Irresistibly brash and deeply moving, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" is a vanity-free portrait of a phenomenal artist whose "I don't give a fuck" persona belies the fact that she, of course, cares very much. Following her throughout the year in which she turns 87 as she prepares for touring one-woman show "Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim...One Song at a Time," actress-singer-all-around-entertainer Stritch is faced with an increasingly steep uphill climb as her health and memory begin to flag. She is exceedingly aware she is not as young as she used to be, but her acknowledgment of her own mortality is something she fights to not get her down. "We're all aging together," she says, "and there's not a damn thing we can do about it." Chiemi Karasawa, a prolific script supervisor on films such as 2002's "Adaptation
" and 2009's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
," has made a splendid directorial debut, overflowing with passion and compassion for her one-of-a-kind human subject.
As longtime friend Julie Keyes describes her, Stritch is "a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius." That sounds about right. Forever without pants, parading around New York City in black tights and a somehow unpretentious fur coat as passersby stop to gush about her greatness, she is portrayed right from the start as a fixture of the Big Apple, an actor of the stage and screen for so long (she made her Broadway debut in "Loco" in 1946) it would be nearly impossible for a living person to remember a time when she wasn't around doing her thing. Having come off her Tony- and Emmy-Award-winning work in her 2002 one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" and nearing the end of her recurring guest run on TV's "30 Rock," Stritch turns to another stage project. This one, in which she is to sing her way through much of Sondheim's catalogue, comes at a time when she is also facing a diabetes scare and navigating her sobriety (or lack thereof). In emotionally raw footage that exposes Stritch's vulnerability, she struggles through rehearsals with musical director Rob Bowman, frustrated that the lyrics aren't as easy to remember as they used to be. As it turns out, her drive for perfection has always been a part of her, footage from 1970 during the cast recording of Broadway musical "Company" revealing a woman who only wanted to do her best and became easily critical of herself when she was unable to deliver to her personal high standards.
Watching Elaine Stritch in action is mesmeric. She is keenly aware when she is being filmedshe snaps at the cameraman in one scene for trying to pull off a "clean exit" rather than follow her into the next roombut there never seems to be any artifice in how she conducts herself. A worker of immense dedication and drive, an entertainer who makes due with what she's got and holds an audience in complete rapture whenever she steps foot on a stage, Stritch is a scene-stealer through and through whose charisma has not faltered with age. It is thoroughly ingratiating to watch how she still becomes giddy when she receives a positive review in the press, or how she watches herself on "30 Rock" from her bed while good-naturedly calling attention to what she might have done differently. In all of her acerbic, breathlessly unfiltered glory, she keeps the people around her on their toes without appearing conceited or mean. What you see is what you get, and this unspoken mantra carries over from Stritch's life to Karasawa's film.
"Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" is as tartly funny as Stritch herself, but there is also unavoidable gravitas in her realization that the time has come to probably slow things down and possibly retire (easier said than done). As strong of a woman as she is, she's far from invinciblesomething she is learning all the more as the years pass by. Not shy about divulging stories of a young John F. Kennedy or touching upon the loss she continues to feel for beloved husband John Bay, who passed away from brain cancer in 1982, Stritch is at once unblinkingly honest and beautifully, fallibly complicated. Interspersed with vintage clips from past films and appearances, a plethora of old photos, and interviews with the likes of Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and the late James Gandolfini, the picture offers an expansive, three-dimensional profile of a life lived fully and proudly. Granted, she still has a lot of fire left in her, but if "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" were to become Stritch's artistic epitaph, it would prove an absolutely extraordinary one.