There are few Broadway dames who have earned that moniker in every sense. In part, this is because it requires a lengthy career of great scope and renown; it’s also because the stage presence and unflagging determination such a career requires can be as consuming an enterprise as the art itself. For those who might be worried, don’t be: Elaine Stritch is a theater dame down to the bone.
In a career spanning more than half a century, Stritch has become an icon of Broadway. In the opening moments of Shoot Me, she walks down the street in a fur coat, interrupted by admirers, and shows the camera photos of some highlights of her truly astounding stage career, balancing pride with self-deprecation. (In nearly the same breath, she calls A Delicate Balance her favorite stage experience, then names as a favorite leading man “the gay dancer inside the bear” for a production of Goldilocks whose only other virtue was that it brought her to the attention of Noel Coward, who wrote Sail Away for her.) It’s the beginning of a quasi-biography that slips easily between career retrospective, behind-the-scenes documentary of a one-woman cabaret and filmed therapy session, and the lady at its center provides enough material for each.
Though, like many successful women, Stritch carries a reputation as infamous as it is famous, there are no detractors to be found in this biography. This isn’t that sort of documentary. Tina Fey and Cherry Jones discuss her in tones of slightly warying awe, as the late James Gandolfini mentions that were they both 35, they’d have probably had a disastrous love affair. But the colleagues and friends who provide these loving talking heads seem, wisely, to have taken Stritch with some of the same grain of salt with which she routinely takes herself, insecurities covered with a sharp self-rebuke, a failing memory for lyrics met with a string of angry curses, a declaration that she’s not the sort to cry over the departed coming in between several misty-eyed moments ruminating on the past.
These moments of deeply human unselfconsciousness illuminate the seemingly irreconcilable aspects of a woman who’s lived a constant character, but who has deep-seated insecurities and a performer’s uncanny sense of the honesty needed to make an audience respect them. One of the most revealing moments comes when she stops some deliberately-absent-minded singing and puttering in her kitchenette because the camera’s not following her, demanding that the director track her from a more acceptable angle before starting the whole process again. Another, strikingly different, comes during a medical emergency as she cries in the arms of her music director and becomes more and more panicked. Her diabetes is such an influential specter that it might as well be a costar: it puts her in the hospital twice, causes mood swings and implied lapses of memory, and is given as one of the major reasons Stritch quit drinking over two decades earlier. She’s frank about the comforting pull of her alcoholism—and equally frank that in her old age, she felt entitled to reevaluate. Now, she says, she allows herself only one drink a day—plus liqueur, for medicinal reasons and for courage.
Stritch is endlessly, sometimes exhaustively, self-aware, but Shoot Me remains unflinching enough about her rough edges that she feels firmly honest, too—or at least as honest as you can be when you’re constantly playing yourself. In a glimpse of filming on 30 Rock, Stritch ad-libs a line to top costar Alec Baldwin; when he growls at her to knock it off (with a questionably affectionate “You bitch”), she laughs as hard as anyone, and there’s a laugh-out-loud moment where she avoids a parking ticket during a coffee run by muttering “I’ll limp” and playing to perfection the frail, absentminded older woman she not-so-secretly fears becoming. But even as we see her cheerfully bullying and conning her way through life, famed director Hal Prince mentions it’s a mistake to assume she’s invulnerable, and it’s an astute observation. Footage of her raging against a subpar take of “Ladies Who Lunch” in a fit of frustration pitched to the cheap seats is a strain to watch, but from a look at Stephen Sondheim’s face, it’s clear that he agrees with her. When she finally delivers a flawless take, he’s grinning, but even without seeing him, she knows she’s nailed it. She’s the portrait of an artist knowing her art, and more subtly, knowing how to read a room.
Of course, reading a room is the greatest art of the great artists, and when Stritch finally unveils her show, her blanking on lyrics is covered with a vaudevillian’s determination that the audience be wooed; she prompts Rob Bowman, her musical director, turning the fumble into the sort of acidic comedy that goes over like gangbusters. Her repertoire is an expected mixture of the ironic (“I Feel Pretty”), the iconic (“Ladies Who Lunch”) and the triumphant (“I’m Still Here”), each of them not so much sung as attacked with all the force of her presence. And while it’s no surprise that being onstage lights her from within as much as it does from above, what’s most interesting is how little she changes—that mixture of honesty and showmanship that Jones calls “a conduit to another time,” American theater’s “golden age.”
And Stritch is aware of this, as of so much else. “How is the end of pretending gonna be?” she asks, speaking of both retirement and her own contemplation of mortality. But the fond Shoot Me never doubts that she’ll find a way through it. Or if not, it suggests, she’ll kick a hole big enough.