Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk (1959) - Supporting Actress Sunday

With the 1959 Smackdown only a few hours away, I'll keep the month's final profile comparatively brief, even though it's a performance by the reigning queen of supporting actress -- the single Supporting Actress with the greatest number of Supporting Actress nominations (as well as the most losses) in the category's history. And, here, this particular actress is stretching far beyond her typical genres. With, alas, mixed result. Of course, I'm talking about...

...Thelma Ritter in Pillow Talk (1959)
approximately 7 minutes and 2 seconds
8 scenes
roughly 7% of film's total running time
Thelma Ritter plays Alma, the soused housekeeper of interior decorator Jan Morrow (the blithe Doris Day).
The character of Alma is less a character than a plot device who possesses three main character traits. One, Alma's a complete lush; she's almost always hungover, drinking or both. Two, as a hardbitten cynic with a soft heart, Alma's got strong ideas about how women and men should relate. Three, Alma's got a sharp, sardonic wit which gets looser and sharper whenever she's drinking (which is always) and whenever the subject turns to romance (which, in this movie, is also always).
On these three counts -- the total lush, the cynical romantic, and the sharp wit -- Thelma Ritter's particular gifts are mostly suitable for item three (the sardonic wit). And throughout the performance, Ritter nails Alma's many laugh lines using her signature, wry warmth.
As regards the other two sets of character obligations (comedic drunkenness and romantic goopiness), Ritters success in the role is a little more mixed.
Ritter enacts the physical comedy obliged by the role -- especially the running gag of the elevator "moving too fast" for the hungover Alma -- with a trouper's gameness. To be sure, Ritter makes this recurring bit of silliness work, just not especially well.
However, when the comedic drunkenness is more text based (as in the scene where Ritter's Alma drinks Rock Hudson's character under the table), Ritter's sublimely effective. (Indeed, this erratic performance underscores Ritter's dexterity with language. When she's got words to use, Ritter's brilliant. When she needs to use her face or body to convey the moment, Ritter seems -- shockingly -- out of her depth.)
As the opinionated romantic, Ritter's Alma works passably well, and the actress does a nice job of setting up Alma's "crush" on Hudson's Brad Allen. Nonetheless, Ritter's inclination toward wry nuance doesn't awlways jibe with the narrative's hints of broad comic stylings.
All told, Ritter's performance as the alcoholic Alma ends up being both too broad and too subtle.
While Ritter's presence in the film does invest a clarity and focus to the proceedings, but the actress's particular brand of midcentury cinematic "realism" (so suited to hard-boiled genre pictures and serious dramas) struggles to find a landing place in this film, an airy bit of high-style frippery.
Thelma Ritter is a great supporting actress but, here, she delivers a middling, miscast misfire of a performance.

1 comment:

MovieMania said...

I love how the kitchen looks like the one from the Brady Bunch, and look, there's Alice!: http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v491/stinkylulu/1959/06-TR-ThelmaRitter-PillowTalk.jpg