“It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim’s lyrics if you don’t have diabetes.”
In a single quote, that is Elaine Stritch. It pokes fun at her own medical condition, the principle stress on her health as she heads toward her 87th birthday. It brings her down to earth, letting everyone know that even a living legend like her can forget the words to a song. Yet it simultaneously reminds her audience why she’s a legend in the first place, her staggering performance in Sondheim’s Company for starters. And in one more layer, one that she probably doesn’t intend, it recalls her struggle to get “The Ladies Who Lunch” right on the original cast recording of that musical, documented by D.A. Pennebaker in a scene that every fan knows. Even at her worst, Stritch’s towering talent and personality can create something astonishing.
All of this makes Stritch both an obvious subject for a documentary and a hard nut to crack. Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me rises to the challenge. Following the actress through rehearsals for a new stage show, her guest starring role on 30 Rock and her visits to the doctor, Karasawa tries to build a complete portrait of this aging legend. The film isn’t dominated by warm glances back to her early Broadway years, nor her current struggle to manage her relationship with alcohol. Her family life, her friends and her performances all stand up as equal parts of what it means to be Stritch.
Which, as it turns out, is not actually particularly difficult to express. This isn’t to say that she has an uncomplicated personality, far from it. Rather, the truth is that her identity is not cleaved. Many of her colleagues have cultivated separate public and private personas, obscuring themselves from the world around them. Stritch has no such false presence. Her confidence, her fear and her unique outlook are just as visible on stage as they are in her apartment or in a hospital bed. The dominance of this personality becomes a crucial part of Karasawa’s film. While highlighting the moments in which her subject tries to take control of the project (she objects to a close up with a cry of “What is this, a skin commercial?”), this first-time feature filmmaker asserts her hand by emphasizing Stritch’s own authority. Shots of the star from behind, rushing to catch up with her as she barrels down New York City streets become a prevalent motif.
Funnily enough, the strength of this unbroken personality seems to confuse even some of her friends and colleagues. Karasawa asks Alec Baldwin about his co-star on the set of 30 Rock and gets the chance to talk to John Turturro one night when he and Stritch are out to dinner. Both of them seem a little confused by what Turturro calls her “authenticity,” though they both also seem to hold it in very high regard. She’s one of a kind, in part because she doesn’t try to be more than one woman at once. It’s clearer in candid moments that Karasawa catches with her subject’s family in Michigan. Stritch is immensely comfortable and relaxed but also continues to perform, making stagey jokes for the benefit of her relatives. It feels natural, without any of the awkwardness normally associated with big stars back at home in the Midwest.
In this way, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is necessarily both a portrait of Stritch’s work and Stritch’s life. They are precisely the same thing, more so than for other performers. This is something shared with the spate of recent documentaries about aging female stars of stage and screen, including Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. These films are more than just a simple curiosity for fans, but rather become something of a crucial part of the artist’s body of work. Rivers, Channing and Stritch don’t get to have the easily consumed legacy of movie stars. Stritch’s episodes of 30 Rock are hilarious, but the show as a whole isn’t hers. As stage performers, their triumphs are hard to pin down. Fans discover these women through clips on YouTube, of TV broadcasts and Tonight Show appearances. The’s no equivalent to the accessibility of Cabaret for Liza Minnelli devotees, for example. When you factor in the way that these women collapse the difference between private and public performances, a well-made documentary like Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me becomes a career centerpiece, a significant artistic contribution in its own right.