Elaine Stritch is an iconic actress of both the stage and screen. Now well into her mid-80s she is still pushing herself to produce quality performances. But between her battle with alcoholism and combating a serious case of diabetes, Stritch is starting to grow weary. Not that she’ll let that stop her from helming yet another one-woman cabaret show (with a multi-city tour to boot). So one week after spotting Stritch at her hair salon, filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa agreed with her hair stylist’s suggestion that she should make a documentary about Stritch.
Karasawa immediately went home to research Stritch, having only a passing knowledge of her career. And after only a brief examination, Karasawa was hooked on the actress. Through Stritch’s close friend and music director Rob Bowman, Karasawa was able to woo the actress; and the result was the enlightening documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
Over the course of a year or so, Karasawa followed Stritch around with a camera, documenting her acting endeavors while also chronicling her personal life. Stritch is ever aware of the camera and not afraid to boss it around. When it’s too close in her face during a rehearsal she derides its proximity saying they aren’t shooting a skin commercial. At one point she even directs the camera on how to film her doing her hotel routine with her beloved Bay’s English Muffins (to very hilarious effect, I should add).
While she may be aware of the camera, that never stops her from being herself. She is prone to brassy candor and authoritative directives. If she comes off as harsh it’s because she feels no compunction to lie or soften the truth. Yet she will mix in a compliment every now and then, when she really means it—even if it comes off as a backhand compliment (she greets one friend by saying her hair actually looks good for a change).
In Shoot Me, we follow Stritch as she develops and performs Stritch Singin’ Sondheim...One Song at a Time. It’s a one-woman show that involves her singing various songs by theater great Stephen Sondheim. She’s been a Sondheim diva since iconicly belting the song “The Ladies Who Lunch” when she originated the role of Joanne in Company (1970). (She’s gone on to perform in Follies and most recently in 2010’s A Little Night Music as well.) Although Sondheim suits Stritch, her memory isn’t what it used to be and hinders her from easily recalling those complex lyrics. It’s frustrating to see her struggle for the lyrics to “I Feel Pretty,” yet rewarding when she finally does remember.
Stritch has certainly achieved immortality, but she is still facing mortality. Her constant fight against diabetes leaves her crippled in the hospital, confessing her thoughts and fears about death to the camera. It is both frightening and heartbreaking to see this strong woman baring her soul. Yet it is that vulnerable humanity that allows her to resonate with audiences, an innate quality to both her personality and her acting as well.
She also is still struggling with her alcoholism throughout the film. While unable to fully give up drinking, she closely manages her intake—only allowing herself one drink a day. And no matter how talented and successful she is (she does have 3 Emmys and a Tony) Stritch still suffers from stage fright. She relies on a big swallow of an Italian liqueur as a panacea for her nerves.
Karasawa’s film does an amazing job of capturing the essence of this wonderful woman. She comes off as brash (not unlike her 30 Rock character); but she has a heart of gold. She likes to get to know people, and once you become friends with her, you’re stuck with her. Stritch talks of moving back to her home state of Michigan and retiring from show business (any year now). Yet while she may be eager to get some much-needed sleep, she still feels the urge to entertain audiences.