By Joan Ellis
Elaine Stritch has a straight-line connection to the hearts of her audience, and when that’s going on, nothing else matters.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is a documentary of her 86th year as it unfolds in current club dates with flashbacks to her glory days on Broadway where she first performed in 1944. As she nears 87, she faces up to her greatest fear: Leaving the stage.
Living in the Carlyle Hotel with long engagements in the Café Carlyle, Stritch’s offstage life is comfortable and secure. She walks through the neighborhood where friends and hotel employees watch over her. On the street, fans approach to express their devotion. But early in this film she tells us about her fear.
We see it first when she is rehearsing with Rob Bowman, her accompanist, who plays the piano with gusto when Stritch is OK, and covers her problems when she isn’t. When the lyrics vanish from her memory on stage, she howls, “Sing it, Rob, sing it!” And he does while he, she and the audience dissolve in affectionate laughter.
But she also tells us, with characteristic bluntness, that she is well aware that her performing days are nearly over. She has managed diabetes and alcoholism but fades at the thought of leaving the stage.
Stritch takes a short trip to Birmingham, Mich., where she has both friends and family. She’s trying it on for fit. Can she go back after an entire adult life of success on the Broadway stage? Back in New York after that trip, she is singing again, measuring herself against the person she once was. If all this seems sad, remember that this is a woman with a gargantuan personality that alternates a sometimes harsh, loud exterior with real kindness. She’s a survivor.
And does she ever have the clothes problem licked. At 5-foot, 7-inches, most of it given over to long, lean dancing legs, at home, outside, and onstage, she wears black tights and an oversized untucked white shirt topped nearly always by various hats that sit gently on top of her carefully curled hair. The only deviation is an enormous fur coat as outrageous as the woman who wears it.
When Stritch is at rest in the Carlyle surrounded by her reviews, clippings and piles of pictures from her Broadway days, she moves from pure pleasure at the memory of it back to asking how she can possibly handle retirement. But what memories. Seventy years of stage success in New York and London, a Tony, an Obie and a Drama Desk award that came her way in her 70s for her cabaret show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”
But awards sit on shelves. What is still thoroughly alive and warm is the spontaneous response that engulfs her wherever she goes. On the street, wrapped in fur, trading quips with people who love her. It’s hard to think of Elaine Stritch living anywhere but within walking distance of Broadway.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.