16 April 2014

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

There is a certain type of New Yorker who I’ve always admired: she’s an older woman who usually dresses a bit eccentric, is fond of exceedingly large glasses, normally resides on the Upper East Side, and can always be found speaking her mind. The legendary Elaine Stritch is one of those women.

The straight-talking star of screen and stage is a New York treasure who has done everything from being a member of the original Broadway production of Company to playing Alec Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock. In the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa follows the 87-year old Stritch around as she prepares to perform a one woman cabaret show, Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time, at the Carlyle Hotel where she lived until her retirement last year to Michigan to be near her family.

The grand dame of the theatre spares no punches, talking candidly about her sobriety (or lack thereof), the loss of her beloved husband to cancer, her frustration with and fear about the diabetes that causes her to have memory lapses, and the famous people she’s known (including a story about a date she had with a young John F. Kennedy). She has no qualms telling people what she thinks of them, including the film crew. In one scene, she gets angry with a cameraman over how a scene is shot (she’s unpacking a box of her Bays English muffins) and demands a reshoot.

The film is filled with laughs and light-hearted moments like calling a late Alec Baldwin "Alec 'Joan Crawford' Baldwin," faking an injury to get out of a parking ticket, or telling John Turturro about the first time she had an orgasm (it was during a performance of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Friends and colleagues discuss her skills as a performer and her various eccentricities like the fact that she doesn’t like to wear pants—Stritch's trademark uniform is a white button-down shirt and black tights. One of the people interviewed is the late James Gandolfini, who Stritch clearly adores (the film is also dedicated to him); his appearance on screen brought sighs from the audience.

Stritch may be one tough cookie who is brutally honest with everyone but she is hardest on herself. Nowhere is this more evident than when you see footage from D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album in which Stritch is seen throwing a fit as she struggles to record her signature song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” while a mainly silent Stephen Sondheim sits nearby.

Yet beneath all the bravado, the film reminds us that Stritch is vulnerable. We watch as a diabetes-related attack renders her temporarily disoriented and scared, crying for her accompanist, the saint-like Rob Bowman, to get her doctor. This scene and one later in the hospital are difficult to watch, leaving you feeling like an 

The film open
s with Stritch walking down Fifth Avenue dressed in a wild fur coat and her trademark glasses. People stop her along the way to say hello or ask to take a photo. “I wish I could fucking drive,” she says back at the hotel. “Then I’d really be a menace.” Love you Elaine Stritch.

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