Formidable, indomitable, irascible: Pick your adjective, and it pretty much describes the force of nature who holds the stage in "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."
But what makes this documentary on the celebrated actress and singer especially involving is that watching it calls forth another, quite different selection of descriptors as well: vulnerable, insecure, even fragile.
As directed by Chiemi Karasawa, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" is less an examination of the long career of the gifted performer with the big personality who first appeared on Broadway in 1944 than a snapshot of her as she approached her 87th birthday, still as much in love with performing as ever and wondering how long she can keep it up.
The most engaging thing about the feisty Stritch, and what any film that spent time with her couldn't help but capture, is her candid sense of humor, her willingness to say anything as long as it is the truth. Described by one friend as "a Molotov cocktail of madness, sanity and genius," she is an invigorating tonic to hang out with, even on screen.
Though she has since semi-retired and moved to suburban Michigan to be near family, Stritch was still living at New York's luxurious Hotel Carlyle at the time of filming, and "Shoot Me" begins with her exiting her hotel, wearing an exotic coat and her trademark oversized glasses and trading remarks with the numerous people who recognize her on the street.
Though television watchers will similarly recognize Stritch as the actress who won an Emmy playing Alec Baldwin's redoubtable mother on "30 Rock," this film also fills us in briefly on other parts of Stritch's extensive career. Highlights include doing "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" on Broadway, having Noel Coward reconstruct "Sail Away" for her, and costarring on screen with Rock Hudson and Woody Allen (not at the same time).
It is for her singing that Stritch is most celebrated, especially as the interpreter of Stephen Sondheim standards like "I'm Still Here" from "Follies." We get to see, in a marvelous clip from a D.A. Pennebaker documentary, how Stritch struggled and triumphed in recording the original cast version of her signature song, "Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company."
That truthfulness in performance is Stritch's trademark, and big chunks of this film show her rehearsing a new program of Sondheim's tunes both for the Cafe Carlyle and New York's Town Hall. It's great to see her put over a song, but also troubling, for her as well as for us, to see her stumble over and have difficulty remembering lyrics that were once second nature to her.
We also see Stritch's fragility in other ways, especially her constant need to manage her diabetes. One particularly bad hypoglycemic attack completely terrifies her, and it is typical of Stritch that she told the filmmakers she specifically wanted that footage in the film. On the other hand, she snaps, "Is this a skin commercial?" at a cameraman who swoops in for a close-up she considered too close.
Aside from singing songs, what Stritch does best is tell stories, funny ones about her going out with a very young John F. Kennedy, and moving stories about her relationship with her late husband, actor John Bay, who died of cancer in 1982.
We also see Stritch shamelessly faking a limp to avoid a parking ticket, and listen as she talks candidly about her fears ("there's something exciting about being afraid") and her decision to turn to the theater because "I couldn't get the love I needed anywhere else."
Whatever this woman is saying or doing, you want to be there to hear it and see it, and there's no better formula for an entertaining documentary than that.
'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me'
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes