80 minutes | No MPAA rating
Elaine Stritch has long been a veteran of the Broadway stage, and for most of that time she’s been the object of cult adoration on a scale matched only by the fan mania surrounding Bernadette Peters.
Her trademarks: Brassiness, determination, a wicked sense of humor, a deep appreciation of the Broadway songbook. A friend describes her as “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.”
But at age 87, she’s on the downside of her career. That’s the sobering but weirdly uplifting message of Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which mixes old footage of memorable Stritch performances with revelatory (often painfully so) cinema verite observations.
We first see Stritch wandering the streets of Manhattan, looking like a puff ball (she loves big animal fur coats – although it might be faux fur) striding on two skinny legs encased in black tights. (One acquaintance compares her to an ostrich.)
Passersby stop to tell her they’re fans. She sings a duet with the elevator operator in her residence hotel. She takes the compliments graciously, but turning away from the fans she’ll often look at the camera and roll her eyes.
Elaine Stritch is a tough old broad. But she’s a tough old broad on borrowed time, and she knows it. In many ways it’s her determination to say “screw you” to the years and forge ahead that makes her so…well, not loveable, exactly, but compelling.
For instance, there’s the rehearsal in which she cannot remember the lyrics to songs she’s sung a million times. She panics. “Why is this happening?” Her musical director suggests a blood sugar test…sure enough, her diabetes is acting up. Time for a slug of OJ.
She believes in brawling with her demons and health issues. “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks,” she says. The goal is to not let it drag you down.
She’s not above milking her advanced age for purposes of self-aggrandizement. Old age, she confides, lets you “get away with murder.”
Stritch informs us that she is an alcoholic who allows herself one drink a day — although over the course of this film she learns the hard way that one is too much.
We see her on the set of TV’s “30 Rock,” where she played Alec Baldwin’s mother (Baldwin also co-produced this doc). Working with Stritch, says star Tina Fey, “is always a bear, but it’s always worth it.” At the end of a day’s work everyone on the set wants to give Stritch a hug; walking away she confides, “In show business everybody loves everybody too much for my money.”
Though she’s known for the musical comedies of Stephen Sondheim, the Stritch resume covers Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, even a stint opposite Bela Lugosi in a stage version of “Dracula.”
Her real forte, though, may be cabaret performances. We see her getting ready for one such run at a New York hotel, and it’s genuinely distressing to see this pillar of self-confidence wracked with doubts. At these moments she’s a terrified old lady, fragile and at sea. She ends the rehearsal early, figuring to cut her losses.
Yet later that night she goes out on stage and blows everyone away with a consummately professional performance.
Elaine Stritch is waging a monumental battle. Don’t be surprised if time surrenders.
| Robert W. Butler