The Lady Who Lunched
Photography by Amanda Friedman
More than any other actor alive today, Elaine Stritch embodies raw nerve — in both senses of the term. On the surface, she seems a creature of superhuman brassiness: a tough, ballsy holdover from a time when broads weren’t an endangered species on Broadway. At the same time, however, she is a study in painfully exposed vulnerability, ever willing to lay bare the doubts and fears that swarm just beneath her outrageous exterior.
Now 88, Stritch is one of the rare stars to have become more famous in her senior years. Highlights of her Broadway career, which began in 1946, include 1952’s Pal Joey, 1955’s Bus Stop, and the landmark 1970 Stephen Sondheim musical Company, in which she stopped the show with a sardonic, now iconic musical toast to “The Ladies Who Lunch.” But her apotheosis came in 2002 with the autobiographical solo play Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a showbiz survivor story that detailed a lifelong love affair with performing shadowed by a complex war of attrition with alcoholism. She won a Tony for the show, scored a 2004 Emmy for the HBO film version of it, and has nabbed another Emmy since, for her role as Alec Baldwin’s dragonish mother on 30 Rock.
Perhaps Stritch has simply aged into the persona she projected all along. Her caustic, booze-soaked voice and curmudgeonly demeanor — she delivers one-liners as if she’s just bitten into a sour apple — have always made her seem older than she was. But Stritch herself attributes her late-career surge to her increasing candor about her private demons. “I think I’m more secure,” she says, “because I can admit it. I’m admitting that I’m frightened, that I don’t understand some of the stuff I’ve been doing.”
That fascinating confusion is at the heart of Chiemi Karasawa’s new documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which tracks the dramatic lioness in the winter of her years. Much of the film is a celebration of her long and eventful life: old photos with the likes of Harpo Marx and John F. Kennedy — with whom she went on an abortive date — and testimonials from friends and colleagues such as Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, and, touchingly, James Gandolfini (“If we had both met when we were 35,” he says in his interview, “I have no doubt that we would have had a torrid love affair… which would have ended very badly”). Parading down the sidewalks of Manhattan in a fur coat at the start of the movie, looking like a cross between an eccentric royal and a crumpled newspaper, she is a triumph of indomitable spirit.
But Shoot Me does not shy away from depicting Stritch’s weaker moments. In a cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, the storied Upper East Side supper club, she struggles to remember her lyrics, and the deterioration of her physical health leads to several harrowing scenes of crisis, including what appears to be a minor stroke. Watching these sequences, Stritch says, has been difficult. “I’m much less brave than I thought I was,” she concedes. “Much less brave.”
After decades of sobriety, Stritch has started drinking again, in moderation: “It makes me possible,” she says. And she retreated, in spring 2013, to a restless semiretirement in her home state of Michigan. She no longer enjoys living in New York (“I don’t like it anymore. It doesn’t use your energy”), and she laments the decline of theater culture (“I don’t think it’s as classy and as moving as it used to be”). Most performers today, she says, lack the stamp of big personality. “They’re not as talented as I am. I am extremely talented,” she declares, with her typical half-joking braggadocio. “There’s nothing I can do about it — I’m just scared to death of my talent.”
Still, she admits she is flirting with returning to the stage. “If I think I can learn it, I may agree to do [Edward Albee’s] Three Tall Women,” she says. The prospect, of course, scares her—but she is trying, as always, to push back the doubts with bravado. And despite her move, she remains a Broadway archetype at heart. “I don’t know what to tell you, honey,” she says with a throaty laugh. “I’m just the wildest broad in New York, and I don’t do anything wrong.”
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is screening at festivals. Sundance Selects will release the film February 21.
Watch the trailer below: