There’s a certain irony when Elaine Stritch sings the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from the musical Follies: “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all and, my dear, I’m still here.”
Yes, Stritch has, indeed, seen it all — a show business career that has spanned over half a century, Broadway and film credits to boot, a drinking problem, Tony and Emmy Awards, dates with JFK and Marlon Brando, and a vicious case of diabetes. Yet, the emotional and masterfully crafted documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which plays at Ritz at the Bourse for a limited engagement through March, highlights the one role Stritch hasn’t been able to adequately prepare for: the end of her life.
The then 87-year old Stritch opens the film, directed by Chiemi Karasawa, by summarizing how she views herself: “I’ve got a certain amount of fame. I’ve got money. I wish I could drive; then I’d really be a fucking menace.” This is typical Stritch humor, a brash and self-degrading spark that ultimately hides a great many of her insecurities and anxieties. The film profiles Stritch’s career, her utter need for perfection, and what appears to drive her every waking moment: the desire for the audience to embrace her as a performer. Despite her numerous career accolades, the film makes clear that Stritch still doesn’t believe she’s really “made it.”
Aging, however, has made Stritch’s personality all the more pronounced — in a series of heartbreaking and almost painful scenes, the filmmakers capture her rehearsals for an upcoming cabaret engagement at her home, the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. She is unable to remember the lyrics to her most signature songs, much to her complete devastation. Never before have I seen Stritch so bare and stripped of her show business brashness; even her utterly candid Tony and Emmy-winning one-woman show At Liberty doesn’t compare.
A life-long alcoholic, Stritch kicked the habit for several decades, but, as the documentary explores, she’s taken to drinking two cosmos a day, mostly in the confines of her tiny Manhattan abode at the Carlyle. The juxtaposition of Stritch’s huge show business personality is compared with the smallness of how she views herself. One of the most moving scenes is when she visits the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, where school directors are dedicating a rehearsal space in Stritch’s honor. The school associates are shocked to find that Stritch rejects the initial studio, a large, airy, well-appointed room, because it is “too big.” They take her from studio to studio until she selects what appears to be a small, disheveled, poorly furnished space — “it’s enough,” she says.
Of course, we learn other things about Stritch — she claims in 1963, when she was appearing on Broadway in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, her co-star delivered a line of dialogue so emotionally powerful, she had an orgasm — her first.
That humor is masterfully weaved in and out of the film with the more poignant argument that time is quickly running out for the performer. In fact, it can’t be denied that Stritch, now 89, has taken a turn for the worse — in most promotional interviews for the film, she’s seen in a wheelchair, a far cry from the song-and-dance woman she has been her entire life.
When asked about her death in the film, Stritch replies, “I just pray that I can be at least amusing.” If that’s her only concern, I have a feeling she’s got nothing to worry about.
Check out our other reviews of films playing now in Philadelphia: