Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me Directed by Chiemi Karasawa
Starring Elaine Stritch, Rob Bowman, John Turturro, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and James Gandolfini
From Sundance Selects
Broadway star hides nothing in tell-all documentary
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
It’s winter in New York and Elaine Stritch is prancing down Park Avenue without pants. This is the norm for the 87-year-old actress and Broadway star, and by the end of the movie you’ll be very familiar with those sexy — yes, sexy! — legs.
Stritch is the subject of Chiemi Karasawa’s lovely documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Karasawa seems to have unlimited access with Stritch as she bops around Manhattan greeting well-wishers on the street, rehearsing for her new solo show and struggling with her health. The film begins with Stritch as she scoots around the city, possibly to a 30 Rock rehearsal, during which her caustic wit and flamboyant edge are on full display. “This business sucks,” she says, not a hint of irony as she grasps for her next role.
Stritch is not shy. And that gravel-flecked voice, untouched by grace, is still very sharp. She has quite a mouth; her candor leads to many F words and other delicious curses that sound entirely different when said by an octogenarian. In the 30 Rock rehearsal, in which she plays Alec Baldwin’s character’s mother, Baldwin has had enough of her diva behaviour. “You bitch,” he shouts as he walks out of the room. Baldwin might have been serious, but Stritch throws her head back and laughs heartily, as if to say, “Bring it.”
Cameras follow Stritch as she rehearses her one-woman show of Stephen Sondheim songs, a sequel of sorts to a similar show that was a hit many years before. We also see her flipping through her vast library of photographs, memorabilia and Playbills. She was in everything on Broadway, and has a story for each. When an assistant digs up an old photo of her and JFK, Stritch shares the story: Long before he was president, John Kennedy asked Stritch out. After the date, he invited himself up. Stritch turned him down, but always admired him for saying what he meant and not mincing words.
Later, the actress, birdlike and frail, nearly falls into a diabetic coma. She allows herself to be filmed mid-crisis and later in the hospital, where her pantsless hospital gown is a fitting tribute to her wardrobe. She’s gotta stop drinking, she grumbles. Levity fills the room, though, as her unmistakable voice and personality cut through the stillness of the moment. “Dying’s easy. Comedy is hard,” she blurts outs. In many scenes her accompanist Rob Bowman, who should be knighted for his patience and compassion, cares for her as she goes through her health scares.
Besides her performances, which are rather wonderful in their spontaneity and occasional crudeness, the film is filled with humorous little oddities, including one scene in which Stritch grows angry with Karasawa for not documenting the unpacking of a package of English muffins. “Now I have to do it again,” Stritch seethes. In another scene she refers to the hit Broadway play The Book of Norman, seemingly unaware of the actual title. Many actors make appearances, including John Turturro, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and the late James Gandolfini — he and Stritch were pals, and the movie is dedicated to him.
Mostly, though, Shoot Me just stand backs and ponders Stritch as a landmark to New York, a curiosity that has joyfully refused to stop working. She certainly dresses the park of a cultural institution: she’s often hidden under huge fur coats, her black-stocking’d legs extending from below her long button-ups with big broaches and wide ties. She often hides her eyes behind hats and these big aquarium-sized glasses. She’s the Cruella de Vil of comedy, but somehow much more sophisticatedly trashy. The world is better for her.