This documentary by Chiemi Karasawa, a longtime friend of Elaine Stritch’s, calls the legendary Broadway star, now 88, “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.” That sounds about right.
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Stritch onstage—or, hell, even listened to the original cast album of the landmark stage musical Company, let alone her work in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women—can attest to the megawatt star’s talent, power and ferocity. Even the canned, watered-down version of Stritch that steals every scene on shows like 30 Rock makes mincemeat of such major league costars as Alec Baldwin, whom Stritch calls Alec “Joan Crawford” Baldwin. We get plenty of what makes the star unique in this documentary as she demonstrates the very definition of the phrase “Old age ain’t for sissies.”
Rehearsing with her musical collaborator Rob Bowman while prepping for a tour of a one-woman cabaret show of Stephen Sondheim songs, Stritch, with blistering candor and touching vulnerability, allows herself to be filmed as she confronts memory lapses, diabetes, a hospitalization, alcoholism and stark terror before mounting a stage. She’s a great fabulist and storyteller—she tells corkers about JFK, Ben Gazzara, her late husband John Bay—and the comments by talking heads like Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Nathan Lane, director Hal Prince, Cherry Jones and, most touchingly, James Gandolfini, are good, too. But as unstoppable a powerhouse as she may seem at times, she says of winding down and facing her own mortality, “It’s time for me. I can feel it everywhere.” In fact, after this film wrapped, Stritch left her longtime digs at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan and relocated to Detroit, Michigan, her childhood city. Even at 82 minutes, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me sometimes feels too long, maybe because the film is sometimes so loose and funky about the star’s showbiz history.
If you don’t know a lot about her career, this film may confuse now and then. But the woman herself presents such a portrait in courage, nose-thumbing and sheer force of will, you may find yourself leaving the theater a little more ready to take on the world again.