Somehow, some way, a documentary about an aging actress/comedienne dealing with fear and mortality just might be the most life-affirming film that’s come around in a long time. “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” follows the inimitable force of nature that is Broadway veteran Elaine Stritch, and is a shot in the arm of humor, heart and humanity (with a jolt of adrenaline just for kicks). Director Chiemi Karasawa has a light touch that showcases Elaine in all of her eccentric charm and truly captures her irascible spirit. Hilarious and touching, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is one of the most entertaining and moving documentaries of 2014, and it’s only February!
For those who don’t know, Elaine Stritch is the 89-year-old Broadway vet who has been treading the boards since the 1940s, and more recently, as Jack Donaghy’s mother in “30 Rock,” in a role that’s sort of facsimile of her own persona. At the age of 87 (when this was filmed), she shows minimal signs of stopping, fully embodying the performer’s maxim, “the show must go on.” And go on it does. She’s such a fully realized outsize persona, that her distinctive rasp, potty mouth and unique sense of fashion precedes her wherever she goes. Elaine puts on the Elaine show, but she’s fully aware of it, and she absolutely, refreshingly does not give a fuck (she’d probably put it that way herself). But she’s also devastatingly open and honest, completely giving of her spirit, her vulnerability and her fears and her victories.
The film is loosely structured around a series of Sondheim club shows Elaine is putting on in New York and her hometown of Detroit, and the framing device of choosing photos for a Stella Adler retrospective offers some context for her long and storied career and adventures on the Great White Way. But the film remains largely in the present, never really delving too far into the past to dwell on past successes. That must be due to the fact that Elaine is just so damn magnetic in her present incarnation. She’s constantly barking one-liners, insults, advice, tales about the famous men she dated, or breaking out into song or dance (she also tries to direct the film herself at times, ordering the cameraman around in what could contend to be one of the funniest nonfiction moments onscreen this year… or ever).
She’s just as quick to admit when she’s scared, sad, nervous or to discuss her own flaws and struggles in life. “Everyone’s got a sack of rocks,” she declares, and her willingness to acknowledge her own is inspiring. She embraces fear, and faces it head on, steeling her posture, and stomping out on stage in her signature uniform of crisp white shirt and black stockings. In a particularly raw moment, she talks about death from a hospital bed, and her acceptance of the inevitable—her age, her own mortality—is comforting in a way. Elaine’s embrace of fear makes it seem not as scary.
Just as she’s a little old lady with a big voice, she’s also still a young and innocent Catholic girl, and still a stage siren, bewitching men from Kirk Douglas to James Gandolfini. She’s a legend who remains somewhat under-the-radar, and a true exemplar of “showbiz” of another time. Inspirational, entertaining, and absolutely awards-caliber (from first-time director Karasawa), “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” offers up an indelible and rare experience in cinematic form—it’s simply an absolute treat to be able to spend this much intimate time with such a legendary lady. [A]