The first thing I noticed when watching Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is that Stritch has a hell of a time getting ready for her shows. Age and declining health both conspire against her. The Elaine Stritch in Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary is not the same Elaine Stritch fans will remember from her recurring role on The Cosby Show, her triumphant one-woman show, or her appearances on 30 Rock. This Stritch is unvarnished and raw – and at times it’s difficult to watch. But despite the sometimes-intrusive peaks into her physical state, Stritch does manage to emerge from the film a survivor, only because she holds on to her irascibility like her life depends on it.
The film takes place in New York City, during Stritch’s run at the Carlyle Hotel, where she’s performing a Sondheim tribute show. She’s holed up in a tiny corner room, where viewers are treated to candid reflections on fame, family, friends, and aging (there’s even a priceless moment where Stritch is watching herself on 30 Rock, and then waiting for the congratulatory phone calls). While performing at the Carlyle, she also does stops on a mini-tour, opens a rehearsal studio in her honor, and makes repeated trips to the hospital when her diabetes wreaks havoc on her body.
Because Karasawa wants to show a “warts and all” story, we get scenes of a very sick Stritch that feel gratuitious and voyeuristic. When she has a diabetic attack and must go to the hospital, we’re treated to shots of a sedated Stritch sleeping, while her friends look on. We also get a clearly frightened and teary Stritch ruminate on death. It’s all very distressing to watch and sometimes feels at odds with the other scenes that show a heartier Stritch, who can still belt out a tune in her inimitible croak of a voice.
And it’s the stronger Stritch that dominates the film. She’s known for her short-temper and her allergy to bullshit – and it’s on full display in the film. She’s shown to have little patience for Showbiz fakery or puffery – when visiting an acting school to be honored with a rehearsal space, she vetoes the first three choices as too big, before settling on a more modest and appropriate room. And she’s quick to berate the camera operator when he moves in too close (“Are we filming a skin commercial?” she barks), or if he misses something, like her post-show ritual that includes her dismantling a box of May’s English muffins (with a butcher knife), and leaving the garbage outside her hotel room door; after a quick dressing down, she reenacts the ritual for the camera’s benefit.
Those who have seen Elaine Stritch at Liberty know that despite her aversion to celebrity, she has some famous friends, some of whom turn up to offer their thoughts on Stritch’s enduring popularity: Alec Baldwin (one of the film’s producers) has some nice moments with Stritch at the 30 Rock canteen, as does Tracy Morgan (who shares his blood sugar level with her), and the show’s star/writer Tina Fey has some wonderful things to say about the actress, acknowledging her famed temperament (when describing the anticipation of Stritch’s arrival, Fey heaves a huge and apprehensive sigh), but also praises her idiosyncracies (“she doesn’t wear pants…”). The late James Gandolfini (to whom the film is dedicated) also appears as does fellow Broadway champ Cherry Jones. John Turturro has a priceless scene with Stritch when over dinner, she admits that she experienced an orgasm for the first time during a performance of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – his take is hilarious as he is momentarily stunned and unnerved, before he rallies and continues the conversation. She also pokes gently fun at Bernadette Peters at the end of the film, momentarily forgetting her name, before facetiously referring to her as “Nanette Fabray.”
But beyond the kooky and assertive personality, there’s also the committed and dedicated artist – who, thankfully, doesn’t get pushed aside, in favor of the grousing Stritch or the ailing Stritch. She lives for her work, and it’s clear that she loves it – she hops on planes and performs in cabarets throughout the country. She also has a deep love and respect for the theater, elevating luminaries like Hal Prince, Noel Coward, and Stephen Sondheim to giant status. And she’s a brilliant song stylist, in vein of Lotte Lenya, who doesn’t necessarily have the most beautiful or versatile voice, but can convey a range of emotions: from bruised sorrow to arch sarcasm within one song. It’s the moments when Stritch is performing that Shoot Me shines brightest: her rendition of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy is terrifyingly sad, as she gets so involved in the song’s plot of a regretful and wasted life, that she can barely get through the showboating end without cracking into tears; and her performance of “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, takes the song’s original tone – humorous, but with a core of sincerity – and turns it into a sardonic and knowing tune that is positively soggy with irony. She barrels through “Everybody Says Don’t” from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, and the audience knows that Stritch relates deeply to the lyrics that encourage rebellion.
In fact, Sondheim seems to be a lyrical soulmate to Stritch, as he penned two of her signature songs, “I’m Still Here” from Follies and “Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. In the former, the narrator is a warhorse of a performer, still holding on to her place in the public’s consciousness, but with a slipping grip; the other song is a funny take on the different social circles women fall into – and who absurd and transparent some of these groups are. Both these songs cater to Stritch’s strengths as a performer – “I’m Still Here” plays up her indomitable spirit, while “Ladies Who Lunch” displays her incredible skill with caustic song lyrics. Though Sondheim doesn’t participate in the film, he does show up in archival material – in a particularly fascinating sequence that shows a younger Stritch in the 1970s, going through multiple takes of “Ladies Who Lunch” trying to get it right. She and Sondheim both show a perfectionism in the clip, as they both appear unsatisfied with the various takes they hear. It’s an intriguing look at how Stritch, the artist, was formed. Other interesting backstage scenes show her rehearsing with her devoted musical director, Rob Bowman, struggling with a slightly dodgy memory, but eventually prevailing (with a little help from Bowman from time-to-time).
Those who see Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me will notice similarities between it and Annie Sundberg’s excellent documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. They’re both wonderful companion pieces as the two films show a couple of show business veterans who are unwilling (or unable) to step aside for the younger folks coming up; Stritch’s career has been predicated on her ability to survive the many lobs that life threw at her – from the death of her beloved husband, to her crippling alcoholism which cost her work, to her advanced age and illness – it’s why Sondheim’s song “I’m Still Here” works so well – it perfectly sums up Elaine Stritch – both the performer and the career.