One of the greatest ‘ladies who lunch,’ Elaine Stritch may be most recognizable to this current generation as Alec Baldwin’s mother on “30 Rock.”Making her stage debut almost seventy years ago, Elaine has continued to charm audiences with her sass and brass and unmistakable voice. Tony-nominated first in 1955 for William Inge’s Bus Stop, she was so good in Noel Coward’s Sail Away that he rewrote the musical to feature her over the leading lady. And of course, her turn as Joanne in Sondheim’s Company was one of the most memorable of the 1970’s.
However, Chiemi Karasawa’s film is not about that. Those successes are all just finished chapters for Elaine Stritch, who is pushing 87 and preparing for another cabaret show at the Carlyle Hotel. “It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim’s lyrics when you don’t have diabetes” she complains during a rehearsal. Not so much a narrative as a portrait, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me follows it’s title ‘character’ through triumphs and dark moments but never gets tied down by trying to tell the story of her career. Her best roles and leading men are remembered through framed photos, sorted on a bed by her assistant. There is great classic footage like a 1955 turn on “The Colgate Variety Hour” or a sequence from the recording of the Company cast album, but the best moments are her battles with the songs in rehearsal and in performance. Only Elaine Stritch can twist “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story into a sarcastic droll inside joke with the audience.
Filmed in a cinema vérité style, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an inspiring glimpse into the everyday verve of a still-hard-at-work stage personality. Featuring interviews and stolen moments with John Turturro, George C. Wolfe, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, and of course Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, the film succeeds most when it just follows Elaine being Elaine. Her rapport with musical director Rob Bowman both on stage and off is honest and fresh and fun. Her energy is infectious, even if it seems sometimes that maybe someone should be looking out for her when she clearly won’t.
Early in the film, Elaine discusses “the courage of age” and Karasawa’s film is essentially about courage – facing getting older, facing diabetes, facing alcoholism, facing an audience when she is not “protected in the theatre by prosceniums.” At times completely modest about her career and at other times a classic diva (in one sequence she tries to tell the documentary cameraman what he should be filming), Elaine Stritch is a lion of a woman, a true gift to an audience, and this film captures that. She confesses “I’ve never been interested in the picture I’m going to leave” but fortunately for us, someone else was.
Director/Producer Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me opens tonight, Friday February 21 in New York, expanding nationwide March 7th. Check http://elainestritchshootme.com/ for screening information.