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The first thing one thinks after just a few minutes of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is, why is this fantastic woman not more famous? Fans that follow Stephen Sondheim reunions soon learn about the high regard given the performer who sang "The Ladies Who Lunch" from 1970's Company. The woman is a ball of raw energy and utterly winning charm. Some stars and divas are always 'on' and require an entourage to make themselves seem more important. Elaine plows through the world mostly on her own and her version of being "on" is being herself. In one clip John Turturro explains that Stritch is a perfect performing personality. She has no defensive shell to cover her feelings. The real Elaine is all up front, on top, in your face. She can be brassy and profane, but nothing she says sounds phony. Riding home from a TV taping, Elaine expresses her doubts about the constant hugs and kisses among show people: "Everybody is just loving everybody too much for my money."
The cameras of producer/director Chieme Karasawa follow Elaine Stritch through busy days of activity, beginning with her walks from her apartment at the Hotel Carlyle. She's courteous to well-wishers, hugs their dogs and yells like Ratzo Rizzo when a car tries to cut her off in a crosswalk. At lunch with friends, she explains that she's been alcohol-free for 22 years, but now that she's in her '80s she's back to taking one drink a day. She also has a diabetes problem, which in stressful situations makes her lose her temper and forget lyrics. Her sometimes sharp outbursts in rehearsals and on TV stages are not pleas for pity or attention. On the "30 Rock" show, Tina Fey claims that Elaine's energy keeps everyone on their toes.
The documentary makes use of a handful of effective clips from old TV shows and movies, but most of the work of showing the scope of Ms. Stritchs's career is handled directly through the performer herself. through excellent stills. Loyal asssistant Maeve Butler spreads an enormous number of framed stills around a bedroom, and Elaine finds a great story in each. One of them is about her dates with John Kennedy. She asked him to take her to dinner, and she met his family. When it came time to say goodnight, Elaine chose not to sleep with him. That is the story of a lady in control.
The way Elaine tells it, she still had the morals of a convent school graduate. Now at least 60 years later, we hear her say a prayer before a demanding concert. She finishes it off with a burst of profanity. Nothing fake about this woman.
The photos place Elaine Stritch in the center of Broadway culture from the late '40s forward. She's seen caricatured in scores of Al Hirschfeld caricatures. Other photos place her with dozens of Broadway greats. She's just as frank about details of her career, explaining that she was fired from her first stage role for inexperience, not because star Kirk Douglas was after her. Later on Nöel Coward was so enamored of Elaine's performing that he wrote a musical for her. Elaine appeared in several movie roles, but few major parts.
One very effective clip is from the 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album. Producer Hal Prince praises Elaine, saying that she's not often difficult but even when she is she's well worth it. We see her recording the song "Ladies Who Lunch" with Stephen Sondheim. Prince notes that she's more vulnerable than people think. A little later we see her greeted at the famed Stella Adler Acting Studio, which wants to solicit Elaine's choice of a rehearsal room to be named after her. We're impressed when she asks for a small room -- she reasons that she was a student there, not a superstar. She certainly qualifies now -- Ms. Stritch is one of few human continuity links to a Broadway tradition long past.
The motivation to perform is the only explanation for Elaine's seemingly limitless personal energy. Yet she has a couple of bad spells and health scares in the show, when she suddenly seems more like a frightened, needy 86-year old. She remains well aware of the camera and doesn't mind it observing her sudden difficulty in speaking speaking. On the road, Elaine's music director and accompanist Rob Bowman is there to help raise her spirits, seemingly at all times. 1
She also keeps the cameramen on their toes. At one point Elaine is discussing a contract when she notices the camera: "Don't you think you're awfully close, Shane?" The camera promptly retreats. Later on, while being filmed making a snack of English muffins, Elaine suddenly stops what she's doing to ask the cameraman why he's not following her around more closely. She openly admits that she tends to intimidate directors, and even in the old Company footage we don't see Stephen Sondheim contradicting her on camera. Her younger fan-associates sing her praises but without the usual gushing silliness; Elaine wouldn't put up with fawning for a minute. Yet she collects good friends like a soul magnet. One met Elaine at an AA meeting, and grins as she describes her thusly: "She is a Molotov Cocktail of madness, sanity and genius."
