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Great Old Broad Series: Elaine Stritch

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Yesterday's screening at New Haven's Lyric Hall of the documentary "Broads,"that features salty, outspoken interviews with actresses of a certain age reminded me of some of my own favorite interviews of like-minded dames.

I'll post a series of these interviews in the next week or so. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them. On Friday I posted my 1992 interview with Maureen Stapleton. On Saturday, there was my 1998 piece on Cloris Leachman, yesterday I posted my 2001 article on Elizabeth Ashley. Today, I bring you the formidible Elaine Stritch, a 2008 article, my favorite piece of several I wrote.

By FRANK RIZZO

Elaine Stritch is still trying to figure it all out.
    The tough-talking Broadway star shared her vulnerable side and some tasty and telling backstage stories in her 2002 solo bio-show, "Elaine Stritch At Liberty." You would think winning a Tony for that performance would allow the veteran actress to feel secure.
    Guess again.
    While Stritch had a personal and professional triumph with the show and its subsequent presentations (including a one-week run starting Tuesday at Hartford Stage), there still remains nagging doubts, fears and insecurities.
    "People don't get to the truth soon enough in their lives," she says. "But I still want to know - and I don't care what I find."
    Stritch, 83, was talking in the tea room at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, a place she has literally called home for the past 10 years. (She also resided at the Savoy Hotel in London in the '70s.
    "I'll tell you something about myself," she says, leaning forward, boring in with her blue eyes and speaking in a voice a little too loud for the room.
    "I demand attention wherever I go. I wish I had the guts to reveal it a long time ago, but I didn't know it was true a long time ago." While Stritch's self-spotlight is not breaking news to the people who know her either personally or professionally, her narcissistic candor and compelling storytelling can be stimulating, true and, above all, funny.
    Her humor, she says, gets her through a lot in life.
    "It can never leave me because otherwise I'm a bore," she says. "It's true. 'You might have been a headache/but you were never a bore.' That's one of my favorite lyrics."
    Stritch knows she is no walk in the park to work with, but she has her own acting process, and for those who help her get there, the performance is worth the effort.
    Because of her solo show, she says, she has a new self-deprecating line about herself.
    "I finally know what it's like to work with Elaine Stritch on stage. Thanks, but no thanks. Now I know how George Grizzard felt," she says, referring to her co-star in the celebrated Lincoln Center '90s revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance."
    Stritch won an Emmy Award last year for her work playing Alec Baldwin's mother in TV's "30 Rock" comedy series.
    "I loved playing with Alec Baldwin, but I don't think I'm going to be called again for that show," she says. "I don't think Tina Fey likes me. It's just a feeling I have, and I don't care if you print that. She's a very talented woman, but I approach everything like an actress, and I have to understand the comedy I'm playing, or I can't make it funny. Maybe I asked too many questions. I don't know."
    Receiving the Emmy was all well and good, but mention the Tony Awards, and Stritch stiffens.
    She is still smarting from her Tony experience when she was cut off during her acceptance speech.
    "It left a very bad taste in my mouth," she says. "I shouldn't be cut off from making a speech after being nominated so many times and then finally winning at the age of 70 - whatever it was. I want nothing to do with the Tonys. I've lost my Tony. I don't even know where the hell it is. No idea,and I don't give a [expletive] either. I really don't. And what the [expletive] are the Tonys doing in Radio City Music Hall anyway? This is the American Theater, not the Rockettes."
   
    The Detroit-born Stritch had her first Broadway show in 1946, but it wasn't until the '50s and '60s that she emerged as a Broadway presence in such plays as "Bus Stop" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?" and musicals such as "Sail Away," "Goldilocks" and, in 1970, "Company," in which she played a modern Manhattan dame with a penchant for truth-telling and vodka stingers.
    "When they say 'character actress,' they're just beginning with me," she says. "I'm not an ordinary kind of actress. I am always a little - arrrggggh! - bent." She lived in London for most of the '70s, married to actor John Bay (his Chicago-based family produced Bays English Muffins), and starred in a popular British television series with Donald Sinden, "Two's Company." After her husband's death in 1982, she returned to the U.S., where she battled alcoholism, stage fright and diabetes, all of which she details in her solo show.
    Her funny, sad, riveting story "was the start of people knowing why they dig me, because I finally got on stage without any interference and told it the way it was," she says, "and they dug it because it was the truth."
    And how has she been received since the show played New York, on TV and on DVD?
    "It's that old joke - lonely at the top - except I'm not at the top. There's a lot further I would like to go before I check out, but I haven't got a lot of time, so I think maybe this is a leveling point with me. I'd like to think there was something else startlingly successful I could do, and I think probably it will happen. I'd love to get a really good part in a movie."
    She also says she is considering writing a book for her new stories as well as some of her older ones.
    "The thing that I want to do is really tell the truth. I'm trying to get at it where it not really hurts but rather where it relieves you."
    In the meantime, she is bringing her show and her music director, Rob Bowman, to Hartford, as well as London and Austin. She says that Westport Country Playhouse wanted the show, "but they wouldn't take it if I played Hartford, so I said, '[Expletive] you.' They're so snobby."
    One change Stritch made in "At Liberty" since Broadway is her footwear.
    The leggy actress now wears flats, thanks to Mary Healy Matthews, a high school friend who said, "Are you crazy?" when she heard Stritch was going to do the show again in heels.
    "It took some courage for me to do it," she says. "Now I don't have to bind my feet like some Oriental woman. Now I can just put on my Easy Spirits and hit the boards. It made a big difference; you better believe it."
   
