Like the Broadway doyen herself, the documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” is brilliant, funny caustic, critical and tender. What might have been merely a sycophantic airbrushed view of Ms. Stritch and her marvelous talents, instead, is a fully candid, unrehearsed, intimate, three-dimensional portrait. We are captivated by her charisma, talent and bravery, yet saddened to see her determination fight a losing battle with aging, memory loss, diabetes and alcoholism.
Elaine Stritch’s Broadway, nightclub and television career began 72 years ago. She’s retained her popularity and the public’s love ever since. From Broadway musicals (“Call Me Madam,” “Pal Joey,” “Company”) and searing dramas (“Bus Stop,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Woody Allen’s “September”) to her recent role as Alec Baldwin’s mother on TV’s “30 Rock,” Stritch has continued to amaze and amuse generations of fans.
In the opening scenes of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” we see the then 86 year old in her characteristic outfit of black tights, large white shirt, sunglasses and glamorous fur coat waltzing through midtown Manhattan, where she is greeted by fans and friends at every corner. One fan burbles, “You’re still the best.” “Thank you,” Stritch replies, but can’t resist the retort, “Still, eh?”
Talented first time director, Chiemi Karasawa, apparently with unedited and unrehearsed access, followed Stritch for more than a year as she, though still performing, prepared to move close to her family in Birmingham, Michigan. We watch Stritch in every possible mood as she and her retinue sort through her mementos and belongings.
The mementos are catalysts for Stritch. She sees a photograph of her deceased husband, John Bay, and speaks of him as her only love. Amusing anecdotes and video clips start with Noel Coward and include a juicy one about a young John F. Kennedy. As an indication of Stritch’s reputation as “difficult,” there’s a peculiar letter from Woody Allen, offering Stritch a roll in “September,” on the condition that she not be as disruptive as he has heard that she can be.
Karasawa used the one-woman Sondheim show Stritch did several years ago at the Café Carlyle as an exemplar of Stritch’s fading abilities and energy. She can’t remember all of Sondheim’s difficult lyrics; she misses many notes, but her loving audience keeps her going. In comparison, Karasawa includes excerpts from the 1970 Pennebaker documentary, “Company: Original Cast Album” in which, at first Stritch tries and tries, but can’t seem to hit the notes right. But she returns the next day and pulls it all off beautifully.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is the type of homage that fits Stritch perfectly — honest, funny, brittle and sad, but also inspired and exceptional.
Elaine Stritch —Timeline
1925 – Born in Detroit, Michigan.
1942 – Arrives in New York.
1946 – Makes her Broadway debut in “Loco.” It closes after 37 performances.
1947 –Makes her debut on the musical stage in “Angel in the Wings.”
1950 – Stands by for the legendary Ethel Merman in “Call Me Madam.” She is later
chosen to head the national tour.
1952 – Appears in the revival of “Pal Joey,” stopping the show cold with her second act striptease, “Zip.”
1956 –Nominated for her first Tony Award for originating the role of Grace in
William Inge’s “Bus Stop.”
1956 – First featured film role in the Michael Curtiz’ noir, “The Scarlet Hour.”
1957 – Stars in Charles Vidor’s “A Farewell to Arms.” The film grosses a then staggering 25 million dollars.
1961 – Noel Coward writes her a featured part in his new musical, “Sail Away.” Ms.
Stritch’s work is so well received that the leading lady is fired and Ms. Stritch assumes her role.
1962 – Replaces Uta Hagen in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” beginning a decade’s
long association with the playwright Edward Albee.
1970 – Creates the role of Joanne in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s seminal
musical, “Company.” She introduces the song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” which becomes her signature number.
1973 – Marries actor John Bay. Their union lasts 10 years, until Mr. Bay’s death in
1975 – Co-stars stars with Donald Sinden in the smash hit, British television program
“Two’s Company,” earning multiple BAFTA nominations.
1977 – Holds her own against John Gielgud and Dirk Bogarde in Alain Resnais’ much acclaimed film, “Providence.”
1987 – Stars as Mia Farrow’s glamorous movie star mother in Woody Allen’s
1993 – Wins an Emmy Award for her recurring role as feminist attorney Lainie
Stieglitz on TV’s “Law & Order.”
1994 – Returns to the New York stage in Hal Prince’s revival of “Show Boat.”
2001 – One-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” premieres at the Public Theater, later transferring to the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway and later to the West End. She receives a Tony Award. She later received the Emmy Award for her performance in the HBO television special of the same name.
2002 – Moves into Suite 309 at the Carlyle Hotel.
2007 – Awarded an Emmy for her role as Alec Baldwin’s mother on “30 Rock.” She plays the part to wild acclaim for the next seven years.
2009 – Appears with Bernadette Peters in the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” replacing original stars Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Their engagement is extended twice.
2013 – Performs her farewell Cabaret engagement at the Café Carlyle – “Elaine Stritch at Home at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out”