By Barbara Vancheri
An old friend of Elaine Stritch recalls meeting the actress, a recovering alcoholic, at an AA meeting. After an opening insult, the performer asked Julie Keyes for a ride home, ordered her to pick her up later with a decaf Diet Coke at the ready and, by the way, to clean her car.
That, ladies and gentlemen (cue the applause), is Elaine Stritch, now 89 but 86 and 87 years old during the filming of a documentary about her six-decade career and her indomitable spirit, brassiness, bossiness, survivor’s instincts and simple belief, “I feel better when I work.”
She may forget the lyrics to a song now and again, due as much to her diabetes as her age, but she soldiers on, turning to musical director Rob Bowman for able assistance, allowing her eyes to twinkle as she pokes fun at herself and invariably winning the audience’s affection along the way. And allowing rehearsals and musical muscle memory to carry the day and bring the words back to her.
That’s what “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” shows as she sings Sondheim numbers, much as she did on Broadway. You see her perform her signature “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company” along with the particularly relevant “I’m Still Here” from “Follies.”
Filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa allows Stritch to talk about her life, uses archival photos and some clips to highlight her career and interviews such colleagues as Tina Fey, Cherry Jones, the late James Gandolfini (he played her son in “Romance & Cigarettes”) and theatrical producer Hal Prince.
Fey, who appeared with Stritch on “30 Rock” where she played Alec Baldwin’s mother, calls the octogenarian a great role model.
She’s “confident, brassy, stylish, gorgeous and doesn’t wear pants,” opting for long white button-down shirts and black tights.
“Elaine Stritch,” whose subject worked with such legendary figures on stage and big and small screens as Noel Coward, George Abbott, Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Ben Gazzara, Rock Hudson, John Gielgud, Woody Allen and Bernadette Peters, seems designed to be celebratory but also proves revelatory.
That is particularly true when she’s in the throes of a diabetic emergency. She’s out of town and has three malfunctioning glucose meters and is in a panic and even temporarily loses her ability to speak.
Spooked by what’s happened, she swears off her single alcoholic drink a day, although she reverts to her indulgence later, arguing she doesn’t want to make any more sacrifices. It’s obvious why this is a slippery slope for an alcoholic, but no medical testimony is offered about why this might be ill-advised for a diabetic.
The 81-minute movie is not a comprehensive look at Stritch, why did she move into the Carlyle Hotel, how did the Stella Adler Studio shape her as an actress and how did a room dedicated to her turn out? but it is an intimate one.
The documentary not only captures her at her most vulnerable as she sleeps in a hospital bed but most participatory as she tries to direct the camera operator about how he should shoot a scene.
The Michigan-born actress believes, as did Bette Davis, that old age is no place for sissies, and she shows she is still anything but.
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME
Rating: No MPAA rating but R in nature for smattering of language.