Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Thelma Ritter in Birdman of Alcatraz

Thelma Ritter received her sixth and final Oscar nomination for her performance as Elizabeth Stroud in John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz. Thelma Ritter has a reputation for being one of the most deserving actresses not to win an Academy Awards (fellow nominee Lansbury does as well, I think), and it is so clear that this sixth nomination is a final 'We're Sorry' nomination if I've ever seen one. I'm not trying to take away from her other nominations and I'm sure this performance has it's fans, but it just isn't one that would normally be nominated had it been anyone other than Ritter. Basically, the Academy felt guilty and thus came Ritter's sixth nomination.

All that being said, I suppose I should go on to talk about the actual performance. Birdman of Alcatraz is an incredibly dull and emotionless film, with Burt Lancaster giving a stiff and uninspired central performance as Robert Stroud. I do enjoy Telly Savalas' Oscar nominated performance, however. The film is about Robert Stroud (Lancaster), a federal prison inmate whose love and care of birds earns him the nickname 'Birdman of Alcatraz', and all the troubles he goes through during his time in jail. Ritter plays his caring mother, who eventually turns on her son after he marries a woman she does not approve of. Her character really doesn't have much depth to her, only really getting significant characterization in her final scene or two. The rest of the performance is awkwardly stilted and mundane. She's very robotic and cold.

It is only in that final scene where the pain on Elizabeth Stroud's face is so evident and she feels betrayed after giving him everything for years and being the crux of his life and motivation. Yes, we as viewers are supposed to dislike her for turning on her son and help to keep him from getting bail, but for a moment you can't help but relate to the woman. Ritter's simple blank stare speaks volumes, and it's a scene that almost saves the entire performance, perhaps were Ritter allowed to expand on it with some subsequent scenes. According to further research I've done on Elizabeth Stroud's life, she fought hard to keep him from getting parole following this scene, but Frankenheimer obviously didn't feel like delving further into the legal aspects Stroud's life.

Thelma Ritter's performance in Birdman of Alcatraz is one that I don't have much to say about, as you can tell by this unusually short review. It's a nomination that reeks of guilt from the Academy, in a role too thin to really take off and go anywhere. The final scene is a blockbuster, and that alone will raise her performance's score by an extra .5 (much in the same way that Holly Hunter did in 1993), but the stiff, average nature of the performance keeps her from getting too high. 2.5/5 Thelmas.

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