Rarely do I recommend documentaries. It’s all subjective of course, but all too often one is confronted by narcissistic directors dealing with ‘real life’ hubris-befuddled people and action is confined to little but talking heads talking their talk talk talk in well-lit rooms. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Chiemi Karasawa’s intimate study of a great Broadway and cabaret performer, is something extraordinary however.
Karasawa filmed as Ms. Stritch, 88-years-old, was preparing her spectacular cabaret show, Elaine Stritch: Singin’ Sondheim… One Song At A Time and the footage he got will literally knock your socks off. Old she may be, but the life force burns like a hand passed intermittently over a neon lantern as she struggles mightily to overcome both diabetes and the enemies of all aging thespians.
If you watch enough television you probably know Stritch from silly Old Navy commercials and appearances on the Charlie Rose Show where he genuflects and toadies to her in a mannered, respectful way he shows no politician or journalist. At any rate, Stritch, now 89, is the perfect brassy example of a classic Broadway type: a hard-boiled raconteuse-dåme, never lacking for a pithy wisecrack or comeback; fasten your seatbelts because she’d go fifteen rounds with Bette Davis’ Eve. Thus the ambivalence of purpose, the shock of recognition in the viewer when they have to witness the difference between the phosphorescent stage performer, a pseudo-hoochie mama who rules the Broadway stage, and then contrast it with the persona of a terrified, tired, frail, fear-filled old woman captured by the merciless camera at the hospital after a medical crisis, is altogether riveting and horrifying.
What really makes this documentary special is the question Karasawa asks. Whatever it is that we do, is it the same face we wear in public and at work, in comparison to the one we wear at home? Does someone like Ms. Stritch even exist without an audience? And is that very existence love? Stritch, whose husband, a character actor John Bay, died of brain cancer in 1982, repeatedly tells us that although it IS love, of a sort, she misses her husband still and has known no other love than that which comes from her audience since he passed away.
I know you’ve all seen enough lame biographies to know what sincerity is. Well, this is the real deal in spades. George C. Wolfe, the irascible Alec Baldwin, a sad, doomed James Gandolfini, producer Hal Prince and Tina Fey offer up some very warm, witty banter, much of it accompanied by terrific Hollywood photos of Stritch as a long-legged blonde ingenue-knockout quite willing to use teasing and sex as a potent weapon on the yellow brick road to success. All accompanied, ironically, by fantastic anecdotes about how a good girl under siege can hold on to her virginity. Still, all her raconteuse charm and myth-making instincts won’t allow Stritch to hide onstage. She’s a perfectionist in every way and an almost vicious taskmistress to her colleagues; yet, at the same time, her inability to remember song lyrics is painful yet riveting to watch. How she then manipulates the audience to assist in her struggle is awesome to behold as she literally has them eating out of her hand.
Stritch likes to paint herself as one who narrowly missed entering a convent, but sex, God and glory are in some ways the least of it. As changeable as her fluctuating blood sugar, Stritch is full of rhetoric concerning her own alcoholism, yet, after what she insists have been two decades of sobriety she decides to permit herself one drink a day.
Finally, like Sancho Panza, there’s her long loyal comrade-in-arms Rob Bowman. Bowman is quiet and stoic throughout yet his face is a picture of joy as Stritch busts loose on ‘I Feel Pretty.’ He simply carries on, even when the lyrics elude Ms. Stritch, because he knows the audience will rescue them.
This is a fabulous piece of work with riveting, shared cinematography from Shane Sigler, Joshua Z. Weinstein and Rod Lamborn. The editing from Pax Wasserman and Kjerstin Rossi is as tight and brilliant is minimalism can get. See it!