I feel comfortable with those who are generous with sarcasm. My dad is a smartass, my sisters, my aunts, my best friend, my husband. Not surprisingly, most of my favorite female performers share this trait in their films, including flawless character actress Thelma Ritter.
Ritter was nominated for six supporting actress Oscars, four of which were in succession; she elevated the quality of any film she was in with her seemingly effortless realism and deadpan humor. She reminds me, in fact, of an old favorite of mine, Rhea Perlman, aka Carla in Cheers, who shares Ritter’s understated style and tendency of deflating the egos and pretensions of the characters around her.
Once I fell for Ritter, I picked out films just because she was in them, including Pickup on South Street, in which she plays the finest of the roles I’ve managed to catch: a haunting turn as lovable police informant Moe Williams.
But it’s Ritter’s more lighthearted role as Birdie in All about Eve that first captivated me. Stage star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) has just met her biggest fan, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Asked to share her story, Eve gives a litany of sad, intimate details about her life. Baxter’s delivery is stagey, and I find myself flinching every time I see the scene. The actress’s melodramatic style throughout the film is what my sisters always accuse classic film stars of practicing, and while theatrics make sense for her character, that doesn’t mean they’re easy to witness.
But it’s not just Baxter’s acting that makes me uncomfortable. While I know not everyone would find Eve’s hard-luck tale emotionally manipulative, I tend to believe one’s biggest traumas should not be shared on first acquaintance. (Don’t believe me? How much did you enjoy that oversharer on your first date with him/her?)
The usually cynical Margo (Davis) feels differently. She’s moved in spite of herself by Eve’s narrative, and pulls out a handkerchief to wipe tears away. Her assistant, Birdie (Ritter) looks pensive, seemingly ready to utter sympathy as well. “What a story,” she says. “Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.”
Ritter draws out the line rather than expressing it as a quick rejoinder, as other comedians/comediennes would have. The result is that Birdie seems to be thinking through her slam as she says it. Hysterical. This unexpected but natural delivery is typical of every performance of Ritter’s I’ve seen.
Her character’s no-nonsense approach to life in the film makes viewers suspect that her instincts are the ones to trust. Everyone else loves Eve. Everyone else trusts Eve. But we audience members have already seen that the other characters are taken in by flattery, and thus are more gullible than they initially seem.
But Birdie? Birdie we can trust.
And that’s how I feel about Ritter, why I fell so hard for her after this line delivery, and in every movie I’ve seen her in since. I don’t know in advance how other actors/actresses will perform in films with her. I can’t be certain whether they’ll impress or disappoint. But Ritter’s is the kind of excellence I can always expect.
(This is part of my series on moments that led me to fall for a performer. I hope you’ll share some of yours!)