Elaine Stritch is going on 89 years old, but she prefers "getting older" to saying that she is "old." The legendary actress and performer has been in show-business for 65 years, appearing on film, TV (most recently as Alec Baldwin's mother on the NBC show "30 Rock") and countless stage performances, for which she is perhaps best known. It's no surprise that the documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (opening today), is straight and to the point, pulling no punches or attempting to spin anything. It's a familiar approach that Stritch herself has mastered both in her performances and in her personal life.
The doc is well-made and doesn't start at the beginning - refreshingly - choosing instead to expose Stritch's past a little bit at a time, juxtaposed with Stritch as she is today (the film was shot two years ago, when Stritch was at the ripe-young age of 87). Although she is a first-time director, Chiemi Karasawa is no stranger to the documentary format, having produced several over her career. She is both reverent and revealing in her approach to profiling this "Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius," as someone describes her in the film.
What we find is a woman who knows nothing else but show business. As most seem to, she has a love/hate relationship with the industry: She needs it but loathes it at the same time. She still sings, dances and performs all over the country, despite the increasing difficulties that doing so has on her body.
As revealed in the documentary, Elaine was - is - an alcoholic for nearly 30 years. Even over the course of this film, we see her still struggling with her addiction. Now in her twilight hears, she has adopted a "one drink a day" policy, as it takes the edge off and she sees nothing wrong with it. But we find out also that Stritch is a diabetic. After an episode where she spends the night in the hospital, she vows to give up drinking for good. Soon after, we see her taking a drink before a performance. Yes, in the course of this 80 minute film, Stritch falls off and onto the wagon several times, admitting that her biggest fear of all in life is her drinking.
For Stritch, the show must go on. Adding to the diabetes and alcohol, she is nearly 90. With that age, comes an entirely different set of challenges. She often has trouble remembering her lines, or remembering names. She pushes through anyways like a true industry pro.
Sprinkled throughout the documentary are insightful anecdotes from well-known actors and icons who knew and worked with Stritch, like Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, John Turturro and even the late James Gandolfini. Stritch and her assistants dig through an archive of old photos and various memorabilia from her long career, coming across incredibly interesting artifacts, like a letter to Stritch from Woody Allen in the mid 80s and old photos of her with past flings.
It's not highlighted, but one can only imagine that Stritch feels alone. Her husband died several years back and she never remarried. The only love she gets - or wants - is that which is found on stage from a receptive audience.
There is a Detroit connection in the film as well: Stritch was actually born and raised in West Bloomfield, MI. In the doc, she returns to Detroit for a show at the Detroit Music Hall and Jazz Room.
By the time the film draws to a close, we feel closer to Stritch, knowing not only of her triumphs and career milestones, but her warts and all. As Turturro describes her in the film, many performers are aware of their persona, but they are like turtles, with a protective shell around who they truly are. Stritch, he says, is different in that she doesn't have a shell.
The film feels similar to that sentiment: Here is Elaine Stritch, in all her glory and with many of her flaws exposed. Many biographical documentaries leave you feeling no closer to its subject than you were when it started. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is not one of them. Bringing to the light much of this woman's darkness, this film will make you a quick fan of Elaine Stritch.
And if you're wanting more of her, don't worry. She has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Run Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes, Not Rated
Starring : Elaine Stritch, Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, Tracy Morgan, Rob Bowman
Directed by Chiemi Karasawa (documentary directorial debut)
Opens locally on Friday, April 4, 2014 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time