Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me: Tribeca Review
Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones and others reflect on the unique talents of the Broadway veteran in Chiemi Karasawa's intimate documentary.
NEW YORK -- An outpouring of bittersweet media tributes followed the announcement earlier this month that Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch was packing up her Carlyle Hotel digs of the last decade and moving back to her home state of Michigan to retire from show business. It was almost as if the Chrysler Building were being ripped from its foundations and relocated to Des Moines. Chiemi Karasawa’s tender documentary salute, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, marks that painful separation with fitting poignancy.
For Stritch devotees – and you can’t breathe in a New York theater or cabaret haunt without knocking into a clump of them – Shoot Me makes a lovely companion piece to Elaine Stritch at Liberty, the enhanced film record of her 2002 Tony-winning one-woman show, which aired on HBO; and to D.A. Pennebaker’s superb 1970 documentary, Company: Original Cast Album.
In that intimate chronicle of the 18½-hour recording session to commit Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s game-changing musical to vinyl, the highlight was the volatile Stritch’s agonizing attempts to nail her signature number, “The Ladies Who Lunch.” The nerves and angry agitation, the frustration and perfectionism that went into her performance are no less evident in the subject of Karasawa’s film – frazzled and irascible yet still holding herself to impossible standards even in her late eighties and in poor health.
“I’ve got a certain amount of fame,” she says in her first words onscreen here. “I’ve got money. I wish I could f--kin’ drive, then I’d really be a menace.” That saltiness and candor are quintessential Stritch, but so too is the vulnerability that Karasawa captures, as is the caustic humor. Interrupting herself mid-sentence during a cabaret rehearsal, Stritch sharply reproaches one of the cameramen: “Don’t you think you’re awfully close to me, Shane? This isn’t a skin commercial.”
The director assembles a smart gallery of pundits to reflect on Stritch’s qualities – the lively mix of combustibility, brilliance and complicated eccentricities that have made her an extraordinary interpreter of works by writers from Edward Albee to Noel Coward to Samuel Beckett.
Among the commentators are fellow actors like Cherry Jones and Nathan Lane; longtime music director Rob Bowman; James Gandolfini, a friend since they met at a Sopranos premiere; and a handful of her directors, notably Hal Prince (Company) and George C. Wolfe (At Liberty). John Turturro, who directed her as Gandolfini’s mother in the 2005 film Romance & Cigarettes, likens Stritch to a turtle without its shell. “She’s conscious of how she comes across,” he says. “But she doesn’t hide herself.”
Also weighing in are 30 Rock cast members Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey. Stritch won an Emmy for her recurring guest role as Jack Donaghy’s indomitable mother, Colleen. (She greets fellow diabetic Tracy Morgan on the set with, “Hello darling, how’s your blood sugar?”) A sweet moment for fans will be seeing Stritch sit up in bed at the Carlyle watching Jack and Colleen face off on TV.
The main attraction is the lady herself, and Karasawa appears to have been granted unrestricted access. We follow Stritch as she strolls around her Upper East Side neighborhood – long legs sauntering and arms flapping, flaunting her distinctive sense of style. Her trademark look is a voluminous men’s shirt worn over tights or shorts, depending on the season, usually topped with a sleeveless vest or an outsize fur in winter. A necktie and hat often complete the outfit. She has no use for pants.
Duetting with the Carlyle elevator man, Stritch is all breezy charm. But in rehearsal or onstage in one of her cabaret acts, her insecurities surface, along with her vital need of an audience’s love. Still, the contradictory personality is evident when she airs her skepticism of show business: “Everybody’s just lovin’ everybody else just too much for my money.”
While the film makes few concessions to the uninitiated, it takes a whirlwind tour through Stritch’s life and career. This happens more casually than comprehensively as she sorts through photos, posters, letters and other memorabilia to be displayed in a rehearsal room being named in her honor at the Stella Adler Studio, where she took classes alongside Marlon Brando. She also speaks with sorrow of her late husband, actor John Bay, who died of brain cancer in 1982.
Her years of alcoholism, dealt with extensively in At Liberty, have been behind her through 22 years of sobriety. But she confesses now to having one drink a day to conquer her fears, showing the miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire she keeps in her purse alongside her insulin.
Stritch borrows a favorite maxim of her late husband’s, “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks,” to discuss the difficulties of aging, illness and a failing memory, a particular challenge for a performer requiring perfect recall of dialogue and lyrics. Watching her struggle to get through a song is quite moving, even when she makes a joke of it, deftly keeping the audience on her side. But when she bites into a lyric with a tenacious snarl or knowing wink, it’s clear why she remains such a beloved performer.
The specter of mortality is by no means brushed aside. During a medical crisis in the Hamptons, Stritch’s terror seems very real indeed as she waits in a state of panic for the doctor. And at the end of the extended hospital stay that follows, she looks a frail shadow of the fierce performer barking out barbed lines and resilient anthems like “Broadway Baby” or “I’m Still Here.”
What makes this film such a warm and touching portrait is that it reveals a woman who, even at her lowest, never loses her sense of humor. “This is a time in my life where I’m gonna behave like an elegant human being,” promises Stritch. “Or not.”
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight)
With: Elaine Stritch, Alec Baldwin, Rob Bowman, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Julie Keyes, Nathan Lane, Tracy Morgan, Hal Prince, John Turturro, George C. Wolfe
Production company: Smart Broad Films, in association with Providence Productions
Director: Chiemi Karasawa
Producers: Chiemi Karasawa, Elizabeth Hemmerdinger
Executive producer: Alec Baldwin
Directors of photography: Shane Sigler, Josh Weinstein, Rod Lamborn
Music: Kristopher Bowers
Editors: Kjerstin Rossi, Pax Wassermann
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 82 minutes.