Saturday, October 19, 2013

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me














ELAINE STRITCH:  SHOOT ME         B+                
USA  (81 mi)  2013  d:  Chiemi Karasawa        Website            Trailer

Every film festival reaches a midway point where the fest needs a kick in the pants, a jolt of energy to revive the spirits, and that’s exactly what this is, a showstopping portrait of the indefatigable Elaine Stritch, New York Broadway legend extraordinaire, described by a friend as “a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius,” and an actress who was named a Living Landmark by the New York Landmarks Conservancy.  Unlike many documentaries, this one does not look back on her life and recall how it all began, though there are a few child photos slipped in.  As the director was a script supervisor for fifteen years for directors Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, and Jim Jarmusch, her own qualified judgment prefers that the camera follow her in the present, during the lead-up to her 87th birthday, a time when she lived in her corner room at the Carlyle Hotel and still owned the streets of New York (shes subsequently moved back to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan), where the camera allows the audience to share a few intimate moments with her.  While it’s not without photos and clips from the past, in fact an entire room is filled with her own personal framed photos and Broadway show posters, as the hotel is planning to dedicate a rehearsal room in her honor, where Ms. Stritch will have to decide which personal mementos will be placed on walls bearing her name.  We see her scrutinizing several of them, recalling instant thoughts associated with each one, introducing a flood of memories associated with her early successes, in particular being introduced to Stephen Sondheim and her role in Company (1970), which was initially a disaster until she figured out how to play the part, which was the beginning of a string of successes on the New York stage.  The film captures raw and unbearably painful footage of her in the recording studio being criticized for not getting the song right, where she beats herself up about it, with an amazingly young Sondheim in the studio thoroughly displeased, but she perseveres until she gets it right, ELAINE STRITCH SINGS "HERE'S TO THE LADIES WHO LUNCH"  YouTube 7:10.  Perhaps equally enthralling was winning the 2002 Tony for Elaine Stritch at Liberty, Elaine Stritch at Liberty - YouTube (1:50), her one-woman show, which is nothing less than a summation of her life and career.         

While it’s clear that her desert island fantasy is having an open bar, she’s also an avowed alcoholic that went 24-years without a drink, who then decided in her eighties that who would mind if she had one drink a day?  No one, apparently, showing us the miniature bottle of Bombay Sapphire she keeps in her purse alongside her insulin, until she learns it interferes with her diabetes, actually driving her unexpectedly to the hospital on occasion, where one event is captured on film in her home where she is in a state of panic when all three diabetes meters do not work, knowing something seriously wrong is happening, where she is eventually taken away in an ambulance and temporarily loses the capacity for coherent speech, perhaps the worst nightmare for a performer who relies upon her voice.  “Dying is easy, comedy is hard” she quips.  Taking time in between rehearsals for her latest New York tour, Singin' Sondheim … One Song at a Time, the director uses a cinéma vérité approach as we see her hard at work with her longtime musical director and personal confidant, Rob Bowman, the pianist in her live shows who’s been with her for thirteen years, while also walking down the streets of New York drawing attention in her luxurious fur coat, where people stop to offer glowing comments, where anyone who’s seen her live shows has witnessed a direct descendent of Broadway theater since the 1940’s, making her stage debut in 1944.  That’s well over half a century.  Her sharp wit, an ability to bare her soul onstage, and brassy singing style have earned her a legion of admirers that always expect a genuine performance, where her larger than life interpretation of the lyrics and her original flair for telling a story all leave such a theatrical impression.  With brash humor and unapologetic honesty, she recalls working with Ethel Merman (who she understudied) and Noel Coward, having romantic liaisons with Gig Young, Rock Hudson and Ben Gazzara, making the mistake of choosing Rock, while rejecting romantic overtures from Kirk Douglas and even JFK.  The late James Gandolfini, who this film is dedicated to, claimed if they were both 35, they would have had a torrid affair, and it would have ended up badly. 

Much like Diane Keaton, Stritch wears loose fitting men’s shirts and ties, often adorned with a hat, but differs by preferring not to wear pants, as she instead wears tights.  Of interest is a typed letter she has kept written by Woody Allen who invited her to work on his film SEPTEMBER (1987), a variation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, later offering her another small role in SMALL TIME CROOKS (2000), where he indicates through mutual friends that he’s aware she has a reputation of being hard to work with, indicating his working method of not providing much in the way of acting instructions, where he lists a set of requirements needed if she should choose to work with him.  The people on the set of the TV show 30 Rock (2006 – present) adore her, willing to put up with any and all eccentricities because of what she delivers in the end, claiming that makes it all worth it.  According to Tina Fey, “No other actress could hold the screen with Alec Baldwin like that.  Also, she provided all of her own fur hats, which was good.”  Alec Baldwin can be heard making an off comment remark calling her a bitch, but she gets the last word, calling him Alec “Joan Crawford” Baldwin when he arrives late on the set, making everyone sit around and wait for him.  While something of a force of nature onstage, capable of holding an audience captivated all by herself, yet she’s remained totally supportive of other actors throughout her entire career.  Directing her in the 1970 production of Company, Harold Prince suggested she was just a girl from a convent (actually attending the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Detroit), and while “she has the guts of a jailbird, there’s still the convent girl,” suggesting “she is incapable of lying, and she's perfect for this show because she is as innocent as she is acerbic,” while Stephen Sondheim suggested her success onstage was due to her “intelligence, warmth of personality, and impeccable timing.”  The film is not afraid to show the difficulties of aging, the terrifying effects of a fading memory, where watching her struggle with lyrics through rehearsals and again onstage is often quite moving, relying upon her self-deprecating comic wit to hold the audience, but her remarkable candor has always been her calling card.      

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