An audience with Stritch

Broadway legend Elaine talks about her life

by Amber Wilkinson

Elaine Stritch talks to the audience
Elaine Stritch talks to the audience

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me has just finished screening at Tribeca Film Festival, an intimate portrait of the Broadway great, and as we wait for the Tribeca Talks event that follows, somehow it seems appropriate that we can hear Stritch long before we see her. She's being brought up to the stage by a lift - and she is not happy about it. Cries of "Oh, my gaaaaaaaaaawd!" and a running commentary of lift tribulations accompany her slow ascent, offstage, so that by the time she finally makes an entrance - to a full standing ovation - she already has us laughing and in the palm of her hand.

The talk is being ostensibly moderated by top theatre critic Charles Isherwood - although it's fair to say that Stritch is not a woman for whom moderation comes easily in performance or in life. A "recovered alcoholic", she didn't touch a drop for 24 years but now, at 88, enjoys a drink a day and has, in fact, brought a Cosmopolitan with her, in a paper cup, along with her "diabetic contraptions".

"We're going to have a little fun with the questions and answers," Stritch tells Isherwood.

"The answers, certainly," he replies.

Asked how she felt about letting the cameras so fully into her life, she says: "I didn't like it at all. I fell into it. It took on something, an attraction to me. I said, 'I'm in this, I'm involved and I'm going to see it through and I'm going to do a good job, as I try to do on everything I approach.' I said, 'I'll go the full... what's the expression?"

Audience member: "The nine yards?"

Stritch: "Nine yards? That's terrific. I like that. So I'm going to go the nine yards, I really am. In for a penny... so I did it and I'm glad I did and I love the line that I said, and you will too, that I said to Chiemi when she said to me, 'How do you like it,' when I saw it for the first time. I said, 'I think it's terrific, I'd like to see it again but I don't want to be in it.' And I meant every word of it.

CI: Did watching it make you feel uncomfortable?

ES: I've never worried about the cameras and me and being a glamour girl and looking great. Also, I'm 88, so can we be reasonable here? I'll tell you this, I love the way I look. And I haven't have anything fucked with, so I just like I look every day in every way I got older and older all through my life and I'm just delighted with it. I just thought, that's fine, that's me. It's nobody else. It's just, how do you like me so far? I was very happy with it and I felt good about it.

CI: I gather the movie sort of started with a hair appointment, is that true?

Cheimi Karasawa: I had seen Elaine in the salon and I said to my hairdresser, is that Elaine Stritch. He said, 'Yes, I cut her hair, too.' And a couple of weeks later he said, you should make a movie about her. That's what you should be doing. I was embarrassed. I didn't know a lot about her. I had seen her in this and that role and I knew about her a little bit on Broadway. I went home and started looking her up on Youtube and I was blown away. I was actually embarrassed that I didn't know anything about her. I thought, holy shit, she's a standard, she's a classic, there's nobody like her.

ES: I was so busy being afraid for the first few years of my career and then I finally got used to performing and saying, I can do that, I can do that, I know how to reach you and you have to let me. And I just got didactic about it and said, listen to me because I've got something to tell you and don't fight with me and don't argue with me, I'm up on the stage and I own this space. I'll behave ourselves and I'm going to make some music that you will love. And that's what we did for 70 years.

CI: How did you get through 50 years of theatre?

ES: Booze. Now it's true, that's how I did. I got through it through alcohol because alcohol gave me courage. I didn't take too much of it because I didn't want to overshoot the runway but I took enough to say, I got it. And that's how we did it. Between the audience and myself, we fooled all of them.

Speaking about money, she adds: I love being accepted with all the swells. I don't know where I belong. I can from money and it's okay, I'm all right, my family have all that that's fine. But it doesn't make any difference what I've got or what anybody else's got, I just know that I know what I'm doing in the profession that I'm chosen and I'm so happy and I'm not afraid to do my work every single day of my life. If it's a reading down in The Village if it's a one-act play. I don't care how big it is as long as I'm entertaining. As long as I'm making people happy, I'm just thrilled to death.

As the crowd filed out first so that Stritch could leave down the steps herself, without fighting with the lift again, they were pretty thrilled to death too, this feisty 88-year-old may not always remember all the lyrics to Sondheim but I'd wager that she'll never forget how to please a crowd.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Men is now out on DVD in the US

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