"OLD AGE ain't no place for sissies!"
Elaine Stritch, the unmitigated queen of Broadway, evoked this Bette Davis quote more than once in her night at the Paley Center in the East 50s. Stritchie was back in town from her "retirement" in Birmingham, Mich., to celebrate the kick-off of the coming HBO documentary on her life and times, made by the popular Chiemi Karasawa. It's called "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" and the audience, crammed into an overflowing little auditorium (they needed Lincoln Center for the phenomenon that is my longtime friend Elaine) went wild over and over for the film clips -- past and present -- of their favorite.
THE audience boasted at least two of theater's greatest directors, George C. Wolfe and Jack O'Brien, and there may have been more. Hard to tell in the crush but there were also talents galore who all glory in Elaine's fame and longevity. HBO airs this in the spring.
To add luster to this enterprise, one of the producers -- named Alec Baldwin -- was there in person to open things up. (Need I add that Mr. Baldwin is the paparazzi-gossip column's favorite target these days and an actor of note himself. Elaine won an Emmy playing his horrible mother in TV's late lamented "30 Rock." Also noteworthy was an appearance in the film of the late James Gandolfini, speaking and showing his amused and sexy appreciation of Elaine. The film also offers Tina Fey, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Paul Iacono, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Ramona Mallory, Tracy Morgan, John Turturro and the great producer Hal Prince.
Mr. Prince, who made the hit "Company," provided the best sum-up of Elaine Stritch -- vulnerable, still a Catholic schoolgirl under her veneer of frightened vulgarity, confused and ever picking herself up off the floor of life.
MY own personal best "like" moment in this 80 minutes of uphill-downhill history of a giant, electrifying talent faltering into the inevitable, is when Elaine is trying to record the Stephen Sondheim score from "Company." She can't get it right for herself, or for Sondheim, but keeps trying until she does and dances in triumph around the studio. That -- and sentimentally for me -- the film clip of a young Elaine singing a duet with actor Russell Nype in 1953. This was in Chicago when I first met her. She was touring as the lead in "Call Me Madam" -- playing a diplomatic, middle-aged role when she was still younger than springtime. She did the part much better than Ethel Merman on Broadway.
I also relished clips of Elaine as the nurse with bottles of brandy in her bosom, visiting Rock Hudson in the hospital in the remake of "A Farewell to Arms." (In 1957, I went to Rome with Elaine as her secretary for the making of this David O. Selznick film and got a rousing education for three months. Elaine and I each had dibs on Rock, who was then married and we had no clue that he was gay. He was a dynamite guy in any case.) When the clips of Elaine's then fiance, Ben Gazzara, came up, I had to gulp with memory of what a talent the actor was and how good-looking. Likewise, later I was struck emotionally by a few scenes of Elaine's late husband, John Bay, a comic genius who died all too young. Elaine follows that by saying she was happiest then and never found such happiness again.
MY only little carp for this documentary with the many big moments of Elaine in film, TV, nightclubs, winning the Tony Award, is it didn't tell enough about her actual "acting" past (in "The Scarlet Hour," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Spiral Staircase") She is highly underrated in this regard. But the documentary moves on through moments of triumph with an ever-returning drama of illness and aging. This is devastating but fascinating, unrelenting and unvarnished.
Except for the documentary ending about 17 times (and I guess there is so much about Elaine Stritch, I suppose it couldn't help itself) I would give this great effort an A-plus. The same A-plus I have given Elaine since the moment I first met her and this is biased, as she has added so much to my life. There aren't many friendships like this. We have never quarreled; we have always been truthful with one another and I have only the laughs to remember.
So I say to her -- keep on keeping on! Fear of falling? Get a walker.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
(c)2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.
New documentary glorifies the great Elaine Stritch
We've upgraded our reader commenting system. Learn more about the new features.
The Baltimore Sun encourages civil dialogue related to our stories; you must register and log-in to our site in order to participate. We reserve the right to remove any user and to delete comments that violate our Terms of Service. By commenting, you agree to these terms. Please flag inappropriate comments.