Thelma Ritter and Oscar: Six Times a Bridesmaid


The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the Feb. 26-28 Oscar Snubs Blogathon co-hosted by The Midnite Drive-In and Silver Scenes. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.


Well, it’s that time of year again, film fans. The 88th Academy Awards will be given out this Sunday night, and the last-minute predictions seem to favor Leonardo DiCaprio winning Best Actor, a category in which he’s come up short three times earlier, for The Revenant. Should the oddsmakers prove wrong and Leo becomes a four-time Best Actor runner-up, he would still be behind a number of notable names who never took home a competitive Oscar: Peter O’Toole (eight losses), Richard Burton (seven), and a three-way tie for third place between Glenn Close, Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter (six apiece).

It’s the last name on the above list which I’d like to address today. Thelma Ritter’s film career was a relatively brief one, stretching from her debut as a weary Macy’s shopper in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street to her final appearance in the 1968 comedy What’s So Bad About Feeling Good. During that time, however, the stage and radio veteran was regarded as one of the screen’s most popular character actresses and managed to rack up her six Oscar noms within a 13-year period from 1950 to 1962. The six pictures in question ran the gamut from romantic comedy and biting backstage satire to noir thriller and true-crime biodrama, and demonstrated Ritter’s remarkable versatility. Why, then, was the beloved performer never honored by the Academy? Let’s take a look at each of Ritter’s nominated turns, along with the eventual winner, and see if things should have been different:



1950 — Thelma’s nominated role: “Birdie” Coonan, the no-nonsense dresser, maid and personal assistant to Broadway actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in 1950’s Best Picture, All About EveThat year’s winner: Josephine Hull, playing Elwood P. Dowd’s (James Stewart) flustered sister Veta Louise in the beloved comedy Harvey. The other nominees: Hope Emerson for Caged, Celeste Holm for All About Eve, and Nancy Olson for Sunset Boulevard. Was Justice Served?: The first person to see through the country girl facade of seemingly innocent Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), Ritter’s sharp-tongued Birdie serves as a voice of reason amid all the backstage machinations and gives as good as she gets in her banter with her employer (Margo: “You bought the new girdles a size smaller, I can feel it.” Birdie: “Something maybe grew a size larger.”). Hull’s a treat, to be sure, as the dutiful sibling at her wits’ end over Stewart’s alcohol-induced insistence in the reality of his giant rabbit best bud, but Thelma should have joined fellow supporting player and winner George Sanders on the stage this year.



1951 — Thelma’s nominated role: Hamburger stand owner Ellen McNulty, who winds up serving as cook for her son (John Lund) and his socialite wife (Gene Tierney), the latter unaware of Ellen’s identity, in The Mating Season. That year’s winner:  STELLLLAAAA! Kowalski herself, Kim Hunter, in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The other nominees:  Joan Blondell for The Blue Veil, Mildred Dunnock for Death of a Salesman, and Lee Grant for Detective Story. Was Justice Served?: One could easily make a case that Ellen McNulty is a lead character in this comedic look at the changing face of post-WWII America’s middle class and climbing the social ladder. As the earthy mother who does her best to help out her son without her accidental ruse being discovered, Ritter carries the film. Nothing, however, was going to stop the stars of Streetcar from taking home the golden statues that night…nothing, that is, except sentimental favorite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, who triumphed over Marlon Brando and kept the picture from making a clean acting weep.



1952 —  Thelma’s nominated role: Dedicated nurse Clancy, who helps singer Jane Froman (Susan Hayward) recover from her plane crash injuries, in the biodrama/musical With a Song in My Heart.  That year’s winner:  Gloria Grahame, on the screen for only nine minutes or so, as screenwriter James Lee Bartlow’s (Dick Powell) unhappy wife in The Bad and the Beautiful. The other nominees: Jean Hagen for Singin’ in the Rain, Colette Marchand for Moulin Rouge, and Terry Moore for Come back, Little Sheba. Was Justice Served?: This not-particularly memorable fact-based soaper offered a good, if not standout, role for Ritter (see the end of this piece for the nurse turn that I think should be in this list), and the fact that Grahame won for her very limited performance in Vincent Minnelli’s Tinseltown roman à clef as opposed to other films (In a Lonely Place and The Big Heat, to name two) has perplexed many a film buff. But the biggest shocker here is that the Academy failed to recognize Hagen for her wonderful comic turn as nasal-voiced silent screen queen Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain.



