Elaine Stritch, a Broadway fixture since 1944, hasn’t lost her lust for the spotlight. This now 89-year-old Tony and Emmy winner (for her role as the mother of Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy in NBC’s 30 Rock), whose salty humor is tempered with the challenges of aging, diabetes and alcoholism, is the subject of a respectful documentary by first time director Chiemi Karasawa.
Larger-than-life performers deliver the goods when in front of audiences, but they can be hard to endure in more intimate settings like a corner room at New York’s posh Carlyle Hotel, where Stritch lives and holds forth for much of this film. The entertainer, known more for her stylish delivery rather than the quality of her voice (she’s no Kristin Chenoweth), didn’t gain fame by being a modest mouse.But her bold bossiness, caustic wit and sense of self-importance aren’t the qualities that would endear her to anyone in search of a best friend.
Luckily for Stritch’s high-maintenance ego, her pals and colleagues that appear in the film exhibit a healthy fear of her as well as reverence. To be fair, Stritch doesn’t discriminate. She is equally at home ordering around her assistant Maeve Butler (“ Hel-lo Sebastian, you twit,” she barks at Maeve’s pet rabbit), treating her kindly music director Rob Bowman like a house servant, making demands of this documentary’s camera crew, and insulting 30 Rock co-stars Tina Fey (Miss Bossypants herself) and Alec Baldwin (no slouch at the art of ego exhibition).
The film softens Stritch’s hard-shell public persona with some surprisingly intimate exhibitions of her vulnerabilities, such as when she’s viewed in a hospital after a particularly frightening diabetes episode and her dismay at forgetting lyrics she once knew backward and forward. Mortality is a featured theme throughout.
Stritch’s alcoholism is treated matter-of-factly. Having achieved sobriety for 24 years, she recently decided that she could have one drink each day, usually a Cosmopolitan. Still, what scares her the most, she says, is “drinking, because it’s such an escape.”
Rehearsals with Bowman for a cabaret show at the Carlyle are challenging to watch. Despite Bowman’s sympathetic reinforcement, Stritch angrily despairs at her inability to keep second-nature lyrics by the likes of Stephen Sondheim straight. Somehow, though, when the lights go up, she becomes a brilliant storyteller on stage.
Regarding the audience, “Their love for me is what I needed,” she says. “I wouldn’t get it anywhere else.”
Complicated, irascible, and narcissistic, Stritch is“eccentric but worth it,” says Broadway producer and director Hal Prince. This documentary leaves that determination up to the audience.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me 86 Cast: Documentary with James Gandolfi ni, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones Director: Chiemi Karasawa Rating: not rated Running time: 80 minutes
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/18/2014
Print Headline: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me