Elaine Stritch died two years ago this summer at the age of 89.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to see her in New York in the 1997 Tony Award-winning revival of Edward Albee’s classic A Delicate Balance. And of course there are filmed performances to savor, such as Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Avery Fisher Hall (2010), Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (2002), Woody Allen’s September (1987), and others. The wonderfully engaging documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2014) makes me wish I had been able to witness her stage presence many more times throughout her remarkable career. I would have needed to begin five years before my birth.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a deeply entertaining, provocative, and enthralling documentary, an 82-minute synthesis of cinema verite, archival footage, performance clips, and interviews—both with the gifted, funny, irascible, whip-smart Broadway legend and those who knew and worked with her. Stritch, who turned 88 as the film was completed early in 2013, has never seemed more the unique incandescence that audiences have come to know over six decades in musical theatre, drama, comedy, film, television, concert and cabaret, than she is here, discussing—with her trademark candor and wit, matched by an intimate vulnerability—the art of performance itself, its exhilarations, its exacting demands and harsh necessities. There is a sense of dramatic tension and thrill as the viewer becomes absorbed in Stritch’s stringent insights, her fierceness and her fears, the camera following her through preparations for her 2010 all-Sondheim cabaret act at the Hotel Carlyle.
In her directorial debut, award-winning documentarian and former script supervisor Chiemi Karasawa weaves a taut and emotionally complex montage of the camera-as-observer footage, sequences from the cabaret acts, the interviews with other actors, writers, friends, and producers, giving play to the subject’s famously tart language and her perfectionism while framing with a tender nakedness Stritch’s musings about love and loss, need, age, illness, and death. The synthesis is never less than moving, shrewd, unflinching—and it is often riveting.
Elaine Stritch is the toughest of the tough broads and she would’ve been the first to tell you, in no uncertain four letter-word terms. She was also known, both onstage and before the camera and in life, for her ferocious insistence on veracity. Her vigilance in sniffing out the faintest traces of hypocrisy, dissemblance, evasion, or disingenuousness—in herself, colleagues, performances—has prompted many who knew her and worked with her to allow that she could be “difficult”. They are also quick to say she was always more than worth it. That same propensity was paired with another signature trait: her capacity onstage or on film for revealing genuine emotion and for wielding a particularly ironic scalpel in exposing that which is not. It earned her the title of “legend” in the musical theatre. (Noel Coward wanted her when he created Sail Away. George Furth wrote a character and Stephen Sondheim the music and lyrics of “The Ladies Who Lunch” specifically for her in their Company. The list goes on.) She was also a hoot of extremely sly and outlandish proportions.
Interlaced with footage from performances and the apercus of colleagues and friends, the cinema verite approach—the camera tagging along through the dailiness of Stritch’s life (at home, walking around Manhattan, rehearsing, lunching and dining with friends)—allows for a surprising degree of intimacy. There is never an aura of staginess or contrivance. The title of the film itself carries a characteristic tone of imperiousness. No doubt Stritch had a good deal of input into how the film would unfold and, of course, she is in the strictest sense of the word “on”. However, she is doing what she actually does, and clearly—from the occasional confessional tone—wants, as she says, and has been her habit throughout her career, to “keep it real”. Though there are glimpses of the narcissism to which the flesh of some actors, especially stars, may inevitably be heir to, we never think that this is a heightened, contrived, or glamorized version of her life. And there is always her unrelenting, objective self-awareness. At the only point in which she breaks the “unseen” relationship—admonishing one of the cameramen to reshoot an innocuous scene in her kitchen by taking a few more steps actually to watch her set an empty muffin box in a recycling bin outside the service door of her apartment—it is purely because, as she tells him, “It’s part of my little routine”.
In Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me we hear insights from an array of those who have known her well—including Hal Prince, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, George C. Wolfe, John Turturro, and the late James Gandolfini—and who all point out that behind the brassy boldness was a simple sweetness and generosity, need, and vulnerability. It is, they suggest, the heady and human combination of her courageous determination and her refusal to wear a “protective shell” that made her such an astonishing force onstage. Her cabaret work has a cerebral and visceral charge, an emotional immediacy, like Garland at her best. Actor George Grizzard, with whom she appeared in A Delicate Balance, said on opening night of her Tony Award-winning one-woman At Liberty in 2002: “It is perfect that someone has created a vehicle that allows no other performer to interrupt the audience’s unabashed love affair with Elaine Stritch”.
As a performer she left few personal stones unturned, and expected no less of those who watched her. It could be fatiguing; it could also be the transcendent art of theatre. For more than 30 years Stritch talked openly—even in concerts and cabarets—about the greatest threat to her professionalism and her life: “I am a recovering alcoholic. I decided to do something about it when I realized that I’d gotten to a point at which I often thought I was being brilliant and witty, when I was actually being only loud and boring. And I hurt some friends. That’s not me. So I stopped. Discovering I was diabetic sharpened my motivation.” Utterly sober for more than 26 years, Stritch began scrupulously allowing herself to enjoy one drink per day in her last few years. The almost religious discipline of this rite suited her Catholic upbringing and daily nurtured her belief that, “Fear can be exciting”.
The film concludes with Stritch girding her loins finally to retire. We go with her to suburban Detroit to scout property, to “go home”. (She was raised in affluent Bloomington Hills.) After the documentary was wrapped and she was feted at a farewell cabaret gig at The Carlyle in 2013, she indeed made her home in nearby Birmingham, Michigan. Early last year her 89th birthday drew throngs of friends, theatrical and otherwise. In a scene near the end of the film Stritch recalls a childhood memory of a summer day when she was seven. Her mother was busy with something and insisted that Elaine stay outside and occupy herself. “I didn’t want to play outside alone. I finally killed enough flies to spell out my name and called her to see. I wanted her attention. My name on the walk in dead flies. How’s that for a first billing?”
In one of the last segments of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the star says she must think now of, “as my mother put it, the picture one will leave behind”. This film is a very rich and substantial treat—and what a gorgeous, gritty, touching swan song to “leave behind”.
Stritch was, both simply and complicatedly, a formidable human being; and here she encourages us, with characteristic aggressiveness and raw humility, to consider life ablaze at the verge. When asked her greatest fear at this point of her life—“Pre-shows nerves? Death?”—she immediately answers. “Oh, no. Drinking. It’s such a beautiful escape…so warm and inviting.”
Her testimony in this remarkable film lends credence to the old axiom that those who do serious comedy most wrenchingly are those who have looked hard at demons and know the darkness. As Hal Prince observes, “Everyone knows Elaine as such a force, and she is; but you can never forget that she is also that sweet, innocent, nineteen-year-old Catholic girl who graduated from a convent school and came to New York. There is always the insecurity. Constantly.” Stritch was kicked out of one of her first New York plays because, as she puts it bluntly, “I didn’t know what I was doing”; but she had a prodigious talent, she worked as hard as anybody in the business, and quite evidently made demands of herself that far exceeded those she placed on others. She accepted her need for attention and love as a contractual obligation, fine-tuned over six decades, to give back. It was a rare relationship. This film makes us aware how lucky it is for us that for a very long time Elaine Stritch kept putting herself out of her misery.
– Hadley Hury