The great Elaine Stritch, 89, died today at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. A brassy, legendary life…a tough, candid, utterly unique performer who lived large. Here’s a piece I ran last March about Chiemi Karasawa‘s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me: “[This] is one of the frankest and boldest docs I’ve ever seen (or would want to see) about what a bitch 87 years old can be. Karasawa’s film is admirably blunt and candid, but that Bette Davis line about aging being ‘not for sissies’ has never seemed more dead-on. This is no glossy showbiz portrait. Well, it is but it has more on its mind than just praise, and some of what we’re shown is unpleasant.
“I’m just being as honest as Karasawa’s film, okay? It’s not a walk in the park, this thing. But it’s quite tough and ballsy. And hats off to the subject for allowing the raw truth to come through.
“Elaine Stritch, God love and praise her, is a Broadway legend and survivor extraordinaire. Most of the under-45s know her as Alec Baldwin‘s mom on 30 Rock, but you have to watch this YouTube video of Stritch’s one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, which she did in her late 70s and which won her a Tony.
“How much of that 77 or 78 year-old can be found in the 87 year-old version? Honestly? Somewhere between half and two-thirds. Stritch is still that great, snappy firecracker and pistolero with the brassy attitude and the world-class gams. But Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is really about what being 87 (Stritch is now 89) was doing to her and how she was pushing back all the same, pushing and performing and rehearsing and travelling around and forgetting lyrics and walking the uptown Manhattan streets. But still losing the battle.
“Stritch is the absolute greatest, now and forever, but Karasawa’s film is about the crumbling and the fraying and the fire losing its brightness. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d much, much rather re-watch At Liberty. (Which I did this morning.)
“I know all about the dying of the light. My mother has been living in an assisted living facility for a long time. It’s a nice place as far as it goes but a lot of what constitutes daily life there is not pretty. It’s not “living”. My visits to my mom have convinced me, in fact, to never submit to this kind of thing. I’d rather be hit by a bus or be eaten by lions or overdose on heroin. Keep pushing and working until I drop.
“This is more or less what Stritch’s attitude was until a year or two ago. Stritch has moved out of New York and is now living in Michigan near her family and in-laws, but since filming ended a series of health traumas have made life even less of a picnic. Broken bones, stomach cancer, heart failure. There really is something to be said for dying quickly and suddenly (i.e., John F. Kennedy) or for the exit strategies of Richard Farnsworth and George Sanders.
“There’s a remedy to a performer forgetting lyrics. It’s called a teleprompter. A TV screen in the rear of the room that a performer can turn to and read from when memory fails. I wonder why Stritch didn’t use one. It’s not a big deal. Nobody would blame her. She could incorporate it into the act and make fun of it.
“Speaking of JFK, Stritch tells a good story in the doc about going out with him sometime in, I think, the late 1940s. She was about 23 or 24 at the time, and wouldn’t be losing her virginity, believe or not, until she was 30. They had a nice first date and then went out a second time. When they got back to her place in a cab she said, “Do you want to come up for a nightcap?” Kennedy said, “Does that mean what I think it might mean, or does it mean listening to records and sipping hot chocolate and looking at photo albums and eating butterscotch pudding for a couple of hours?” (Or words to that effect.) It means butterscotch pudding, she said. “Well, no offense but I’m not interested in that,” JFK replied, “so I’ll just kiss you good night and wish you well and see you the next time.” And Stritch said to herself when she got upstairs, “That guy is going places. He wants what he wants, lays it on the line, doesn’t mince words and is courteous but frank.”
“Why the hell didn’t Stephen Sondheim (who is allegedly in pretty good health) agree to an on-camera interview? The greatest moments of Stritch’s creative life have been about performing Sondheim tunes, and he doesn’t appear in this?
“Please, please watch Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. A brilliant performance. Worth it and then some.”