I first discovered Elaine Stritch on the original Broadway soundtrack to Company, the classic 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical about then-modern love in New York. The plot revolves around perennially single Bobby and his married friends; Stritch played Joanne, the oldest of the group. At the end of the second act she sings “The Ladies Who Lunch,” an ode to the rich married women who do nothing but have lunch, try on the clothes, and drink vodka stingers. She realizes during the song that she is just like them. The song is one of Sondheim’s most famous (which is saying something) and has become a gay camp classic, likely because of Stritch’s delivery: drunken, screeching, vulnerable, epic. While Stritch has never been a lady who lunches – she has worked steadily on stage and screen since 1944 – her hurricane of a personality, from hilarious to enraging and from sympathetic to outrageous, has made her both a theater and a gay icon. This is readily understandable in her astonishing autobiographical one-woman show At Liberty (which won a Tony on Broadway and an Emmy on TV), but in the wonderful new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, she is revealed even more, and the result both melancholy and inspiring.
The film was shot mostly in 2012, while Stritch was rehearsing for cabaret shows in New York and Detroit. She is nearing her 87th birthday and working harder than most people do in the 40s, but age, as well as diabetes, is catching up to her. She has trouble remembering her lyrics and her blood sugar keeps spiking, making her more confused and demanding interventions from her musical director, the devoted Rob Bowman. But as nerve-wracking as some of these rehearsals and pre-show dramas are, she stands in front of an audience and turns herself on. She turns a forgotten lyric into a comic bit, and her stories and banter between songs are about the troubles and annoyances of aging.
Between shows and rehearsals, at home and in the back of town cars, Stritch retells some of the tales familiar to viewers of At Liberty, but these versions are neither carefully scripted nor staged, and they become much more intimate and powerful. We hear about her love for her one husband, who died of brain cancer in the 1970s, about being a naïve virgin in New York in the 1940s, about her struggles with alcoholism. We watch her tour the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, from where she graduated, looking for a room to be named after her, and she thinks the big ones are too grand for her, one of its most famous alums. Her humility is sometimes enveloped by what appears to be narcissism, which seems to be more of a defense mechanism than personality flaw. In interviews with her co-stars and co-workers, including Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, and the director George C. Wolfe, they are at times in awe, in love, and exasperated.
The film is directed by Chiemi Karasawa, who had only before produced documentaries, and her control of Stritch’s story is impressive. While putting together clips of old performances and news appearances takes no special skill, Karasawa’s unflinching camera during Stritch’s breakdowns, insults, triumphs, ugliness, and senior moments must have involved some intense negotiations and a strong will. I’m sure it helped that Alec Baldwin was an executive producer and Stritch herself is well aware of what emotions are powerful on screen: She describes at one point how her crying after her husband’s death was reminiscent of a great scene of tearful balling. This is Elaine Stritch, always on stage, always giving herself to her audience, and always doing it, perhaps, for herself.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Directed Chiemi Karasawa
Starring Elaine Stritch, Rob Bowman, Alex Baldwin
Starts at Arclight La Jolla Firday, March 14