Getting set for a singing gig in East Hampton, Elaine wakes up feeling terrible. She asks to be left alone, and buries her head in a pillow. Rob Bowman then reports that the show's been cancelled and she pops awake: "Do we get paid?" Rob nods and Elaine clasps her hands in joy. "Aaooohhh, Brava! Sometimes you get the breaks."
Elaine commits to a multiple city tour requiring her to sing a long playlist of Stephen Sondheim tunes, and throws herself into rehearsals not knowing if she'll be strong enough to finish. Mild diabetes attacks can impair her memory of all those difficult lyrics. On opening night Rob Bowman has a terrific set of arrangements ready for her, but her memory comes unglued during rehearsal. Trying not to worry, she says she and Rob have no choice but to trust all those hours of rehearsal. It seems hopeless until Elaine reaches the stage, at which point she seems to cast off 25 years, pick up new energy and show her audience what real show business moxie is all about. If she does go up on a lyric or two, she pushes through in good humor. But most of the time she nails the complicated Stephen Sondheim songs. We feel her joy and triumph more than ever.
Producer/director Chiemi Karasawa found the perfect documentary subject in Stritch, whose personality repels all hints of show biz baloney -- what we see is the way she is. Not soon after filming started Elaine embraced the project whole-heartedly. If she suddenly felt chatty during the night, Karasawa would have to wake a cameraman and rush over to film Elaine in her bed. She doesn't tell stories out of school yet smiles as she remembers the men in her life. When talking about her alcoholism she can be evasive or fiercely self-critical. Just the thought of finding the next loving audience often lights up her face, bringing out her beauty. When she's tired out from traveling, just retiring can sound equally attractive. Shoot Me brings us so close to Elaine Stritch that it's difficult not to fall in love with her.
Attractively filmed and decorated with well chosen music, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is a fast paced show composed almost completely of privileged moments. Notables with substantial on-screen input include James Gandolfini, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, Tracy Morgan, John Turturro and Alec Baldwin. The late James Gandolfini appears on camera looking like a schoolboy, to admit that he formed a crush on Elaine Stritch the moment he met her. "If we had both met when we were 35, I have no doubt that we would have had a torrid love affair which would have ended very badly."
Reviewed: February 17, 2014
Hi Glenn, I just wanted to write, basically a fan letter to you -- I adore your column and look forward to reading your every post! Your intelligence, insightfulness, knowledge and humor always keeps me coming back.
And imagine my surprise as I'm reading your column tonight and see "Dracula meets Elaine Stritch," I did quite a double-take! I was Elaine's music director/conductor for the last 15 years or so of her life. It was and always will be an incredible time for me, working, playing, laughing, yelling, loving the time we spent together. I was always asking her questions what it was like to work with Richard Rodgers or Tony Curtis or Charlton Heston.. on and on... and once during rehearsal when she told me about meeting Bela Lugosi, I almost fell off the piano bench! I am such a fan of Universal Horror movies and to think she worked with and knew Bela Lugosi was almost too much for me. Years later, one night during one of our cabaret shows, it was Halloween and mid-way through I asked Elaine to tell her Bela Lugosi/Dracula story. And she said 'Oh Rob, do you think anybody really wants to hear that?' and the audience started yelling "Yes! yes! yes!" -- and she told this great story and no kidding, it was one of the highlights of the entire evening, the audience ate it up. We really should have kept it in!
Anyhow, it was such a pleasure to see you mention Elaine and Bela Lugosi. Thank you and continued success to you. All best, Rob Bowman.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.