Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
by Anthony Chase
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
A film directed by Chiemi Karasawa
With a no-nonsense way of talking, a suffer-no-fools attitude, and a voice that reverberates like a lion roaring, Elaine Stitch is the ultimate hard-boiled Broadway dame. She turned 89 years old this year.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Chiemi Karasawa’s widely acclaimed film documentary about this irrepressible icon, opens in Buffalo on April 11. For those who know Stritch, that’s all you need to hear. You’re undoubtedly on your way to the box office already. For others, the Stritch persona might require some explanation.
You might have seen Stritch as Colleen, the mother of Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock, or as a feminist attorney on Law and Order. Each character won her an Emmy. She won a third Emmy for the documentary about the making of her stage memoire, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, and has had eight Emmy nominations.
Sure, she’s appeared in Hollywood films. Some of them are very classy. In 1957, she starred as Rock Hudson’s nurse in A Farewell to Arms, and naively thought she had a shot at an off-screen romance with the guy. (Soon she realized that loving Stritch is a red flag. There are always lots of men in her audiences). More recently, she one-upped Jane Fonda as her mother-in-law in the Jennifer Lopez film, Monster in Law.
The live theater, however, is most purely Stritch’s domain. She’s a Broadway star of the first magnitude, which is odd, because the quality of cantankerous irrepressibility that most defines her comes with a history of boozing that has made her career an on again, off again affair.
She received the first of her five Tony Award nominations for William Inge’s Bus Stop in 1956. The second was for Noel Coward’s Sail Away in 1962—Coward wrote the part specifically for her after seeing her in a 1958 flop called Goldilocks and deciding that she deserved better. The third was in 1970 for playing Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, where she introduced her signature song, “Ladies Who Lunch” to the world. Her fourth was for the 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. Stritch finally won a Tony for playing herself and telling the story of her life and her struggles with alcohol in Elaine Stritch: At Liberty in 2002. It was a phenomenon.
But that’s not the story of this film. This is not a show-by-show and man-by-man retrospective of Stritch’s life and career. Karasawa’s powerfully intimate film is about a stage legend approaching the end of her life and career. In this film, the unguarded presence of Elaine Stritch is quite arresting. She seems well aware that this may be her last opportunity to have her say, and she’s making the most of it.
As the documentary begins, Stritch is preparing for her last cabaret show, Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time. In recent years, she’s done sold-out appearances at the Café Carlyle, at New York’s Carlyle Hotel—where she actually lived. No, she doesn’t live at the Carlyle any more. Last year, she decided to pack it in and retire to Michigan, where she grew up. Retirement didn’t exactly take; she came back for another cabaret appearance, but diabetes is making it harder. She’s slowing down. She’s starting to forget lyrics she used to know by heart. That’s all in this documentary too.
In fact, it is remarkable how close Stritch allowed Karasawa to get. The filmmaker actually follows Stritch into the hospital when she suffers a diabetic crisis, and the total transformation from indomitable Broadway powerhouse to frightened old woman is harrowing. Stritch, you see, has no sense of self-protection in this regard. She will share anything. At Liberty was described as autobiographical strip-tease. At one point John Tuturro describes Stritch as being like a turtle without a shell.
Stritch also has an uncanny sense of how to engage an audience—even in a documentary. In a film documentary about the recording of the Company cast album in 1970, Stritch became the central focus of the film with her seeming inability to land her signature song, “Ladies Who Lunch.” I’ve always wondered if she did it on purpose. Even a documentary needs a central conflict. I once watched her, in real life, become the center of attention at an all-celebrity benefit performance, by walking out into Shubert Alley with the wireless body microphone still taped to her neck. Karasawa has cannily kept footage of Stritch trying to direct her own documentary.
We are, of course, treated to clips of Stritch’s film and stage work. Photos from her career do prompt reminiscences. There are the inevitable stars paying homage to a Broadway great: Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, Tina Fey, Harold Prince, Alec Baldwin, George C. Wolfe, and a poignant interview with the late James Gandolfini. Jones says that Stritch connects us to a golden age. Prince opines that Stritch has the guts of a jailbird, but the convent girl she once was is still always there. But for most of the film’s 81 minutes, it’s all Stritch. And for that, this is a documentary to be savored. We will never see her like again.
Watch the trailer for Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
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