For a documentary subject as forceful as Elaine Stritch, filmmakers may need to turn to nature — a typhoon might do it — to find anything approximate. Even the camera must warily keep its distance in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. She warns its operator when he gets too close: “I don’t know whether this is a skin commercial, or what.”
Stritch captivates just walking down the street: greeting fans, chastising cabs, swaying to the music of the sidewalk. “I wish I could [expletive] drive,” she says at the opening of the documentary. “Then I’d really be a menace.”
The strong types usually seen in movies — caped men with powers, action heroes with six-packs — have nothing on this long-legged, 89-year-old New York broad. Stritch, who has long eschewed pants of any sort, has the kind of ferocious voice that old age can’t quiet.
Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an irresistibly entertaining documentary that captures Stritch during what she unsentimentally calls “almost post-time.” After seven decades performing in New York — on Broadway, in countless cabaret nights at the Cafe Carlyle — Stritch’s enormous energy has been knocked by the increasing years, diabetes, and surgeries on her hip and eyes.
But Shoot Me, made over the past few years, is a document not of Stritch’s dwindling, but of her feisty persistence. As the film shows, she has trouble remembering lyrics and sometimes struggles to get out of bed. At home and during rehearsals, it chronicles her grand exit from New York, her home since she was 17, and her decision to retire back to Michigan.
Stritch is a paragon of old-fashioned show business: A brassy and blunt survivor of New York theater life. More than a decade ago, the New York Landmarks Conservancy named her a living landmark.
“I like the courage of age,” she declares.
Karasawa shoots Stritch in intimate, unglamorous situations, most notably one night in a hospital bed with curlers in her hair, chastened by a health scare: “It’s time for me,” she says. “I can feel it everywhere.”
A theatrical being down to her soul, Stritch is often a fascinating companion, throwing off such candid reflections, joining an elevator operator in song, or miming a limp to avoid a parking ticket in the Hamptons. But she is also, unquestionably, a handful.
Her needs are many, which her musical director Rob Bowman patiently tries to meet. She repeatedly criticizes the documentary’s very own cameraman, ordering him to more aggressively shoot her unpacking a box of her cherished English muffins.
The question of how taxing it is to work with Stritch is unavoidable. D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary on the cast recording of Company showed her sparring with Stephen Sondheim. In Shoot Me, we glimpse a letter from Woody Allen before they shot the film September, warning her of overly dramatic behavior and requesting that she “keep the questioning to a rock-bottom minimum.” Tina Fey, who cast Stritch in a recurring role on her sitcom 30 Rock, says: “It’s a bear. And it’s always worth it.”
Stritch is worth it not just because of her talent, but for her inspiring perseverance. She’s a born entertainer, and a spirited remnant of a disappeared New York. She sings from Follies:
Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all/ And, my dear, I’m still here.
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