When you talk of singer, actress and all round entertainer, Elaine Stritch, the old clichés resurface; she put the Broad in Broadway; when they made her they broke the mold – they’re all apt. Elaine Stritch is truly one of a kind.
In the new documentary from Chiemi Karasawa, Elaine Strich: Shoot Me, we get to see Elaine in a way that we might have suspected she was but had never really seen; at least, not quite like this. To say that this is a warts an’all look is to use yet another well-worn cliché, but nowhere is that statement more fitting than in this unexpectedly entertaining and surprisingly frank documentary.
Director Karasawa’s original intention was to record Elaine rehearsing then performing her new one woman show at eight different venues, a collection of show-stoppers from Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim. At the age of eighty-six, the idea that she still had what it takes to perform in such a manner is a remarkable feat in itself, but it soon becomes obvious she has more than age against her; there’s also diabetes, alcoholism and the occasional lapse of memory.
When asked what was the one thing that scared her the most, Elaine replies, “Drinking. But it’s such an escape.” But when asked, if stuck on a desert island what above all else would be the one thing she would want with her, she answers, “No contest. An open bar.”
Another thing that scares her is the unexpected elements that come with having diabetes. When working too hard and forgetting to check her blood levels, she sometimes loses her speech and you can see how scared that makes her. “Give me my orange juice right away,” she demands after taking another emergency blood level reading. There’s panic in her voice.
However, the problems of age and health aside, for any fan of Broadway, there’s a sublime pleasure in watching Elaine rehearse when she’s at the top of her game, but even here there’s a caveat; even though her life has revolved around showbiz, she’s not altogether the industry’s biggest fan. “Everybody is loving everybody too much for my money,” she states, referring to the hugs and kisses and abundance of compliments that accompany a meeting with someone she might not have seen for some time. When bumping into a friend, a young actress, in the park, Elaine asks if the young woman is currently working. The actress responds by telling Elaine that all she’s recently found was the part of a villainous lesbian vampire. “This f****** business sucks,” Elaine declares.
And that’s only the beginning. Elaine curses. A lot. “I’ve got a certain amount of fame,” she says. “I’ve got money. I wish I could f***** drive. I’d really be a menace.” Plus, she’s not shy about directing her own documentary when she feels things are not as they should be. When Shane Sigler, one of the film’s three cinematographers, moves in for a head and shoulders shot, Elaine glances up and suddenly responds on camera, “Don’t you think you’re awfully close to me, Shane? This is not a skin commercial.”
From time to time the documentary includes new comments from fellow entertainers, including Tina Fey, Hal Prince, Nathan Lane and the late James Gandolfini to whom this film is dedicated. Interestingly, there’s no new material from Stephen Sondheim. We catch glimpses of the man in scenes from an earlier documentary that showcased the recording of the Company album during the seventies, but his absence in this new film is notable if only for the simple reason that the composer is known to be a great interview. When performing opening night in the intimate setting of The Carlyle Hotel in New York, Sondheim sends Elaine a message. It reads: Good luck. I won’t be there so feel free to make up your own lyrics. Love, Steve.
Despite the humor – at least, we assume it’s humor – in Sondheim’s note, the problem of forgetting lyrics is quite real and extremely frustrating for Elaine. While rehearsing I Feel Pretty from West Side Story she constantly forgets the words and has to stop. Her frustration is so much that she suddenly declares she can’t go on and stops the rehearsals altogether. When performing on stage at the Carlyle, her music director at the piano, Robert Bowman, has to jump in from time to time to remind her of missing lyrics. When she continues to forget, Elaine turns it into a comedic bit, declaring “Sing it, Rob.” And when she forgets yet again, she cries, “Sing it, Rob, or you’re fired!”
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a refreshing change from other documentaries with show business at its core, and Elaine’s honesty is refreshing, too. But when a film begins with the song I’m Still Here during the opening credits and concludes with Elton John’s The Bitch is Back during the closing, what else should we expect?
MPAA Rating: Unrated Length: 80 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)