Valentine to Thelma
In addition to significant others, another worthy subset of Valentine’s Day honorees getting the hearts/flowers/hugs treatment are that of moms or mother figures. How appropriate too that February 14 is the birthday of character actress supreme Thelma Ritter (1902-1969), who played many witty and salty maternal roles on screen to a Brooklyn-accented fare-thee-well. Nominated six times for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award®, she was a rare bird who could tart-talk her way through light comedy and dark melodrama, and stay remarkably and relatably down to earth even when she on occasion portrayed upper-crust instead of working class. The last of that category record-setting sextet of nominations came for a motherly performance of unsettling poignancy with a troublingly edgy possessiveness in the powerful Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), starring the commanding Burt Lancaster as convicted murderer Robert Stroud, an unrepentant killer justly serving time but saved from a death sentence by his mother’s efforts and, as his gradual, compelling evolution into becoming an expert on avian illness during his solitary confinement demonstrates, his own renewed sense of purpose. “For her part, when she's on-screen,” blogger Stinky Lulu writes, “Thelma Ritter's Mrs. Stroud is classic Ritter: a solid – somewhat soiled – rock (salt-of-the-earth, to be sure). At once humble and noble, Ritter's Mrs. Stroud emerges as the kind of woman to both rant impolitic in court at the injustice of capital punishment and also capable of campaigning all the way to First Lady Edith Wilson to snag a stay of execution for her beloved son.Yet even from its first note, Ritter's performance cues an uneasy suspicion that there's something a little ‘off’ about Mrs. Stroud's passion for keeping her son alive and imprisoned, one clinging to the other as they each grey and crust over. And when her son marries a widowed bird woman, Ritter's Mrs. Stroud quickly morphs into an exacting, infantilizing monster mother (though it is to Ritter's credit that this transmogrification errs away from the spectacular and centers upon Mrs. Stroud's fearful, heartsick desperation.)” This marked a different and deeper breakout for Ritter on screen, going full circle into “exacting” and “infantilizing,” and this revelation of the darker aspects of a mother’s devotion, cannily brought out in the exacting direction of John Frankenheimer, confirmed what Ritter’s admirers always knew: an actress of searing depth existed within the diminutive frame of this crafty funny lady we’d befriended so often in the 15 previous years of our moviegoing acquaintance, starting with her solicitous shopper searching for the right, affordably priced Christmas gift for her son in Miracle on 34th Street. Birdman of Alactraz on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray has an exceptional Lancaster in the title role. But within her brief 10 minutes on screen, watch Ritter’s Elizabeth Stroud take wing and subsequently grip and then tear out your heart.