show could shine.

The watchful eye of Birdie (Thelma Ritter) in All About Eve (1950)

Thelma’s movie career didn’t start until the late 1940s – when she was roughly the same vintage as the century. She had made a name in radio and on Broadway, but had taken a career break to raise her two children. Her first film role was an uncredited part in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947.

Three years later she received her first of six Oscar supporting actress nominations for Birdie Coonan in All About Eve.

She was nominated in this category so often, because she excelled at the sassy best-friend, the knowing sidekick, the female fool to female King Lears.

Thelma Ritter has played the best friend, second-fiddle, maid or nurse to Bette Davis, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable and Doris Day

Thelma as Isabelle and Marilyn as Roslyn in The Misfits (1961)

And we all need a Thelma in our life.

Roxanne Gay makes this point when she says:

"Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive… This myth is like heels and purses – pretty but designed to SLOW women down."

In All About Eve, some female relationships are manipulative and hypocritical. Actresses are left feeling abandoned by an industry that craves youth and spits out it stars in its constant search for the next best thing. In a world of sell-by dates, women are left vulnerable and with rough, raw edges. A helping hand gets pulled so hard, the shoulder is out of joint.

But then there is Birdie. She has no stakes in highlighting the conflicts and manipulations of the other characters. She just shows up, does her job and shares with us, the audience, her insights. Without her we would never see the warmth and vulnerability of Margo. She provides witness, testimony and protection.

Margo: She [Eve] thinks only of me, doesn’t she?

Birdie: Well, let’s say she thinks only about you, anyway?

Margo: How do you mean that?

Birdie: I’ll tell you how. Like, she’s studying you. Like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints. How you walk, talk, eat, think.

Doris Day and Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk (1959)

And Thelma Ritter repeats this trick across her film career with a lack of vanity and excess of comic timing. She provides the unsolicited advice with a canny sense of what’s needed.

Jan: I have a good job, a lovely apartment, I go out with very nice men to the best places; the theatre, the finest restaurants… What am I missing?

Alma: When you have to ask, believe me, you’re missing it?

Jan: Well, what is a girl supposed to? Go out in the street and ask the first man she meets to come home with her?

Alma: No. Don’t do that. It don’t work.

Doris Day and Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk

Doris Day is Jan, the up-tight career-driven, got-it-together, but not entirely likeable interior decorator of Pillow Talk (1959). To make Jan’s shortcomings clear, we have Alma, her maid, played by Thelma Ritter. Alma arrives to work everyday with a hangover. We don’t know anymore details of her life because we don’t need them. Alma is there as the words of wisdom of someone who has been there and seen that. Jan needs Alma to provide perspective. And we need Thelma to provide the commentary.

Thelma Ritter, Grace Kelly and James Stewart in Rear Window (1954)

People on the sidelines can say more interesting things, simply because less attention is paid to them.

As James Stewart’s nurse in Rear Window (1954) , she can be the voice of reason, the social critic.

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms”

Thelma Ritter and Susan Hayward as Clancy and Jane in A Song in My Heart (1952)

Thelma Ritter was the consummate character actor. In credits she was always “with” never “starring”, but she was the actor that added depth and style to any film. When the other characters don’t listen to her because she doesn’t matter to the plot, we do. We listen. We take her seriously; even if she is drunk; even if she is old; even if she is over-worked; even if she doesn’t have a mid-Atlantic accent; even if she didn't get to wear the pretty gowns; even if she didn’t wake up looking like Gene Tierney or Marilyn Monroe.

We listen because she is the sassy best friend. And like any good female friend, she offers a refuge from the constant pressure to be perfect, self-reliant and relentlessly productive. And she does it all with an impeccably timed wise-crack.

Jane: Clancy, you're wonderful.

Clancy: That's why the lovelorn all come to me for advice. Cuddles Clancy, they call me.

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About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

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Comments (6)

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  • BJ Cob22 days ago

    I enjoyed this and look forward to reading more of your work.

  • This was great! And it reminds me that I really should re-watch Rear Window! :)

  • Grz Colm27 days ago

    Excellent! Thelma practically steals the show in “Rear Window” - one of my favourite films. She is hilarious in it! Thanks for sharing this terrific article. 😊

  • Marie Wilson27 days ago

    Love Thelma! And so did/do her fans & Hollywood itself. She was a highly-rated character actress who gave us many good sidekick roles (loved her in "Pick Up On South Street" among many others). Your article adds to that adoration, as well as being informative! Thanks, Rachel.

  • Thank you Rachel. This was such a great article and nice to learn more about such an underrated actress.

  • Mother Combs27 days ago

    great article

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