There isn’t a Broadway icon alive who’s had a longer run. You may not instantly recognize the name-I didn’t. But we don’t live in the cultural capital of western civilization and, the closer you get to New York City, the larger the legend of Elaine Stritch looms.
She’s one of those quintessential showbiz fixtures who can’t walk the length of a city block without signing an autograph, posing for a picture or otherwise having her personal space invaded. Famously short-tempered, she pays the price of fame with a graciousness that’s positively unbaldwinian.
Which is ironic because, though the Tony winner first appeared on the stage 70 years ago, the role you’ll recognize her for is that of Jack Donaghy’s irascible mother Colleen on 30 Rock. She earned an Emmy for that one.
Among the highlights of Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary debut are visits behind the scenes during rehearsals along with candid tributes from both Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey. You get the sense that working with Stritch was not dissimilar to surviving a high maintenance week-long cyclone. “It’s a bear,” admits Fey, “but she’s worth it.”
A portrait of a veteran entertainer (she turned 89 last month) by an artist in the infancy of her career, Shoot Me isn’t a standard issue celebrity biopic any more than Stritch is a standard issue celebrity. While Karasawa gives her space to revisit career highpoints, the film’s primary focus is on what it’s like, having spent one’s life in the spotlight, to contemplate facing that final curtain. Brassy and brutally unguarded, Stritch isn’t one for sugarcoating.
The trip down memory lane takes fascinating twists-flings with Rock Hudson, Ben Gazarra and JFK; a play written for her by a besotted Noel Coward; a decades-long association with the music of Stephen Sondheim beginning with her 1970 breakout performance in Company.
Admirers of Woody Allen’s work will see a side of the director they haven’t before. Stritch shares a letter he sent her laying down the on-set laws she’d need to abide by to join the cast of September (1987). Let’s just say “control freak” doesn’t begin to cover it.
The most powerful moments though capture the performer looking to the future. We watch as she prepares her farewell revue Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time and struggles to remember lyrics to classics like “I Feel Pretty” and “I’m Still Here” that decades ago had become part of her DNA.
The film also chronicles older struggles. She speaks of her lifelong battles with the bottle (one she’s made peace with losing) and diabetes. A hypoglycemic attack leads to the movie’s rawest moment in which Stritch clearly believes she’s on the brink of death, whimpering “I’m scared!” to her musical director.
Dealing with a difficult subject as she herself deals with a number of difficult subjects, the fledgling filmmaker succeeds in finding what feels like just the right ratio of glitz to guts. One comes away with the sense Elaine Stritch wants more than anything for the show to go on while knowing better than anyone her final bow can’t be far off.
It’s bittersweet therefore to hear “The Bitch is Back” play over the closing credits having just heard the singer exclaim that she’d love to follow her Sondheim revue with a show featuring the songs of Elton John. After watching Shoot Me, I’m not about to count her out. I can imagine Stritch at 90 flubbing a word here and there but knocking ’em dead with a raspy, rousing rendition of “I’m Still Standing.” Something tells me she will be.