Crowd Pleaser: The Brilliant Elaine Stritch Lives for the Audience

In the documentary 'Shoot Me,' she gives the most candid performance of her career

Elaine Stritch is the subject of Chiemi Karasawa’s new documentary.
Elaine Stritch is the subject of Chiemi Karasawa’s new documentary.

Interviewing Elaine Stritch is like asking a hemophiliac for a pint of blood. “Everybody’s got a sack of rocks,” she says. Every now and then, she reaches her long, bony fingers into the sack and throws one at you. The best thing you can do is give up and just get out of the way. This is a valuable lesson learned early by astute director Chiemi Karasawa in the captivating documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. You will go away knocked right out of your snow boots. 

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me ★★★★
(4/4 stars)

Directed by: Chiemi Karasawa
Starring: Elaine Stritch, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey
Running time: 80 min.


At 88, after nearly seven decades in show business, Ms. Stritch is sharp, funny, brittle, caustic, demanding, exaggerated, critical (especially of herself) and infuriating. She is also elaborately unique and awesomely brilliant. You wouldn’t want to marry her, but you cannot deny the talent that has made her one of the very few show business survivors who can legitimately lay claim to the overworked title “living legend.” Harold Prince, who directed her in Company, says, “She’s difficult and eccentric, but you have to deal with Elaine’s eccentricities, because ultimately they’re worth it.”

Shooting her for more than a year in every candid, unedited and unrehearsed private and professional moment imaginable, Ms. Karasawa obviously earned her trust, because her tantrums and tears pay off in spades. I saw this movie reluctantly, calloused by too many examples of what I considered boorish and exasperating behavior. I loved her strident, aggressive persona on stage and screen, but I never considered Ms. Stritch a member of the vast hive of workers and drones marching toward the completion of art. One thinks of her as an entity to herself. One of the great things about this film is that it unveils myriad reasons why the public view can be so self-delusional.

Her public humility accepting a Tony in 2002 for her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, still seems disingenuous, until you peer through the backstage keyhole at the reasons her hands are always fists and why every success comes equipped with the gloves of Sugar Ray Robinson. At the age when the joints don’t bend and the apple won’t bite, every day is a struggle. A recovering alcoholic with type 1 diabetes, she’s a prisoner of daily routines that regulate her insulin and blood sugar levels. I’ve seen her take out her hypodermic in a nightclub and jab herself in the thigh while reading her mail and paying her bills. In the movie, she even describes to Alec Baldwin how she chews her food, swallows the juice and spits it back out on the plate in full view of the same audience that loves her unconditionally and applauds her madly, often for the wrong reasons. She says, in a moment of customary trademark grouchiness, “Everybody’s loving everybody too much for my money,” then she does exactly the same thing.

She’s a curious mixture of conflict and defiance, vitriol and vulnerability. She admits to addiction but, after 22 years of sobriety, attends A.A. meetings, then treats herself to a drink a day (more often two). She tells marvelous tales of her onstage triumphs, telling the cinematographer what he’s doing wrong by shooting her from the wrong angles, then allows the cameras to show her fumbling in despair for a simple rhyme in rehearsal before throwing in the towel and walking out in exhaustion and despair. She even invites the director to follow her to her newly purchased retirement condo in her hometown of Bloomfield Hills, where she can imbibe without the raised eyebrows of prying neighbors. Drinking again. Well, what else are you gonna do in Michigan?

Out of all this candor, sitting on the floor poring over scrapbooks and framed photos of old colleagues and boyfriends (all deceased now), comes the saga of a showstopping veteran struggling to keep going. Her career went south, her eyesight is failing, and she can barely carry a tune now or remember her lines and lyrics anymore. Her accompanist Rob Bowman holds her up, feeds her the words by Stephen Sondheim, puts her to bed, keeps the orange juice handy to get her through another diabetes attack and smiles adoringly while she pauses to sing a duet with the elevator operator at the Hotel Carlyle, where she lived for years until 2013. Talking heads, a staple of most documentaries, are minimalized, although Nathan Lane and Cherry Jones drop in, and there’s a valentine from the late James Gandolfini (who once played her son). They would follow her anywhere. Any credit with Elaine Stritch, even in a cameo, looks impressive on a résumé. The detractors, who will tell you nightmare stories of working with her, are nowhere to be seen.

And yet, bless her blond mop, dyed lashes and matchstick legs in black stockings; she comes off like the kind of fascinating drop-dead character you would love to know better. She’s ill. She’s so fragile she might shatter. Wowing the well-heeled expense accounters ringside at the Café Carlyle one minute, then collapsing a minute later screaming for paramedics to get her to the hospital, she grows on you, like a lichen.

I sat transfixed. Whatever else she’s missing, it’s not balls. She lets us watch her wake up and collapse in the pain and panic of a near-death experience, fearless in the knowledge that we are seeing her for real, wrinkles, dewlaps and all. One of the most poignant and revealing scenes is a tense recording session for “The Ladies Who Lunch,” hating everything she’s doing, throwing herself on the shoulders of a stoic Stephen Sondheim, agonizing over her choices, sweating the need for approval. You can see and feel the fear of defeat and the determination to please. An actual performance at the Carlyle shows her at her worst, playing off the audience that applauds her terror, forgiving the mistakes and overlooking the fact that she’s actually murdering the songs. Like other easily breakable icons before her—Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy, Montgomery Clift, Kim Stanley, Marilyn Monroe—all that cynicism and toughness is a cover for the fragility of self-doubt. Yet her life has always been—and will be—the audience. Who else is there to love her?

In a moment of übercandor, Ms. Stritch confides, “I’m just this little old lady who lives on the hill. … I don’t want to get drunk. I don’t want to cause trouble. I don’t want to say ‘fuck.’ I don’t want to make any more sacrifices. I just want to have a drink a day. Anybody buying?” But nobody buys the “retirement” talk. What will she do next? It’s anybody’s guess. What she’s doing now is plugging Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, an extraordinary documentary that is like a piercing, poignant intimacy between famous patient and bewildered shrink.

Enjoy it while you can, because her kind will never come along again. To quote a powerful Sondheim lyric she sings several times, once while walking in the traffic, she’s still here, where she belongs, as a flawed symbol of theater tradition and show business history from a saner, calmer time that has sadly changed and moved on. Maybe Elaine Stritch has stayed too long at the fair. She doesn’t know when to get out while she’s ahead of the game. She doesn’t know how to leave. But frankly, who could stand it if she did? Crowd Pleaser: The Brilliant Elaine Stritch Lives for the Audience