You don’t have to be a musical theater geek to be charmed by “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” the hilarious and heart-wrenching documentary by Chiemi Karasawa.
The film, which opens this Friday at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza, was shot during the last couple of years that Elaine lived in New York, at the Carlyle Hotel, before she hightailed it back to her hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, to be closer to her family and catch her breath.
Truth be told, the award-winning filmmaker was not so familiar with her subject at first, which proved an asset. The film reveals Elaine’s achievements and gutsy personality bit by bit, mirroring Karasawa’s own joyful process of discovering just how phenomenal the legend really is.
Karasawa became intrigued with the present as well as the past, the frailty as well as the ferocity. Eschewing the traditional linear approach, she wisely chose a verité style following the then 87-year-old actress through the paces of her everyday routine.
And what a routine. We see an alternately giddy and enervated Stritch during rehearsals and performances for various shows, like her farewell cabaret stint at the Café Carlyle. We watch her fight to stabilize glucose levels (she has Type 1 diabetes), visit the optometrist, and inspect a studio named in her honor at the Stella Adler acting school, where she once studied.
Of course, there’s plenty of archival footage from her 2002 Tony and Emmy-winning “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” and snippets of candid interviews with awed co-stars. Alec Baldwin, who played her son on “30 Rock,” appears in the film and is credited as an executive producer.
A rambunctious Stritchie, who celebrated her 89th birthday on February 2, spoke with Gay City News about the film and why, in the words of Sondheim, after “the good times and bum times” she’s “still here.”
DAVID KENNERLEY: First off, congratulations on the astonishing new documentary. I confess I left the screening misty-eyed.
ELAINE STRITCH: That’s terrific. Everybody’s been flipping over this film.
DK: Why did you agree to let them make it? Didn’t you find it intrusive?
ES: I learned a long time ago that secrets are dangerous. As soon as you’ve got a secret, something’s bound to go wrong. What are you afraid of, for Christ’s sake? I don’t care, I’m not afraid of anybody. I want to follow my truth. I’ve been there, done that, and got a million T-shirts.
DK: As a performer who likes to put on a flawless show, how did you feel revealing your vulnerable side, like battling hypoglycemia, forgetting lyrics, or lying in a hospital bed?
ES: It made me feel relaxed and open. Like [my co-star] Pam Meyers said in “Company,” “Every son of a bitch is my friend.” I always thought, what a great line.
DK: The scene where you’re in the studio struggling to record “Ladies Who Lunch” shows your fierce work ethic and quest for perfection. How did it feel to watch?
ES: Awful. But, still, not awful. It was like, goddammit, I’m gonna get this right if it’s the last fucking thing I do in this world. I don’t care who knows because I think it’s a triumph. It’s wonderful to feel that way about your work. That you’ll do anything to get it right. Besides murder.
DK: I think it came across in a positive way.
ES: I’m glad you noticed it, David, because I noticed it. I have not so happy memories about recording “Company.” But wow, when I finally got that right and it satisfied Steve [Sondheim], that son of a bitch…Oh my God, what a tough guy he was to work with. But I was pleased as punch that he’s a perfectionist. He would say, “You are going to do this as well as I think you can, Elaine, or we’re not going to do it.”
DK: The film is full of wit and wisdom. You recall a quote from your husband, “Everyone’s got their own sack of rocks.” What is your sack of rocks these days?
ES: My illnesses and the falls that I’ve had. I’ve got a serious operation ahead of me. That’s a sack of rocks I’d rather not play with. I’m going to say my prayers — whichever religion I have yet to hang onto — keep my fingers crossed, and hope for the best. I want to live as long it takes to do everything I have to do on this earth before I leave the building.
DK: Wonderful people in your life, like Nathan Lane, Alec Baldwin, Cherry Jones, Stephen Sondheim, among others, all appear singing your praises. Are you still close now that you’ve left New York?
ES: Of course. There isn’t anybody in that film who isn’t exactly as they appear. The first time I saw it, I went nutsy-cuckoo. I cried a bit. It kills you when someone openly discloses how they deeply feel about you. It’s like a great love story.
DK: In a recent interview in the New York Times Magazine, when asked about having two drinks a day after being sober for 20 years…
ES: 25 years.
DK: Excuse me, 25 years.
ES: I lived ‘em and I want ‘em counted right. I discovered I could control alcohol. It was such a relief. I had depended on it too much.
DK: You said you like going out with the rich ladies in Birmingham and you “can’t enjoy them sober.” Did that comment piss them off?
ES: [Laughs.] I can’t really enjoy anybody sober. I don’t want the ladies in Birmingham to take all the blame. I love the ladies in Birmingham. I say things like that with love and understanding. I hope you can clear my name.
DK: Are there many of Sondheim’s fabled “Ladies Who Lunch” in Birmingham?
ES: You bet. There are ladies who lunch absolutely everywhere, and there’s nothing wrong with that. They get bored in Birmingham. They get bored in Poughkeepsie. They get bored in Toledo. We’ve all got dreams. We want to go places and do things. And I’m one of ‘em. I found a way to get through those long lunches and a couple of drinks will do it every time.
DK: I understand you like to drink Cosmos. When you go out, do you ever order a Vodka Stinger, just for fun?
ES: No, I don’t think I ever have. I think subconsciously it scares me to death.
DK: It’s been roughly a year since you returned to Michigan. I was surprised to hear you don’t miss New York. Is that true?
ES: I don’t miss places, I miss people. I can get along very well without New York. I love it when I am there. I rise to the occasion. “Everybody Rise!”
DK: One of my favorite moments is during the closing credits when you forget your very famous co-star’s name from “A Little Night Music” and call her Nanette instead of Bernadette [Peters]. Has she seen the film?
ES: Oh my God, yes. She saw it with me and we both joked about it. I’m an honorary member of the Lotus Club, where I stay in New York. I did a speech there at a dinner given for me and… what’s her name — Bernadette — was there. And boy, she took me over the coals. She’s the funniest girl in the world. And she is not like the ladies who lunch.
DK: As fascinating as the biographical nuggets are, for me, the film’s true power lies in your indomitable spirit, which I found life affirming. I don’t mean to sound sappy.
ES: No, my God, are you kidding? I’m thrilled to hear you talk like that. Thank you for that beautiful compliment.
DK: If you had to shoot the documentary all over again, what would you do differently?
ES: Nothing, because that’s the way it was.
DK: Can we expect to see Stritchie gracing a New York stage anytime soon?
ES: Absolutely! I’m doing a couple of readings. I certainly intend to find a new play, God willing. If I’m in good shape healthwise, I’m yours. Operations can be scary. The last time at Lenox Hill Hospital, they wheeled me into the operating room and I looked around and said, “There are so many gays in this room, I feel like I’m in a musical.” And they all went wild. The anesthesiologist, who was gayer than any of them, had the power to shut me up. And he did.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME | Directed by Chiemi Karasawa | IFC/ Sundance Selects | Opens Feb. 21 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | Lincoln Plaza Cinema, 1886 Broadway at 63rd St. | lincolnpla