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Right smack in the middle of our interview, a woman in her seventies walks up to Elaine Stritch and asks if she can shake her hand.
“Of course you can!” the energetic Broadway legend replies, lifting a hand off her cane and extending it out to the delighted fan.
“I loved you in ‘Ladies Who Lunch!'” the woman tells Stritch, who acts flattered and thanks her profusely.
The conversation ends there, and the woman walks through the gallery and toward the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel. Stritch, now 88 years old and still the firecracker of charm and irascibility whose name has been featured on marquees for over half a century, has lived in this Upper East Side hotel for nearly 15 years; she’s become more or less the unofficial mayor of the joint. It is a vestige of the old New York that she once held in the palm of her hand, jazz playing while towers of pastries are shuffled from table to table in the early stretches of happy hour.
“I like all these people,” she jokes of the hotel’s patrons. “They all have money!”
The tributes from fawning fans have been pouring in since Stritch announced that she was going into what she calls “semi-retirement,” a relative term for someone whose life is a performance in and of itself. Her non-stop energy is on full display in a new documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which is set to debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the reason she’s entertaining questions in what amounts to her extended living room.
The admirers at the Carlyle have been rushing to get the kudos in, as Stritch is moving back to her childhood home of Michigan, where she’s secured a suburban three-bedroom condo back in the cradle of her youth. And yet she’s certainly not easing into the break; Stritch has been performing a club act on the Carlyle stage at nights, an unrehearsed charm offensive where “I just look at the whole wide world and say, ‘F— it. I’m going to go downstairs and go out on the little cafe stage there and do my show … whatever show I’ve got.'”
Born in Detroit in 1925, when the auto industry was just beginning to boom and make that city a shimmering symbol of America’s rise, the daughter of Irish and Welsh immigrants was not long for the Motor City. She was in New York by the time she was 18 years old, starring on Broadway by 21. In the 1950’s, Stritch became a staple on the Great White Way, her throaty and unmistakable voice a stand out in everything from Stephen Sondheim musicals to serious dramas. Roles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Bus Stop and an iconic turn in Company sealed her fame.
“I had no problem doing that, I owned the stage,” she says frankly, sipping coffee. “I’m very, very, very successful on the stage. So [performing] doesn’t scare me at all. It did at first, and I could put my feet up and talk to you for hours about that — but I’m not going to.”
She remains feisty to the last performance, too, delighting crowds that have included Tony Bennett, Tom Hanks, Liza Minnelli and many other stars. The night before, she dressed down a man in the crowd for talking while she was singing a number.
“He was heckling, he was a little loaded. And I told him off,” she beams. “I didn’t know who it was, but I said, ‘You’re going to keep quiet, I’m going to talk or you’re going to talk. I’m willing to understand, I’ll listen.’ I gave him every opportunity. And then it turned out to be Michael Riedel, who is one of my good friends, but he was drunk.”
And did it hurt that she had publicly called out the famed — and feared — New York Post theater critic? Of course not.
“He came up to my suite [after the show], and he had a drink,” Stritch says, adding with an eye roll, “which he needed like a hole in the head.”
She leaves no room to argue, dropping declarations with the same certitude and force that has made her a show-stopper for six decades. But she’s not all elan and confidence; despite a long and rich film career, which included roles with Woody Allen and Ellen Burstyn, Stritch didn’t consider herself a movie star, and is disarmingly honest as to why she thinks she “never clicked” on screen.
“I’m not good looking enough,” she bluntly explains. “Absolutely true. You have to be very, very good looking to get ahead in motion pictures.”
That is prime material for a debate, but what’s undeniable is the magnetism she presents in the documentary.
Filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa followed Stritch around for two years after it was suggested by their mutual hairdresser, of all people, that the then 85-year-old dynamo had a story worth exploring. The resultant movie tails Stritch through her day-to-day life, encompassing her preparations for a one woman show on Broadway, filming scenes for 30 Rock (she won an Emmy for playing Alec Baldwin’s tough old broad of a mother) and reminiscing about old glories. Included are archival footage of breakdowns during recording sessions, plenty of heated moments with Sondheim and discussion about the time she went on a date with JFK (they had different ideas for a nightcap).
Karasawa also offers up snippets from several interviews with some of Stritch’s closest friends and co-stars, from Baldwin (who recently signed on as one of the film’s producers, and is the first person Stritch mentions when asked about her favorite co-stars), James Gandolfini (“God, I just love Gandolfini,” she gushes) and Tina Fey. They all offer the same basic distillation of a highly complicated character: She can be a pain in the ass to work with, but it’s always worth it.
Stritch insists she was “thrilled to death,” with what her friends said. “I like being talked about. I think some people really don’t … because they’re secure enough and they don’t need that.”
She continues, offering some sober self-analysis that easily could be mistaken as one of her famed comedic monologues.
“Why did I choose the career that I chose?” she asks rhetorically. “I want to be talked about. I want to be written about. I want everything about me! And I don’t make any bones about that. I like it being all about me. And it’s not funny!”
Stritch is now in a zone, summoning that powerful voice once again. “I know sometimes I argue and people laugh. I’m not being funny. I’m being absolutely serious. I’m speaking seriously. I liked being talked about; when I leave the room, I want people to talk about me. I don’t mind gossip; have a ball!”
There is a natural feel to the documentary, even if she never really forgot the cameras were rolling. She at one point demands Karasawa get video of her opening a box of English muffins — her late husband, John Bay, was an English food magnate — and not only does footage of her stabbing open the plastic wrap on the packaging make it into the film, her requests do as well. Every moment is engaging, bouncing between her frenetic energy and witty (often profane) one-liners, to more serious glimpses at how age and infirmity play no favorites based on fame and fortune.
Most stark are her lapses into diabetic emergencies and trips to the hospital, along with honest discussion about her long back-and-forth battle with the bottle. None of those things phase Stritch.
“I’ve looked my worst, I’ve seen myself photographed badly, goodly, whatever,” she says, waving her hand, dismissing any last strands of vanity. “I’m not afraid of anything like that anymore. That’s dumb, to be afraid of that. ‘Ohh, no makeup! Wait, my hair!’ Please. You know what I mean? I’m not scared of that anymore in life.”
For all the bravado and will to live large, there is a certain sense of concession lurking beneath the surface.
“I’m tired, and it’s the first time I’ve admitted it,” she says matter-of-factly.
The move to Michigan will do her well; she’ll have more space, a quieter life and no pressure to get on stage. And yet it’s hard to imagine Stritch fully walking away from the spotlight; she refers to audiences as “my friends” and has always got a lot to say. The curtain may be dropping, but Elaine Stritch will never really stop performing.
Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin
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