I saw Elaine Stritch’s famous one woman Broadway show “At Liberty” in the last days of 2001 a couple of years after moving to New York. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was nothing short of spiritual ecstasy but then showbiz is my religion and actresses are my only gods. You might then justifiably say that I am predisposed to love the hell out of the new documentary ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME and you’d be right. But I can still tell a peak performance from a Wednesday matinee and the last doc I saw on Stritch, which shared its title with “At Liberty” was significantly less stellar. Shoot Me is a must-see, even if you only know this Broadway legend from her hilarious guest appearances as Jack Donaghy’s impossible mother on 30 Rock.
We don’t feel enough sacred reverence for stage actors in our culture. Beyond of course the self-flogging of parting with $100+ for tickets. What they do is harder than what movie and television actors do and they do it 8 times a week. And in today’s reality-tv soaked culture, when people regularly get famous for merely subjecting themselves to cameras, the stage performer’s old school work ethic is almost unimaginably titanic.
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In this respect Elaine Stritch is an extraordinary set of training wheels for learning to respect showbiz history while having a great time and hardly noticing that you’re being schooled. She’s dabbled in TV (she was almost one of “The Golden Girls” ) and film (former co-stars include Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow) between her stage triumphs so her celebrity anecdotes regularly include household names, legends and other stage stars (Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, James Gandolfini, and more come up in or appear in the documentary). What’s more, Stritch’s personality is so big that even if she had no talent whatsoever, a scenario that’s admittedly difficult to imagine, she’d be totally well suited for gargantuan fame on a reality TV show.
All of which is to say that the director Chiemi Karasawa has a lot to work with in the form of TV, stage and film clips as well as a wealth of contemporary footage as she trains her cameras on this irrepressible old trouper from February 2011 through July 2012 as she storms through the streets of New York in her furs, swears like a sailor, tells great showbiz stories, sings to cabaret audiences, and gets opinionated on the set of 30 Rock (at one point she refers to her co-star as “Alec Joan Crawford Baldwin” and I died laughing. I am no longer alive).
What’s most impressive is how Karasawa and her editors manage to squeeze all of that into a fleet 80 minutes without it feeling rushed or unfocused. And that’s just the funny bits. The documentary also stares non-judgmentally, right in the face of Stritch’s alcoholism (her relationship to vodka stingers being previously immortalized in Sondheim’s Company “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch”) and into the ravages of old age and Stritch’s ambivalent much-delayed retirement. This is no mere comic hagiography but a three dimensional portrait of an incredibly gifted, ornery, funny, self-doubting icon. Nor is it a sentimental premature obituary, though Stritch is too confrontationally honest a life force to pretend death isn’t coming. Instead Shoot Me is the best kind of “I’m Still Here” scrapbook, a collection of indelible past images, reconsidered memories, and revealing fresh moments.