It's not often that a New York City institution actually leaves the city. But such was the case last year when 89-year-old Broadway legend Elaine Stritch returned to her Michigan hometown after some 60-plus years making any show, movie or television series she appeared in better than it would have been without her.
Filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa must have instinctually known that turning a camera on Stritch for a few months would produce a riveting, heart-breaking, and hilarious documentary. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me doesn't disappoint. It's a warts and all portrait of how performing means survival and sustenance to an actor yet also how an actor can be simultaneously fortified and drained dry by all she or he had hoped for.
The film is fortuitously timed to coincide with the Stella Adler Studio of Acting's preparation to name one of its studios after Stritch. As her assistant gathers up piles of photos, Hirschfeld caricatures, and letters that will decorate the studio, the task serves as a catalyst that opens Stritch up to recollections both cherished and haunting. The friends and co-workers about whom she waxes nostalgic (some of whom wax right back) make up a virtual constellation of famous names from half a century of show biz history: Noel Coward to James Gandolfini; Stephen Sondheim to Woody Allen; Rock Hudson to Tina Fey. If her wattage flashed and dimmed, her supporters never have.
Embedded throughout the film are snippets of the last several acting jobs, cabaret shows and concerts she performed before retiring. Though there's not one complete song or scene on display, there is plenty to treasure: grainy black and white footage of old variety shows; behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage of her stint on "30 Rock" as Alec Baldwin's cranky mother; the recording of the "Company" cast album (captured by documentarian D. A Pennebaker) where an exasperated Sondheim puts up with her perfectionism fine-tuning one of her signatures, "The Ladies Who Lunch."
Also shown with courageous intimacy are Stritch's battles with her twin demons: diabetes and drink. After 24 years sober, she decides she's due a cocktail a day - a well-spiked cosmopolitan. It's hard to say if it's the booze or her age that begins to diminish her memory but the evidence comes with forgotten lyrics and, in one harrowing scene, a diabetic episode that prompts a call to 911.
At the end of the film, Stritch is dead set on leaving New York City, the place that has lauded, embraced, and hurt her for all those yo-yo years. Those who've ever seen her on stage know that New York won't ever be the same but it was its essential, best self when she was in it.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me | Dir. Chiemi Karasawa | 80 minutes | Playing at Tivoli Cinemas in Westport, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo.