The new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me provides a revealing look into the life of the uncompromising and unparalleled stage veteran, now in her 89th year and still going strong.
The Golden Age of theatre on Broadway is no more. Lush romantic scores have been replaced by pop-rock power ballads. Original, emotional storytelling with strong character development through song has been replaced by over-the-top farce and painful screen-to-stage adaptations. With few exceptions, the modern book musical no longer exists on the Great White Way, instead being replaced with jukebox sensibility and larger-than-life spectacle, carefully marketed to ensure that the Manhattan tourist audience get their money’s worth while leaving their brains outside the theatre. Thank heavens that there are still plays, but even those are mostly revivals now. The Broadway legends of old would have a hard time understanding this new era, and most of them would wouldn’t be able to find work today. There is little room for a singular artist in this age of cookie-cutter typecasting. But some of those old work horses are still around, defying modern expectations and remaining relevant because of their refusal to conform to the norm or fade into obscurity. They are stars the likes of which Broadway may never see again – and at 89 years of age, Elaine Stritch is such a star.
The new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an intimate portrait of the celebrated theatre personality, as it follows her during her last couple of years in New York as she prepares to perform a Sondheim-centric concert at the famous Carlyle Hotel. The film employs interviews with various actors, directors, and writers who have had the pleasure of working with the wry star, but for the most part its main focus is Stritch herself. The camera tracks her through her daily routines, rehearsals, and breakdowns as she musters up the courage to live and perform day-to-day. Stritch realizes she is nearing the end of her life and she is surprisingly candid in her direct addresses to the camera where she confronts the idea of death, her recurrent health issues due to diabetes, and her ongoing struggle with alcoholism. She is also a force to be reckoned with and sharper than almost anyone in the room. Stritch may be direct about her fears, but she doesn’t ask the audience to pity her; instead she dares them to question her veracity.
The film is most entertaining when the audience is allowed to observe Stritch battling through her increasingly frustrated creative process. We see her struggle to master Stephen Sondheim’s tricky lyrics during rehearsals with her ever patient music director Rob Bowman (who also seems to double as Stritch’s home nurse from time to time). The film continually juxtaposes her memories of struggles in her onstage performances where even when a line is missed, she manages to engage with the audience and make the mistake a part of her artistic rendering. Stritch’s power is her ability to use deadpan humor and a sly understanding of human emotion to grab hold of her listeners and wrap them in a warm embrace. Even when she stumbles, the crowd can’t help but cheer her on. We are also privileged to hear her colleagues offer behind the scenes gossip of how difficult she can be to work with, while simultaneously admiring her unwavering commitment to the art of acting. One particular highlight is when a letter from Woody Allen is read aloud that offered Stritch a part in his 1987 film September, but with a few stipulations – due to her reputation she had to show up and shut up and trust in Allen completely, or else there would be no job. Stritch must have done just that because not only did she star in that aforementioned film, but also in Allen’s 2000 caper comedy, Small Time Crooks.
While the artistic portrait of Stritch is an endearing one, it is when the film focuses on her personal struggles that we begin to see the woman behind the diva. Elaine is very forthcoming with the details of her life-long fight with alcoholism and her dedication to AA, even though she is now drinking again. After 22 years of sobriety, Stritch began to allow herself one drink a day (though it’s apparent she may be having many more) because she was “very curious” to see if she could do it. After a diabetic scare where she is rushed to the hospital and treated for over a week, Stritch confronts her alcoholism straight on when she admits that what she is most scared of is drinking again. It’s an anguished moment as the camera hovers in a tight close-up and Stritch lets loose all of her built up anxieties while tears stream down her aged face. Later, she admits with a glimmering smile that her idea of heaven is an open bar. The irony is not lost on her or us.
First time director (but frequent producer) Chiemi Karasawa’s cinema verite style allows the viewer unparalleled access into the life of one of the stage’s greatest living actresses. Elaine Stritch’s career ranges over six decades, with performances in productions of Loco (1946), Pal Joey (1953), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1963), Company (1970), and the recent revival of A Little Night Music (2011) just to name a few. And let’s not forget her film and television career, which blossomed late in her life thanks to her recurring guest starring role on the hit show 30 Rock. Stritch is now “retired,” and has left the Big Apple for the more subdued confines of suburban life on the outskirts of Detroit. One would imagine that we haven’t seen the last of Stritch quite yet. Her thirst to perform is insatiable and the world of theatre is a much sadder place without her. It is lucky for her fans that such an uncompromising document like Shoot Me exists. Long after the lights of Broadway dim for Elaine Stritch, her legacy will live on.