Ferocious, funny, a Broadway belter, a cabaret icon - and a crank, a terror, a delight - Elaine Stritch has been a fixture of the New York theater and music scenes forever. Before forever.
Her first Broadway credit: Loco, in 1946. In 1950, she understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. And movies: In 1957, she costarred with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones in A Farewell to Arms.
Stritch dated JFK (twice). More recently, she was Alec Baldwin's mom in 30 Rock.
And, as we see in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, Chiemi Karasawa's fearless but compassionate documentary portrait, the showbiz diva cannot walk the blocks of her Upper East Side neighborhood without being stopped by friends, or fans, or ingenues who recognize her tenacity - and aspire to be as tough.
Stritch, now in her late 80s, and still rehearsing new shows and touring with Rob Bowman, her steadfast accompanist/musical director/gofer, is not an easy person to spend time with. And that makes the film all the more fascinating.
Bravely allowing Karasawa access from morning till night, Stritch, in her trademark billowy white blouses and skinny black tights, or in bed, without makeup and without, sometimes, a lucid notion, reveals herself to be full of opposing emotions and desires. Strong but vulnerable, confident, angry, self-critical, lost.
But the one place Stritch consistently finds herself again, literally and figuratively, is onstage. "I feel better when I work," she says, "protected by the proscenium." And there she is, running through the Sondheim songbook - raspy, beautifully. Even if a line, or a verse, slips from memory, she looks safer up there, inside the songs, the persona.
Tracing Stritch's career, her love affairs, her battles with alcoholism and diabetes, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me boasts encomiums and illuminations from her 30 Rock cohorts Baldwin and Tina Fey, from Hal Prince, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, John Turturro.
A smiling James Gandolfini says of Stritch: "If we both met when we were 35, I have no doubt that we would have had a torrid love affair that would have ended very badly."
Gandolfini, of course, is gone. But Stritch is still here, still standing, and pushing the director of her movie around: "You're too close," she barks, as the camera tracks her in her kitchen, missing the wider shot of her slicing those must-have Bays English muffins.
Stritch is thinking about "the picture you're going to leave." Here's hoping she doesn't leave anytime soon.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Chiemi Karasawa. With Elaine Stritch, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, Rob Bowman, and others. Distributed by IFC Films/Sundance Selects.
Running time: 1 hour, 21 mins.
Parent’s guide: No MPAA rating (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz Bourse