“I’m here!” Elaine Stritch proclaims in Chiemi Karasawa’s 2013 documentary ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME and she isn’t just whistling Sondheim.
She takes a stand against the notion that old age is some sort of dreary waiting room where nobody listens to you and you have long outlived your usefulness and drive. The octogenarian Broadway legend roars with life, dreams, fears and aspirations and her spiky spirit and irascible oomph would wear out a Millennial.
Stritch is where she belongs and needs to be—solo in the spotlight—in this irresistible 81-minute documentary that charts her move from enduring chanteuse to prospective retiree after a string of successful cabaret shows at New York Café Carlyle (where she lived in the hotel above, en suite) and Town Hall.
Did we mention she decides to throw in the towel at 87? And that her famous gams are as shapely as ever as she performs and walks the streets of Manhattan in her trademark black tights and flowy white shirts?
Stritch is more a force of nature than an elderly star, yet the documentary is dead honest depicting her complications from diabetes and memory loss, as well as other indecencies of old age. “Wrong teeth! Wrong teeth!” she yells before show time as an assistant scrambles for the correct dentures. Diabetes lands her in the hospital a few times and the memory lapses scare both her and her musical director Rob Bowman—especially since the shows she’s doing feature the cerebral and intricate lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.
“It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim lyrics without having diabetes,” Stritch grouses and you believe her. But then, just when you think she’s going to fumble—in a terrific aside, she gets a pre-show telegram from Sondheim that reads “I won’t be there so feel free to make up my lyrics Love, Steve”—she nails “I Feel Pretty” and “Rose’s Turn” with ferocity and style.
SHOOT ME also shows Stritch’s daily struggle with alcohol. Although sober nearly 25 years, Stritch experiments with one drink a day—with mixed results. Not many actors would consent to such unsullied candor, which makes her a matchless combination of ego and gallantry.
“I like the courage of age,” Stritch says, in just one example of her sharp observations, not to mention the salty wit that has made her the darling of talk shows since Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” aired in New York.
Her impeccable delivery (this woman can shriek the f-word perfectly on key), storytelling ability and way with a zinger is what makes this documentary such a barbed Valentine not only to Stritch, but to show business. “Everybody’s just loving everybody else too much for my money,” she notes after leaving a fawning cast and crew from the set of “30 Rock,” where she memorably played Jack’s (Alec Baldwin) mother.
Baldwin and Tina Fey pay loving tribute to Stritch—“she doesn’t wear pants and she lives the way she wants to live,” Fey cracks—but it is the Broadway denizens who make the documentary a swoonworthy experience.
Stritch has been performing since 1944 and has the photos and memorabilia to prove it. A student at Stella Adler, Stritch was in the original Bus Stop with Kim Stanley and Noel Coward wrote Sail Away in 1961 just for her after seeing the actress in the flop musical Goldilocks—rare rehearsal footage from the Coward estate shows Stritch at the top of her game.
She was a brilliant interpreter of Edward Albee’s work, from Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to the 1996 A Delicate Balance with George Grizzard that this reviewer saw twice—so captivating was her performance and her indelible first entrance, playing an accordion in high heels with those legs up to there.
And then there is her association with Sondheim, starting with 1970s Company (where her brassy, classy “Ladies Who Lunch” became the one to measure up to) and others including A Little Night Music, Follies. Seeing her do “Rose’s Turn” makes you think she would have made one helluva Mama Rose.
Kirk Douglas, Ben Gazarra, Bernadette Peters, Cherry Jones, George C. Wolfe, Nathan Lane, Hal Prince, are just some of the luminaries who shared a stage with Stritch—not to mention the late James Gandolfini, whose sexy-tender homage ends with him saying “If we had met when we were both 35, no doubt we would have had torrid affair that would have ended badly.”
Funny and poignant, ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME is proof positive that they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME opens Friday, March 14, 2014 at West End Cinema, 2301 M Street NW, Washington, DC.
Check for times or call (202) 419-3456.