An inimitable, outrageously funny, unflinchingly honest, irreplaceable force of nature has left us. On July 17, Elaine Stritch, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning, star of stage, screen and TV, died at age 89 at her Michigan home after living and performing for years at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City.
Stritch, a gay icon, was beloved for her acting talent, performance of Stephen Sondheim’s music, perfectly aimed repartee, and sartorial audacity. (Who else could have pulled off dressing in tights, a white shirt, sans pants?) Straight and queer audiences from Broadway to Hollywood, and all points in between, are feeling her loss. Stritch, who struggled with stage fright, alcoholism and diabetes and kept performing until nearly the end of her life, was a “true trailblazer,” said Liza Minnelli. “Her talent and spunk will be greatly missed by so many of us.”
It’s hard to imagine a time when Stritch wasn’t a star. She first appeared on Broadway in 1946 in “Loco.” Stritch’s many stage roles in her nearly seven decades in show business included: Grace in William Inge’s play “Bus Stop” in 1955; a cruise ship social director in the 1961 Noel Coward musical “Sail Away” (in a part that “The Master” shaped for her); Parthy Ann Hawks in the 1994 revival of “Show Boat”; an alcoholic in a 1996 production of Edward Albee’s play “A Delicate Balance.” And, who could ever forget her indelible performance of the Sondheim classic “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the original New York production of “Company” in 1970? Hearing her sing this iconic song, whatever your sexuality or gender, you can’t help but dissect and identify with the middle-aged au courant Manhattan women in the show.
Her last Broadway appearance was as Madame Armfeldt in the 2010 revival of the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music.” In the same year, Stritch was parodied on “The Simpsons.” At camp, Lisa Simpson learns to make wallets with Stritch and Andrew Lloyd Webber. “That’s worth being in the business for 150 years,” Stritch said.
Stritch was no stranger to the screen. Her many films include “A Farewell to Arms” (1957), “September” (1987), “Autumn in New York” (2000) and “Monster-in-Law” (2005). Woody Allen, who directed “September,” respected Stritch’s talent, but knew of her reputation for being, at times, hard to work with. In a letter to Stritch offering her a role in the film, he warned her against being too much of a diva. Allen admonished her to “keep the questioning to a rock-bottom minimum.”
Since the 1950s, Stritch has been a presence on television – appearing on TV programs from “Wagon Train” to the English sit-com “Two’s Company” to “The Cosby Show.” She became known to the current generation of TV viewers through her Emmy Award-winning work on “Law & Order” and “30 Rock.”
Stritch is perhaps best known for her work in her one-woman 2001 show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” In this theater piece, created with John Lahr, she brilliantly blended mordant Sondheim songs with stories of her career in show business. The show won a Tony Award for best special theatrical event and an Emmy when it aired on HBO in 2004.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a documentary about Stritch directed by Chiemi Karasawa, released in February, is now on DVD. The film reveals Stritch’s wit and courage in facing aging, diabetes and memory loss. Watching it, you understand why Stritch is so beloved by the queer community. In an outtake on the DVD, Stritch recalls being told that she should have a nose job before appearing in a film with “Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner or someone famous.” She declines to do this. “I’ll stick with who I am,” Stritch says, “I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Elaine, your rendition of Sondheim’s anthem to survival “I’m Still Here” will always ring in our ears. R.I.P.