    She is also open to other compelling theater roles. She recently played the ashcan-dwelling Nell in Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, an apt role; her collaborator on "At Liberty," New Yorker writer John Lahr, referred to her as "existentialism in tights."
    "There was a quiet satisfaction I got out of doing Beckett," she says. "I find a personal kinship with him. I was doing a great writer's work, but it was hard to do because I had to get a lot over to an audience with very little on the page. Apparently I succeeded, so I was very happy."
    Coincidentally, a line from "Endgame" was an important part at the conclusion of "At Liberty."
    "What have I been doing up here?' she says, quoting from a speech in "At Liberty." "I've been trying to regain a lot of my life that I just wasn't there for. Beckett says it. 'Absence always.' Well, I'll paraphrase. Absent almost always. My God, [my life] almost all happened without me, but I caught up, and I'm out here, and I'm up here."
    Stritch says she forgot "absent always" was from "Endgame," and when she was in rehearsal for the Beckett play, "I said, 'What the [expletive]. That's a line from my show.' "
   
    She says she falls in love with talent and becomes awkward and obsessive as a schoolgirl, whether it's about Noel Coward, Stephen Sondheim or, most recently, Mike Nichols, who visited her dressing room after a recent performance of "Endgame." She felt she "was off that night" and acted foolishly and unattractively when all she wanted to do was arrange to have tea with him some time. She wanted to talk to him about several things that had been on her mind about herself.
    "One is that the level of my humor frightens me," she says. "Another is what type of dame am I getting to be sober? Still another is my only claim to fame is what I do on stage - and offstage, I am zero. I have no respect for myself offstage. Now that's a killer. That's a bad way to feel about yourself."
    Still, she says she feels she is getting better. "I think I'm even getting to the point where I am glad when Stockard Channing gets a good notice."
    She left Nichols a voicemail and followed up with a letter. "But I've got to get over this," she says now, and adds that she thinks she has finally stopped beating herself over her behavior.
    Why can't she forgive herself, she is asked?
    After all, she was raised Catholic in Detroit and was niece of the late U.S. Roman Catholic Archbishop Samuel Cardinal Stritch of Chicago.
    "Catholics are famous for not forgiving themselves," she says. "Listen, Catholicism is one of the most humorous religions in the world, and that's why I hang on to it. There's more funny stories in Catholicism than you can shake a stick at."
   
    Stritch, who was declared a city "living landmark" in 2003, is now thinking about giving up New York City.
    " 'Landmark' and being called a 'legend' you can take and shove it," she says. "Those are the things in which they give you nothing. All you get is the chance to get your hair done, like I love that. Get a life."
    Manhattan's noise, the crowds, the traffic, it's all just too much now, she says. The ladies who lunch - to quote the title of her signature Stephen Sondheim song from "Company" - have been replaced by the gals of "Sex and the City" - and worse.
    "My 'Sex and the City' days are over," she says. "I don't like it here anymore. The humor's gone. I don't want to end my days here. If there's not a part for me on 45th Street, I want out of here."
    She is thinking of ending her days at the "piss-elegant" Hotel Janelle, which is being built on Lake Michigan at Harbor Springs, Mich.
    "They want me to open the hotel for them, and I find that kind of exciting," she says.
    A Manhattan-free Stritch? Possible. Who knows? "You're only as good as your last laugh, but you also never know what that next door is going to open on to. Life's a constant surprise."
    One came just yesterday, she says, when she received an amazing fan letter from what turned out to be an actor - and secret heartthrob - she worked with 40 years ago.
    But that's a story for another day.
    Or perhaps a book.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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