Footage of great stage stars — little of whose life work survives — is great to get in the can when you can, especially for subjects approaching their 90s. On that level alone, but also for many other reasons, a new Elaine Stritch documentary is a highly welcomed piece.
“I like the courage of old age,” declares the legendary star in “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,”
the fascinating new film by Chiemi Karasawa that opens today at Washington’s West End Cinema (2301 M St., N.W.).
Karasawa creates a captivating and multi-faceted portrait of the tireless performer as she faces a number of daunting events, including celebrating her 87th birthday, preparing for her impending move from her beloved Manhattan to her childhood home in Michigan, and rehearsing what is probably her last show at the Café Carlyle. Stritch tackles it all with equal parts grit and glamour, fueled by what appears to be an insatiable need to perform, even as her mind and body begin to fail her.
Karasawa’s cameras had amazing access to Stritch over what appears to be a period of several months (the chronology sometimes gets a little confusing). She captures Stritch in a variety of settings — holding court on the streets of New York, an endless stream of rehearsal rooms and performance spaces, bars and restaurants, the set of “30 Rock,” hospitals and doctor’s offices, and her corner suite at the Carlyle, where she has lived and performed for years.
The first-time director wisely breaks up the footage of Stritch with moving testimonials from friends and collaborators. Actor Cherry Jones describes Stritch as a conduit back to the Golden Age of Broadway, and James Gandolfini wonders about the torrid affair they might have had. Directors George C. Wolfe (“Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” a 2001 Tony-winning one-woman show) and Harold Prince (“Company” and “Show Boat”) talk about Stritch’s incredible skills as a performer. Long-time friend Julie Keyes relates how she met Stritch at an AA meeting and how the two become close friends, despite Keyes’ unflattering first impressions of the imperious star.
At Stritch’s side throughout the movie is her devoted music director, Rob Bowman. The talented and energetic musician plays a number of roles for the aging star. He feeds her lyrics when she loses her way through the complicated lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and gives her orange juice when her blood sugar drops too low. He is firm, but endlessly patient and gentle, bringing to mind a loyal retainer to the Queen Lear of musical theater.
Through it all, Stritch shares her story with an amazing candor as she looks back fondly over her remarkable career and incredible life. There are stories about Noël Coward and Tennessee Williams and her dates with John F. Kennedy (which didn’t go anywhere because Stritch was still “a good convent girl”). There are memories of her beloved late husband John Bay, the British actor whose family runs the famous English muffin company (which are featured in a delightful sequence in which Stritch tries to tell the cameraman how to shoot the scene).
In the present, Stritch bravely shares the perils and pleasures of her twilight years. She has troubles with her health (struggles with diabetes and alcoholism) and memory (forgetting names and lyrics), but she still enjoys the company of friends and the adulation of fans and she still knows how to work an audience and sell a song.
In the end, Chiemi Karasawa’s fine documentary about Elaine Stritch is a bit like the lady herself — a little grating at times, but ultimately courageous and triumphant, and well worth the price of admission.