Broadway legend and strident New Yorker Elaine Stritch is a force of nature, a human hurricane of energy and tenacity that could turn in a different direction at any moment. Mixed with a rare brazen honesty, this volatility makes her a fitting subject for a documentary. Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me may begin as a whirlwind behind-the-scenes portrait of the 87-year-old actress’ attempt to mount a one-woman show based on Stephen Sondheim ditties, but it quickly evolves into something more: a profound examination of creative reinvention and longevity.
To be successful, artists often go a little mad finding their aesthetic singularity. Stritch seems to power through this process every day, challenging her music director and confidant Rob Bowan during rehearsals and lighting up the set of 30 Rock (where she had a recurring role) with machine-gun-fire wisecracking. Stritch even calls her assistant’s cute little bunny rabbit a “twit,” as if the creature were a showbiz lackey who had just failed to deliver her a proper coffee.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me—which opens Friday, March 14, at La Jolla Village Cinemas—is so interesting partly because it juxtaposes its central subject’s wrecking-ball attitude with her nostalgic memories of the past. Some of these are fleeting if not wonderfully seedy. She left Ben Gazzara after falling for Rock Hudson and scuttled around Kirk Douglas’ rigorous romantic advances on set. More important are her reflections on famous Broadway collaborations with Noel Coward (Sail Away) and the great Sondheim, which avoid hero worship and focus on process and craft.
“I like the courage of age,” Stritch says early in the film, but this statement is continuously tested as she struggles with health problems, alcoholism and the reality of growing older. Diabetes is the main culprit throughout; Stritch’s low blood sugar nearly turns more than one scene disastrous. This is a scary reality facing many people with the disease, and you rarely see it so frankly addressed on screen. The lack of control over her body seems to irritate Stritch more than anything, especially since she’s fought for so long to retain artistic integrity in a business dominated by men.
Such frustration can be seen in a later scene when Stritch attempts to direct one of Karasawa’s cinematographers, yelling at him to film her opening up a case of English muffins from a particular angle. I’d wager that realism isn’t something Stritch has ever been interested in, and this sense of outlandish manipulation often contradicts the traditional conventions of the non-fiction genre. But if you’ve studied documentary cinema at all, you know that reality is never attainable when filtered through the lens of a camera. Stritch understands this perfectly well, so why not try to create the most indomitable biography made up of her most cherished daily performances?
It’s a valid question that Karasawa patiently considers throughout the film, which melds stagy moments such as the muffins scene with tender confessionals that find Stritch at her most powerless. Take for instance a shockingly frank interview late in the film when the ailing actress sits in a hospital bed. She talks about retiring and leaving New York, nearly beaten down by her failing body. There’s anguish in her words, but not defeat. Maybe the curlers in her hair are an indicator that this is just another pre-show therapy session necessary for one last reinvention.
Sequences like these prove Stritch to be a walking, talking, singing contradiction, like many an acting genius. Her vulnerability is apparent, but it seems concocted to make the audience feel a specific emotion. Stritch is so good at it that one tends not to care if her tears are real. That we believe they are means everything.