Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Karasawa's film is at its strongest when Stritch is allowed to open up her life to us in all its intimate detail."

There is no doubt that Chiemi Karasawa has captured a five-star talent in her debut documentary. Broadway mainstay Elaine Stritch, who became a household name in the UK during the Seventies thanks to long-running comedy Two's Company, has lost none of her magnetism down the years. Now 88 - 87 when the documentary was shot - she suffers from hard-to-control brittle diabetes but it hasn't persuaded her to let the grass grow under her feet. As she puts it herself, "Everybody's got a sack of rocks."

Stritch grants Karasawa intimate access even when she is at her lowest ebb, first befuddled from the disease that dogs her and, later, in hospital as she recovers. Stritch may have vulnerabilities - evident in the emotionally charged Tribeca Talks After The Movie event - but she is not afraid of them. Her fearlessness in the face of age and illness dominates the film; whether she's ribbing 30 Rock screen son "Alec 'Joan Crawford' Baldwin" or berating cinematographer Shane Signer - "Don't you think you're awfully close to me?!" - her default setting is candid.

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"Everybody is just loving everybody too much for my money," she archly declares while, in one of her many endearing contradictions, loving everyone around her and being loved back. Stritch is also not afraid to talk about her demons, such as alcoholism, cheerfully admitting that after being sober for 24 years she decided to allow herself a drink a day but adding when asked what scares her most, "Drinking, because it's such an escape."

Her long-time friend Julie Keyes brands her “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius" and pretty much hits the nail on the head. All of this is in evidence here and Karasawa's film is at its strongest when Stritch is allowed to open up her life to us in all its intimate detail. The director also assembles an impressive cast list of those wanting to pay tribute to Stritch, from Baldwin and Nathan Lane through to James Gandolfini. More revealing, are segments showing her working, and struggling to work, with long-time collaborator Rob Bowman, which capture her indomitability and expertise when it comes to turning her showmanship up to stun.

Where Karasawa's documentary falls down slightly, however, is in terms of background information. She has a tendency to flit hither and thither within Stritch's career, meaning that unless you bring a good knowledge of the star with you to the cinema you are unlikely to come away having learned much about her personal history. Very little time, for example, is spent talking about her upbringing and it's left to Stritch to tell us most about her romantic liaisons - JFK, Ben Gazzara and the love of her life John Bay, who died of brain cancer in 1982 - "He made me happy, happy, happy," she says, simply.

It's hard not to recall how masterfully Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern married the factual to the emotional in the similar biographical documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work, with the suspicion that the attractive orbit of Stritch may have occasionally overwhelmed editorial considerations. This film undoubtedly marks something of a swan song for Stritch who, while the film was shooting was preparing to scale back her work commitments and move back to Michigan. "It's time for me, I can feel it everywhere," she says. Time or not, she is sure to keep on pushing to the last and her bravery here is likely to inspire older people - and those who look forward to growing old disgracefully - for many years to come.

Reviewed on: 21 May 2013
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Documentary about the broadway legend.

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

Starring: Cherry Jones, Elaine Stritch

Year: 2013

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US

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Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work