Versatile and legendary actress Elaine Stritch first came to my attention in a somewhat unmemorable role (for her – as I learned later) in the 1997 comedy Out to Sea, part of a series of films that comedy legends Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made together near the end of their careers, and sadly, lives. In a classic eye roll inducing example of Hollywood casting, Stritch portrayed Dyan Cannon’s mother, even though the actresses are only 12 years apart in real life. Stritch commanded the screen in her few scenes, most notably tearing up a rug with fellow veteran Donald O’Connor to a cheesy rendition of “Sea Cruise.”
At some point in the next couple of years I became aware that Stritch is, in fact, a legendary stage actress, arguably best known for originating a role in Company by Stephen Sondheim but boasting many other accomplishments. As a theatre professional I recall noticing that her most recent Broadway appearance, starring in A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters, was perhaps more successful than the original revival marquee pairing of Catherine Zeta – Jones and Angela Lansbury.
In the present day, Stritch has slowed down, somewhat, and departed her longtime home base of New York City for a new/old home right here in the state of Michigan, where she was born and lived until her late teen years. It seems that old age (she’s now 89) and health have caught up with her, although, on the other hand, she also seems to be a textbook study in “never say never.”
And so the documentary film Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is making the rounds at cinemas around the country. I first heard about this film well over a year ago and found the actual experience of seeing it to be somewhat anticlimactic for that reason. I also may have been feeling some residual annoyance that I did not attend its Michigan premiere over in Birmingham last month, for which Ms. Stritch was also in attendance.
The film takes an unflinching look at Stritch’s life circa 2011 – 2012, as she continues to perform mostly in cabaret settings, struggles with problems related to the aging process, begins to tire of life in Manhattan and (somehow) maintains a resiliency that “the show must go on” – to use a cliched but true phrase. Stritch demonstrates resiliency, commitment and salty enthusiasm in all of her projects, perhaps most notably in her balance of masking her difficulty in memory into a sort of comedic act with her musical director when they are performing… to the audience’s delight.
I found the scenes where Stritch was at her most genuine to be the most appealing. These moments took the form of when she was with family members or close friends. There she was as a veteran and accomplished performer earning her accolades but also going with the flow and not getting too worked up about something not going right, a deadline or an impending decision that had to be made. It seemed those moments, with her broad and genuine smile and satisfaction, showed her at her most honest.
Ms. Stritch has been vocal about a seemingly and understandably rough transition into her life in Birmingham, but based on recent interviews it appears that things have settled down for her a bit more now, and I do hope that she’ll make a few more appearances in the metro Detroit area, which seems very honored to count her as a regional native.