We don’t have stars anymore. Not in the way we used to. I
may not even be old enough to remember true stars, who embodied the marvel of
showbiz with their very demeanor, their aura, how they carried themselves on
screen and off, on stage and off. Instead we have celebrities, contrived and
constructed fabrications from an industry that falsely believes it can create
what can only be born. A star was someone who didn’t need to be announced, but
whose very presence accomplished just that. Growing up, I had an organic sense
of this distinction: Johnny Cash on The
Muppet Show, seeing Carson’s monologue the first time, Kathleen Turner’s
voicing of Jessica Rabbit. They simply embodied the essence of showbiz
brilliance. But the one that stuck with me, and yet seemingly doesn’t fit into
this pantheon of stardom, was Elaine Stritch, who passed away Thursday at 89.
I have a very lucid memory of Stritch appearing on The Cosby Show in the late 80s. I didn’t
watch a lot of TV growing up, and I have no other memories of television of
this era as rich in specificity. For whatever reason (as memories do), Stritch’s
three appearances on The Cosby Show
find a way to the forefront of my consciousness from time to time. In the 70s
and 80s, Cosby was a star; even without the help of sycophantic tabloidism, I
was well aware of this. My parents had his comedy albums. I watched Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Saturday
mornings. Even by the way he carried himself onscreen as the patriarch of the
Huxtable clan, you knew Cosby was something to behold. But here, in season 6 of
Cosby’s 80s vehicle, was Stritch as Rudy’s teacher, Mrs. McGee, going to
toe-to-toe with the giant that was Cosby. And I remember reading the credits at
the sitcom’s end and wondering, who the hell was Elaine Stritch?
Elaine Stritch was a star.
To consider her stage credits is to review the history
of contemporary theater. The native of Detroit trained at the prestigious Dramatic
Workshop of The New School in New York. She made her theater debut before the
end of the Second World War and was a mainstay on stages in London and New York
for nearly 70 years. She performed the work of Noël Coward, Irving Berlin, and
Stephen Sondheim, among many others. Stritch was conceived for the stage. She
had it all: she was beautiful, she was funny, she could sing, she could dance, she
could drink, she could curse, and she had a voice that begged for your attention.
She would finally win a Tony upon her fifth nomination for her one-woman play Elaine Stritch at Liberty in 2001, a
review of her career that was still far from over at the time.
She was the original Trixie Norton on The Honeymooners.
She was a contemporary of Marlon Brando, Ben Gazzarra, and
Rock Hudson, and dated them all.
She appeared in films with Charlton Heston, Tony Curtis,
Janet Leigh, and Jane Fonda.
She worked with David O. Selznick and Woody Allen.
She lived in the famed Carlyle Hotel in New York. Who
else, but a star, lives in The Carlyle?
And Stritch wanted to be a star. When asked why she chose
show business, she replied, “I want to be talked about. I want to be written
about. I want everything about me! And I don’t make any bones about that.” But
she never begged for it, not on stage, and not on screen. Instead she demanded
it, which illustrates the divide between stardom and celebrity.
But all of this meant nothing to a barely teenaged kid
watching The Cosby Show on a Thursday
night in 1989. There was no IMDB. No Wikipedia. My phone had no answers. But I
knew Stritch was a star. I knew by the way she carried herself. By the way she
allowed the acting of her younger less experienced co-stars to inform hers. By
her impeccable comic timing and palpable grace. By the manner with which the
studio audience fell for her every twitch, hung on her every syllable, cackled
at her every eye roll, breathed her every moment. By the way she commanded
attention without asking for it. But mostly, in the way she battled Cosby. In
their moments on screen together, one had the sense that you were watching
something magical, something brilliant, something special.
Stritch made her last appearance on television on 30 Rock, playing the mother of Alec
Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, a fierce and hilarious performance. Her work with
Baldwin and Tina Fey on the show was a fitting end to her television career: a
stage actress with a brilliant performance on a New York filmed sitcom. 30 Rock was a show that mocked the
industry within which it existed, the extravagance of celebrity, and the
superfluous nature of stardom. It argued that behind the curtain there were no
stars, only degrees to which the moderately talented were pandered to. I fear
this was more documentary than satire, or as Stritch herself put it, “Everybody’s
just lovin’ everybody else just too much for my money.”
Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY
with AJ. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player (Found Press,
2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.