Celebrating her 60-plus years as a Broadway showstopper, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me hits its dramatic pinnacle far away from a stage. There’s no song, no music. Just a keening wail of terror as the diabetic trooper’s plunging blood-sugar level, at age 86, sends her into screaming panic. She reels through rooms, followed by her longtime pianist Rob Bowman and the film crew, who try to soothe her way through a chemical imbalance that resembles an instant bout of dementia.
If the 2002, Emmy-winning Elaine Stritch at Liberty chronicled the highs and lows of her career — earning showbiz fame while fighting a longtime battle with the bottle — the new documentary is less about checking in with a legend than it is a glimpse at the brutal realities of aging and senescence. Stritch herself references Bette Davis’ famous quip: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
Striding around New York like an ostrich on those “legs that go on for miles,” in the words of Broadway actress Cherry Jones, Stritch still gets away with wearing black tights, not slacks or dresses. What she can’t get away with, any more, is the work.
The film includes scenes of the star in rehearsal with Bowman for her latest solo show, fudging lyrics or forgetting them entirely. (“I Feel Pretty” proves to be a particularly uphill battle.) It’s sad, but no surprise, when Shoot Me turns into a farewell to the spotlight, as Stritch decides to give up her longtime abode in the Carlyle Hotel and buy a condo back in her hometown of Birmingham, Michigan.
News that this personification of big-city gumption would retire to the small Detroit suburb she sprang from is still seen as a shock to those who know Stritch. She’s seen in the movie as out of control one moment, a control freak the next. In the words of a longtime AA pal, she’s “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius.”
There are plenty of such pointed, pithy appreciations here. For such a short film, it leans on footage from At Liberty and also D.A. Pennebaker’s famous 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album, which captures Stritch’s patented mix of volatile temperament and quest for perfection as she tries to nail her song “The Ladies Who Lunch.” (Both films are ultimately stronger than this new one.)
Though it’s bolstered by admiring comments from her 30 Rock costars Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, the late James Gandolfini and a bunch of others, the movie begs the question, where’s Stephen Sondheim? The composer-lyricist Stritch is most identified with is MIA, other than in some previously shot clips. Still, if Shoot Me has a few obvious holes that keep it from feeling complete, it’s a must-see not just for lovers of Broadway, but anyone — sissies and otherwise — dealing with the indignities of old age and failing health.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. A documentary by Chiemi Karasawa. 80 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.