...Thelma Ritter in All About Eve (1950).
approximately 11 minutes and 21 seconds
roughly 8% of film's total running time
StinkyLulu's waxed rhapsodic about Thelma Ritter before but, truly, Ritter's Birdie -- the former vaudevillian who's somehow found her way to being the maid for a serious stage actress (Bette Davis) -- shows Ritter as her crusty, caring best.
Mankiewicz doesn't give Ritter all that much to do in the film. Most of her scenes come at two plot points (the introduction of Eve & the bumpy night party), with a brief but essential bridge between. Even more, within those scenes, Ritter's Birdie seems mostly to be there to wave the big red flags that the principal characters are too sentimental to see. To be honest, Birdie's a thin wisp of a role, almost a plot device really. Nonetheless, the character is essential to the story and, in Ritter's hands, Birdie also comes palpably to life. Much like another impressive cameo performance in the picture, Ritter brings a formidable clarity and charisma to the role, making Birdie fully memorable besides.
For, in Ritter's hands, there's never a doubt that Birdie's a real person. Crabby, cynical and occasionally crass, to be sure -- but Ritter's Birdie is never a caricature. Ritter manages the banter with Davis easily, allowing Birdie's history as a mid-tier vaudevillian to inform their relationship and explain Birdie's astute capacity to judge character. And few actresses but Ritter would have been so adept maneuvering one of the tart-tongued character's tricksiest moments. Eve (Anne Baxter) has delivered her sobstory. Margo's dressing room -- packed with the NY cultural elite -- is agog with sentiment. But it's Ritter's Birdie who pipes up, breaking the soppy silence: "What a story. Everything but a pack of bloodhounds snapping at her rear end." Ritter plays this moment in a fashion that's testament to her particular gifts. The snark of the line comes through, but so too does the fact that Ritter's Birdie is genuinely moved by what she's just heard. What's even better: Ritter's duality in this moment -- goodhearted sweetness cut with a worldly tartness -- also enables Birdie to wave that big red flag (Bullshit!! Bullshit!!) without compromising the ease of Eve's hustle.
Ritter's characterization of Birdie is a marvel of efficiency and clarity. Ritter -- along with Davis & Monroe -- is pitch perfect casting amplified by the artful execution of what might have easily been a non-dimensional role. (Notably, not all of the roles in All About Eve do as well on these counts. Be sure to check out this conversation about the casting of the central role of Eve between May Smackdowners Ken & Vertigo's Psycho.) But, alas, Ritter's Birdie leaves the scene of All About Eve way too soon, making a characteristically understated exit (albeit with sable coat in tow). It's a pity really, that Ritter's Birdie is gone so soon... Wouldn't "that scene" where Birdie & Eve square off have been a treat? (Much more satisfying in some ways than the gender-squicky one that happens with Addision, if you ask StinkyLulu.)
But that was one of Ritter's most amazing gifts. Dishing everything precisely as it needs to be served, always leaving you wanting just a little bit more...