Film Review: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Delicious, hilarious, brutally honest up-close and riveting portrait of octogenarian Broadway/film/TV legend and still alive-wire Elaine Stritch will thrill her many fans and win her plenty of new ones. Talent and a profound need to entertain and hold

One of the many takeaways of Chiemi Karasawa’s thrilling doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is the quality the actor/ singer/comedienne/all-around character Elaine Stritch shares with other celebrity performers (from Garland to Joan Rivers to Timberlake and on and on): that all-consuming drive to entertain, engage and connect with an audience.

And she did it all across the entertainment landscape, landing her first role on Broadway in 1946 (fresh from the Midwest). Much stage work followed in shows like Call Me Madam, Pal Joey and many more. Her first Tony Award came with Bus Stop, and Noel Coward chose her for his classic Sail Away. Known as a major Sondheim interpreter, she made his classic song “The Ladies Who Lunch” all her own.

The doc, via archival clips, photos and Stritch’s reminiscences, conveys similar successes in film (she played the nurse in Charles Vidor’s A Farewell to Arms), where she also worked with directors like Michael Curtiz, Woody Allen and Alain Resnais. On TV, she was featured on the 1950s “The Colgate Comedy Hour” and later had ongoing roles in hit series like “30 Rock,” in which she played Alec Baldwin’s mother and in “Law and Order” as a feminist attorney.
And for a girl raised Catholic and sent to a strict convent school, she managed quite a social life. John F. Kennedy courted her but because she wouldn’t put out, he opted out. There were other flings, crushes, and affairs with the likes of Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzara and Kirk Douglas. But her true love was actor John Bay, whom she married (Stritch confesses that it was she who proposed) but who passed away about a decade into their marriage. She never remarried.

Many of her famous pals and colleagues honor Stritch here: the late James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Harold Prince, George Wolfe. But, as the doc suggests, it’s her longtime musical arranger and confidante Rob Bowman who has been one of the most prominent figures in her life.

Beyond those in her orbit, the colorful anecdotes and remarkable career resumé, it’s Stritch’s personality throughout that crackles, radiates and animates this portrait. Generous with her opinions, Stritch was also generous to Karasawa, allowing herself to be filmed in a hospital bed, in rollers, and in somewhat stressed-out personal situations.

Stritch’s need to connect and entertain as if her life depended on it suggests a kind of codependency. Such a notion dovetails with her oft-mentioned alcoholism (she calls herself a “recovering alcoholic”). She landed in Alcoholics Anonymous decades ago, found a lifelong friend there at an AA meeting in Sag Harbor, New York, and has stayed off alcohol for decades. Now, as old age settles in, Stritch rewards herself with just an occasional daily drink and keeps it that way.

She’s also candid about her diabetes and the onset of the punishments of old age like memory loss. Lyrics have been slipping her mind in recent years, as footage of a rehearsal at Town Hall and a performance at her posh stomping ground at the Café Carlyle attest. But she gamely carries on singing, ad-libbing and delighting audiences. No tears spilled.

While the doc, with Stritch’s cooperation, does not skirt her fragile situation, it is an altogether happy and humorous affair. Stritch is strong, witty and, as many of her celebrity friends make clear, brutally honest.

But viewers’ response to Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me will depend on their response to the subject herself. Sometimes strident, confrontational, unintentionally camp and always assured, Stritch may not be to everyone’s taste. (Gays and other entertainment hounds who get weak-kneed at genuine talent “get” her.) In any case, only a few minutes in, viewers will know where they stand. Overall, Stritch impresses as a damn good sport, a hilarious enemy of bullshit, and a true survivor. All that should bring everyone into her, uh, camp.