Thelma Ritter in All About Eve (1950) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Joseph Mankiewicz's revered film, All About Eve, depicts that curious species ("The Actress") in her natural habitat ("Just Off Stage"). Layered with all kinds of in-jokes, not to mention the basic melodrama of theatrical/romantic intrigue, All About Eve boasts a loaded bill of legendary actresses each of whom easily overshadows the men (save perhaps for the resident queerish wag, of course). Indeed, All About Eve is a veritable smorgasboard of actressexual delights...a romp really, in the sordid pleasures of actressing at the edges (not to mention the centers). And a few of the choicest bits of said pleasures derive from the Patron Saint of Actressing at the Edges, the one and the only...

...Thelma Ritter in All About Eve (1950).
approximately 11 minutes and 21 seconds
10 scenes
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...


JS said...

I call Marilyn Monroe "The Gong" in that movie because as soon as she enters the scene, you just knew she was something different, a whole new aesthetic as it were for a "Hollywood Actress."

But for Ritter's nomination, I've always wondered if it was enough since she is pretty "wait she was there where did she go" due to the size of the rest of the picture. (And at the time I saw "All About Eve" I didn't know yet who Ritter was or what she looked like so I wondered why there were two supporting actress nominations.)

StinkyLulu said...

A while back, I think Ken got it right when he said that the Academy often nominated the wrong Ritter performances. This nomination came right in the middle of her legendary streak, so it might have been a default nom. That said, she's always good...and as Birdie, I think especially so.

Aaron said...

I rewatched this film a week or two ago and was stunned by how little she was in the film. It's shocking, really. But she does have some of the films great classic lines:

Birdie, you don't like Eve do you?
*Do you want an answer or an argument?
An answer.
Why not?
*Now you want an argument.

Her acerbic delivery is perfect for the film, and I think that scene with Margo in bed and Birdie cleaning the ashtray goes a long way to explaining the nomination.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Ritter's screen time is sparse in comparsion to some nominees, but not so much when looking at other nods (Carolyn Jones, Hermione Baddeley, or (actual winners) Beatrice Straight and Judi Dench, anyone?).

It bugs me too that Ritter disappears once Eve starts really going to town (and makes me wonder what the hell Eve did to get rid of her chief naysayer), but only because Ritter has already made such a vivid impression in the part. Eve was the first of Ritter's string of six nominations over the next twelve years, and although I wouldn't rate it above a few of her other roles (including The Mating Season and Pickup on South Steet) she's damn close to her best. Ritter puts her indelible mark on the film in her few brief appearances, lending credence to the "there are no small parts" argument.

Of non-nominated Ritter work, I think she deserved (at least) her first nod a year earlier, for her (character) star-making work as the earthy, blunt Sadie in A Letter to Three Wives.

John T said...

I've also always felt shocked by the lack of screen time for Ritter. Thinking back on All About Eve (which I have seen many, many times), I instantly think of the bloodhounds comments (one of the best of the movie), and really nothing else. I remember the first time I saw this and Sunset Boulevard that it was odd that Ritter and Nancy Olson would receive nominations for such small roles, but as the years have gone by, they've both grown on me tremendously. I do agree, however, that Ritter's performance should have that one more additional scene, either where she throws down with Eve or where Eve replaces her (which is never seen, but appears to be implied). I can't wait for the Celeste Holm and Nancy Olson write-ups!!!

StinkyLulu said...

To echo VP, Ritter's got a teensy bit more screentime in Eve than Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles. And, in both cases, it's shocking because both characters seem to loom so large in folks' memories of both movies.

The only explanation I can think of (came to me while brushing my teeth this morning):

The movie begins on Margo's turf (backstage, Margo's apartment), but once Eve's expelled from Margo's inner circle everything moves to community turf (like restaurants, theatres, the trip) before finally resolving in Eve's turf (roominghouse, New Haven, 2nd Sarah Siddons scene). It doesn't make sense to have Birdie anywhere outside Margo's turf... But wouldn't it have been nifty if Birdie had a final scene?

Alas, alack, alloo.

newland said...

This performance is all that actressing at the edges should be. A fantastic actress with little screentime but a lot to contribute to the film. Needless to say, she makes an indellible impression on the viewer, and this nomination is really worthy, unlike others Ritter got out of routine or mere respect. She was never bad, but sometimes (and this is one of the cases) she was magnificent.

JS said...

Now that I'm thinking more of the potential that Thelma Ritter's character had, I wish they could have found some way to include her in the following scenes: opening scene where she gets her own voiceover introduction as the woman who saw Eve for what she was immediately, the out of gas scene, the restaurant blackmail scene and finally, Eve and Margo's last confrontation (Ritter could have been allowed an "I knew it all along and now everyone else does too" glance at Eve after Margo tells her where her heart and her award really lies).

Imagine all the observations Birdie could have offered at those instances!

MrJeffery said...

Wonderful post. She's always great.