Director: Chiemi Karasawa
By Marilyn Ferdinand
To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, if you know who Elaine Stritch is, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t know who she is, no explanation is possible. Even if we had a documentary that went through her life in meticulous detail—which this film doesn’t come anywhere near to doing—a woman who belongs to the glorious age of the Broadway musical is a figure whose celebrity took place long ago, out of view of most of the world. That she made numerous films and television shows, most recently as Alec Baldwin’s mother in “30 Rock,” does not dim the glow that adheres to Elaine Stritch because of when her life in the theatre took place, and only those of us who follow musical theatre really understand why this documentary needed to be made.
Or so I thought. Whether or not she intended to, Chiemi Karasawa filmed a much different, much more valuable film than the one I thought I was going to see. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an appropriate title for this documentary about the 88-year-old Broadway legend because while we are aware that Stritch needs the attention of a film crew like a fish needs water, we are brought uncomfortably close to the tail end of a life, one now filled with infirmity. If Stritch were a horse, we might find it kinder to put her down. That she bravely reveals all of her pain and struggle, both physically and psychologically, makes this an unforgettable and necessary document, as well as a roadmap for taking our leave from this world.
I wish to emphasize that Stritch is still with us, and in fact, attended the sold-out showing of Shoot Me. She’s halt of gait, forgetful, and very hard of hearing, but her performer’s instincts and wit are as sharp as ever. Her performance at the AMC Theatre 11 was loaded with zingers, her characteristic profanity, and a teary appreciation for the love we lavished on her, a love whose pursuit propelled her to stardom.
Karasawa films Stritch as she gets ready for a cabaret show at New York’s Café Carlyle with her long-time accompanist Rob Bowman. She sports the Judy Garland look of black tights and a long men’s shirt during rehearsals, in performance, and in fact, most of the time. One of her intimates says Elaine just won’t wear pants! She is very thin, so the effect is rather worrying, particularly when she goes through her dance routine.
She has a lot of trouble remembering her lyrics, a problem compounded by diabetes. When Rob suggests she check her blood sugar, she reacts with a violent “NO,” but soon relents. On seeing the number, she dispatches Rob to get her some orange juice immediately, and he jumps. She was always a volatile, self-critical performer, which we see in a vintage clip of her recording the cast album for “Company” with a displeased Stephen Sondheim listening to an unsuccessful take. Now, her volatile blood sugar makes her more unpredictable than ever. Add to that her decision to climb off the wagon after what she says is nearly a quarter-century of sobriety, and the health horrors multiply.
Stritch’s decision to start drinking again is very telling. She feels that at her age, she has earned the right to do what she wants, but the real impetus behind it is her fear of death. Despite the fact that alcohol could conceivably kill her, she feels calm and safe after she has taken a drink, and we don’t really believe her when she says she allows herself only one drink a day. As though to confirm our suspicions, she orders an old fashioned and then shows that she carries a tot of Bombay gin in her purse at all times. Perhaps we’d do the same if the reaper were so near at hand.
One scene shows her going out of town to appear at an anniversary celebration for an 80-year-old theatre—younger than she—and celebrating when the show is canceled because of an approaching hurricane. She says she wasn’t feeling well anyway. Cut abruptly to news that Stritch is in the hospital, a cruel echo of an earlier scene from “30 Rock” showing her in a hospital bed. We don’t know why she’s there, but she looks frail sleeping under sedation, and when she wakes up, she says she can feel death around her, that it’s her time. A devout Catholic whose uncle was Cardinal Samuel Stritch, archbishop of Chicago, she hopes there isn’t nothing when she dies; “I wouldn’t like that,” she says as though she should be able to have the afterlife she wants, but then with a real uncertainty.
We see the world start to pay her homage, with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting wanting to name a rehearsal room after her, but having to offer her three rooms before she finds one that is sufficiently small. Her assistant has been helping her choose photos from her collection to hang in the school, and we see her photographed with her beloved husband, actor John Bay, who died when Stritch was in her 50s after they had been married only 10 years. Her abiding love for him extends to her preference for the product of his family business, Bay’s English muffins, a staple in my home and found only in Chicago. When her regular delivery of the product arrives, she wants the cameraman to watch her open the carton and follow her out to the back porch to throw away the packaging. It’s a truly dotty request, but she who must be obeyed gets her way.
We get very little from her past—a few musical clips, photos of her when she was at the height of her beauty, clips from her Emmy Award-winning program “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty” and her acceptance speech in which she brings down the house by saying she’s glad that she won and the other nominees lost. Stritch’s honesty makes her the ideal person to reveal the ravages of old age as well as the vitality that many of us don’t believe the elderly have. Stritch will not be pushed off stage until she’s ready to go.
That she does, when she moves out of her long-time home in The Carlyle Hotel and into a condo in her native Detroit. Many of us go home to roost when our time is near. Gradually, not entirely gracefully, but with gusto, Elaine Stritch is walking her path to an eternity beyond the footlights.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has no more showings, but the film has been picked up by Sundance Selects for distribution and cable airing. www.chicagofilmfestival.com
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