I’ve been making vague noises about doing this for some time. I got into celebrating living people because I somehow ended up writing obituaries, and I wanted to write about living people for a change. And it’s great, and I enjoy it every week. That’s fine. But the longer I went, the more often I’d think, “Man, I would have written about so-and-so for this column if only they hadn’t died in 1972.” The same kind of quietly competent people I tend to prefer for Celebrating the Living, ones we’ll miss when they’re gone but almost don’t notice for now. Not the people everyone writes about; the people you’re more likely to hear, “Oh, wait, I know who you’re talking about now” about.
Which brings us neatly to Thelma Ritter, who I always knew would be the first person I’d cover if I started the column. In fact, she shares an early movie with someone I won’t be covering; her seventh movie was All About Eve. But she first came to anyone’s attention with a small, uncredited role in her very first movie. She’s the harassed mother trying to get Santa not to promise her kid a specific toy fire engine who brings Kris’s habit of sending people to other stores to management’s attention in Miracle on 34th Street. She has two scenes and steals the picture.
That’s what Thelma Ritter did. She was old and plain for a Hollywood actress; she was forty-five when she played “Peter’s Mother.” In fact, for much of her adult life, she was a housewife. She’d acted young, then took time off to be a stay-at-home mother, then returned to acting. She was never the lead, but I don’t think she’ll ever be forgotten. She wasn’t flashy, but she was good. Bette Davis could rely on her, and James Stewart, and Debbie Reynolds. And audiences.
For now, she ties for the record of most Oscar nominations for an actress without a win. She had six, all supporting. Four in a row, too, from 1950 and All About Eve to 1953 and Pickup on South Street. I haven’t seen all the relevant movies, but in the years when I’ve seen both hers and the winning film, you can think, “Well, yeah, I guess that was the right choice,” but it’s still a little sad. And because she died so young, at only 66, she probably wasn’t ever considered for an honorary Oscar. Not to mention because she was a middle-aged woman who played a lot of maids and best friends.
While I’ll always remember her first as Agatha Clegg, the husband-hunter who latches herself onto Debbie Reynolds as Lilith Prescott in How the West Was Won, there’s perhaps an argument that the quintessential Thelma Ritter role is Stella in Rear Window. She’s there to do a job. She’s good at the job. She enjoys it, even if she also enjoys her right to say sarcastic things while she’s at it. And she gets caught up in the main action to the point that the movie almost stops moving forward without her. At first, you barely notice her, but goodness you’d miss her if she were gone. Attention must be paid.