1953 —  Thelma’s nominated role: Mo Williams, the streetwise peddler of neckties and information who’s saving her pennies for a nice cemetery plot, in Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street. That year’s winner:  Donna Reed as Lorene, one of the “hostesses” at a Honolulu “serviceman’s club,” in From Here to Eternity. The other nominees:  Grace Kelly for Mogambo, Geraldine Page for Hondo, and Marjorie Rambeau for Torch Song. Was Justice Served?: For many of Ritter’s fans, this is the contest that most feels like “the one that got away.” Fuller’s taut noir gem mixes Cold War espionage with gritty New York street crime, as pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) unknowingly lifts microfilm wanted by a Communist spy ring. As Mo, one of Skip’s few confidants, Ritter’s tough-as-nails facade–the only thing she fears is being buried in a pauper’s grave–cracks in aching detail in her final scene. As good as she was in Pickup, though, Thelma ran up against a long-standing Hollywood axiom: don’t bet against a “good girl” playing a “bad girl.” That’s why the wholesome Reed won for portraying a call girl…even though the script could only hint at her profession over fears of censorship.



1959 — Thelma’s nominated role: Decorator Jan Morrow’s (Doris Day) perpetually hungover housekeeper, Alma, in the romantic romp Pillow Talk  That year’s winner: Shelley Winters as Petronella van Daan, whose family shared the Amsterdam attic hiding space with the Franks, in The Diary of Anne Frank. The other nominees: Hermione Baddeley for Room at the Top, Susan Kohner for Imitation of Life, and Juanita Moore for Imitation of Life. Was Justice Served?: It was a booze-powered spin on the wisecracking domestic she had played several times before, and maybe in an ideal world both Ritter and the not-nominated Tony Randall would have gone home with supporting Oscars for this, the first of the Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcoms. “Message” films, however, have always been tough to top at Oscar time, as Winters was truly moving in her portrayal of a wife and mother trying to keep her family strong amid the horrors of the Holocaust.



1962 — Thelma’s nominated role: Elizabeth Stroud, the ever-loyal (and controlling) mother of title prison lifer/amateur ornithologist Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), in Birdman of Alcatraz  That year’s winner: Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker.  The other nominees: Mary Badham for To Kill a Mockingbird, Shirley Knight for Sweet Bird of Youth, and Angela Lansbury for The Manchurian Candidate. Was Justice Served?: Boy, a lot of films with “bird” in the title that year, weren’t there? Ritter’s Elizabeth Stroud is fiercely dedicated to her incarcerated son, even after he kills a guard who turned her away from a visit. Her dependence on Robert is evidenced when she is stricken with jealousy after he weds a woman (Betty Field) with whom he has been corresponding about selling avian medicine. The character is not always sympathetic, something of a rarity in Ritter’s body of work, and perhaps as such it weakened her chances against 16-year-old Duke in another biodrama with a more sympathetic subject. Besides, with only a little over 10 minutes of screen time, Thelma also took a back seat in the “Domineering Movie Mother of 1962” contest to Lansbury’s Eleanor Shaw Iselin in The Manchurian Candidate.


So, there you have it. In my “expert opinion” and with the benefit of several decades of cinematic hindsight, Thelma Ritter should be remembered as a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner for All About Eve and Pickup on South Street. Oh, and just to stir up the pot a little more, the most shocking snub to me in all of this is that my favorite of Ritter’s screen performances–as Stella, the home care nurse/therapist for wheelchair-stuck photojournalist L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window–wasn’t even nominated! Anyone out there care to disagree?