Tribeca Reviews — ‘Elaine Stritch’: A Loveable Menace
At the beginning of Chiemi Karasawa’s no-holds-barred documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a Spotlight entry at the Tribeca Film Festival, the 87-year-old star itemizes what she’s got to feel good about. “I got fame, I got money,” she tells us, “but I wish I could drive, then I’d really be a menace!” Watching her pace the streets of Manhattan, hat askew, wrapped in the grandeur of a well-worn lynx fur, with miles of black-hosed ostrich legs poking out from below, we don’t doubt she’s capable of a menacing moment or two. She’s quite simply a wayward comet on the loose, lighting up the firmament — a consummate star.
When Ms. Karasawa was looking for another subject to film for her Isotope Film Company, it was her hairdresser who suggested Stritch. How she managed to get this unflappable force to sit still for her camera — well, it didn’t happen. Stritch doesn’t sit still. She’s either on the move, greeting the elevator man, her trusty dog — “Hello, Sebastian, you twit!” — marching resolutely through the Stella Adler Studio where one of the rehearsal rooms is to be dedicated to her (all but one is too big she declares); bellowing out another song with her tried and true accompanist Rob Bowman; chewing the fat in a TV lunchroom with Alec Baldwin while describing her culinary tastes for “spit out food”; checking blood sugar levels with Tracy Morgan; playing to a mesmerized audience in her birthplace city of Detroit; or just flat out in bed in her room at the Carlyle Hotel, exhausted and ready, but not quite, to throw in the towel.
Everybody’s got an opinion about the woman — how could they not? Tina Fey, Cherry Jones and Nathan Lane all get their say as well as Harold Prince. Directing her in the 1970 Broadway production of Company, he declares “she has the guts of a jailbird” but underneath “there’s still the convent girl.” If she wears her faith on her sleeve, it’s the interpersonal kind. Honesty in her relationships is high on the list in Stritch’s universe. If she lets you into her world, she doesn’t mince words. “You gotta be truthful with me,” she tells Bowman. Cursing and tears are part and parcel of the package.
We have to believe that absolute trust was a given in filming this irascible dynamo. (Karasawa shows herself in the panel talk following one of the first screenings to be a warm, engaging woman, a patient helpmate to her star.) She allows us to see the downside of pushing one’s self to the limits at Stritch’s advanced age. The entertainer goes up on lines during rehearsals and rages at her temporary ineptitude. She’s a diabetic and in more vulnerable moments, shows an obvious fear and dependency on her drugs and even her English muffins. If reality TV has become the rage in recent times, perhaps this level of reality in documentary filmmaking has come to be expected. No doubt Stritch herself, having made a career personifying Sondheim’s brassy, no-holds-barred characters to a “T,” figures there’s little point in holding anything back. She takes the “good times and bum times” he writes about in stride and she’s “still here.”
“I’ve been sober for 21 years,” she admits, “I try not to drink but…” her voice trails off. “Now I drink one drink to see if I can handle it.” At another moment, she says she likes the “courage of old age” and proudly quotes Bette Davis’ adage: “Old age is not for sissies.”
It is a welcome change to the cinéma vérité approach Karasawa has taken to see a generous amount of archival footage interspersed with the present day confessionals. Precious instances worth mentioning include a scene from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, where Stritch plays a warmly flirtatious WWI nurse to none other than Rock Hudson, her recovering patient. Another moment shows the final recording session from Company, with Stritch reaching a climatic finish to “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Needless to say, she knocks the song out of the park. Still another moment gives us her acceptance of a Tony in 2002 for her one-woman show, At Liberty. “I’m so glad none of them won,” she admits, with undisguised glee. Some of the earliest footage is of Stritch happily hoofing her way across the proscenium in Sail Away, in a part that was created for her by Noel Coward. If there’s any question about her way around a stage that should settle it.
Cinematographers Shane Sigler, Joshua Weinstein and Rod Lamborn have done a first-rate job taking us from bedroom to on-the-road sequences, in and out of rehearsal rooms, restaurants, hotel lobbies and limousines. Karasawa has proven herself with non-fiction content such as Tell Them Anything You Want: A Portrait of Maurice Sendak and Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, among others. She may be an unsparing director, but she’s a compassionate one. We can only hope that divas like Liza Minnelli, Patti Lupone, Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler for starters are waiting in the wings for their turn.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars
Directly following the screening, a panel was held for the audience which included Elaine Stritch, accompanist Rob Bowman, director Chiemi Karasawa and moderator Charles Isherwood, a drama critic for The New York Times. Before she reached the stage, Stritch could be heard complaining good-naturedly about the elevator she took. “Next time I’ll go down the stairs. I don’t care if it takes two weeks!” Following are some of the highlights from the discussions.
Isherwood: Was it difficult to have the camera following you around so much of the time?
Stritch: I didn’t like it at all but I fell into it…I’m in this, I’m going to see it through. I’ll go the full — what’s the expression?
Audience member: Nine yards.
Stritch: I like that. I love the line I said when I was asked if I liked the film. “I think it’s terrific. I’d like to see it again but I don’t want to be in it.” [Laughter]
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