by Kathie Smith
At the opening of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a woman off camera asks Stritch how she feels about where she is at the age of 86. Her blunt, charismatic response instantly sets the tone for this documentary: “Look, I’ve got a certain amount of fame; I’ve got money—I wish I could fuck and drive! Then I would really be a menace.” The answer might not be what you would expect from an octogenarian, but it’s exactly what you would expect from Stritch. After 60 years of working the stage and screen—which includes four Tony nominations, eight Emmy nominations and three wins, and a wild card Grammy for spoken word on a children’s recording—brash and difficult have become her much-loved trademark. And although her ambitions are as fiery as ever, her body and her health are beginning to betray her zeal for performing. Better judgment doesn’t seem to work into Stritch’s approach to life, so despite her emotional struggles with alcohol and physical difficulties with diabetes, she decides at the age of 85 to stage a new show: At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time.
Director: Chiemi Karasawa
Producers: Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, Chiemi Karasawa
Cinematographers: Rob Lamborn, Shane Sigler, Joshua Z. Weinstein
Editors: Kjerstin Rossi, Pax Wasserman
Muisc: Kristopher Bowers
Cast: Elaine Stritch, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Rob Bowman, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Tracy Morgan, John Turturro, Julie Keyes, George C. Wolf
Premiere: April 19, 2013 – Tribeca Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: February 21, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
Director Chiemi Karasawa paints a portrait of Stritch with behind the scenes footage of the rehearsal and performance of One Song at a Time, as well as candid interviews from a younger generation who recognize her as a one-of-a-kind force in their trade. Best known for her Broadway fare, Stritich will nonetheless be familiar to some for her film roles (such as the mother in Woody Allen’s September), but familiar to many more as the mother of Alec Baldwin’s character on 30 Rock. Baldwin and Tina Fey weigh in on Stritch’s unpredictable ability to assert and torment—with glimpses of her snapping at Fey and astutely calling Baldwin “Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin.”—and Fey admits that it’s always worth it. But the testimonial that strikes a chord, for obvious reasons, is that of James Gandolfini who recalls meeting Stritch at a Sopranos premiere. After politely thanking her for a complement, Gandolfini turned around only to hear her say: “Don’t condescend to me, you son of bitch.” From a man who died way too soon in regards to a woman that sustains beyond odds, he said he immediately fell in love.
Stritch represents a golden age of theater, and although we see the photos and hear the songs, much of her brilliance is saved (or lost) in the moment that constitutes the magic of live theater. Fans who were lucky enough to see her in her heyday, including her award-winning 2001-2002 Elaine Stritch at Liberty, will no doubt feel the glimmer of those shows, but for the rest of us, we are left to jealously imagine this overwhelming personality in Noël Coward’s Sail Away or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf or George Furth’s Company. This intimate documentary focuses on the very bumpy afterglow, as Stritch grapples with Sondheim’s lyrics right alongside her failing health. Her indulgence in alcohol and the delirium brought on by a blood sugar rollercoaster are depicted with unadorned compassion; her emotional and physical status wavering between extraordinarily bold and shockingly fragile. Stritch herself pulls out the adage that ‘dying is easy, comedy is hard,’ but Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me gently determines that dying, or at least the downward slope toward the end of life, is no walk in the park.
Much of the appeal of Shoot Me will rely on a level of prior knowledge of Stritch and her accomplishments, but that doesn’t stop the it from being an illuminating document on the art of acting. More than once you realize that the film itself is a meta-work of Stritch’s dominating personality, expanding her role as subject to unsolicited position as assistant director. She needles the cameraman, clearly basking in the attention, and relishes in playing a feeble old lady on camera in order to fool a police officer. At one point, she leaves the room as she is unpacking some muffins and the camera doesn’t follow—she comes back and calls the crew out on it: “I’m going to do this again. You should be following me around. The camera should be on me.” They explain that they want what is called a clean exit—but she doesn’t want a clean exit. It’s a great moment that exemplifies something Stritch has probably been doing all her life: exploiting situations and getting exactly what she wants.