In a career spanning almost seven decades, Elaine Stritch has played some legendary straight-shooters: onstage, both as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical, Company, and as herself in her 2001 one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, and on TV, most recently, as Colleen, Jack Donaghy’s irascible mother, on 30 Rock. Add to that repertoire of tough broads Marian Freeman, the lesbian manager of a discotheque in Joseph Cates’s delirious, rarely screened exploitation film Who Killed Teddy Bear (1965), playing at Anthology this week.
In this unforgettable capsule of seedy mid-’60s New York, Stritch shares the screen with Sal Mineo as the disco’s shy busboy who, when not checking out dirty bookstores or having flashbacks to a bizarre moment of sexual congress, strokes himself over the tightest-fitting white jeans while making obscene phone calls to Juliet Prowse, a DJ at the disco and actress-hopeful. Beyond the film’s DSM IV–worth of psychosexual pathologies—even the cop (Jan Murray) assigned to help Prowse has a creepy attachment to his sex-crimes investigations—Who Killed Teddy Bear is a fascinating chronicle of Wagner-era Times Square, capturing, documentary-like, Prowse popping into the Music Box Theater on West 45th Street for an audition or Mineo prowling along 42nd Street in search of smut. For those interested in frug lessons, the hip-shaking at Stritch’s disco approaches light speed.
Stritch, who turns 85 next month, is as no-nonsense in conversation as you might expect. I reached her at the Carlyle Hotel, where she’s performing “Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim . . . One Song at a Time” through January 30, to talk about curiosity, defensiveness, and swagger.
When you were presented with the script for Who Killed Teddy Bear, how was the film described to you? Oh, it was a story I’ve dined out on many times because it was so funny. When they called me and asked me to do this movie, I said, “What is the part?” And they said, “It’s a lesbian who runs a discotheque [and has a crush on] Juliet Prowse and is strangled with a silk stocking by Sal Mineo on East End Avenue.” Nobody turns a part like that down. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s good or bad—just for curiosity’s sake. And I enjoyed it very much. I liked all the people I worked with, and it was a nice experience. And not a bad movie, incidentally.
The film presents a very lurid view of New York City. Oh, there’s always a lurid view of New York City. You get what you go for. Whether or not it was authentic then, I’m sure it was. They had discotheques and all kinds of human behavior go on in any atmosphere.
What are your memories of working with Juliet Prowse and Sal Mineo? I’ve read that … I just told you: I liked both of them very, very much. They’re both terrific actors and good people.
I was just curious because I’ve read that Sal Mineo was hoping that this film would revive his career. He had been in a bit of a slump in the early ’60s. I don’t know anything about that. I just know him as a good guy and a hell of an actor.
Was the scene in which you’re both consoling and coming on to Prowse’s character, Norah, difficult to do? Very, very. I asked the director if I could play it so when [Norah] recognized that I was gay, I would accuse her of hurting my feelings by ever thinking such a thing. I went on the defensive immediately, which is the way I thought I should play the part. Because most people who are guilty about their sexual preference are going to be defensive. Her reaction was, I was coming on to her; my reaction to that was, “How dare you! It must be your problem. It’s not mine.”
You could say that Marian is a bit pushy, but she has a tremendous amount of swagger and style. Oh, she was a terrific character. She was a hard-boiled dame working in surroundings that were the pits in New York. She was a good egg, as my father used to say.
Was she modeled on anyone in particular? I have no idea, honey. It was the author’s writing. I don’t know how he came to that. You know what I mean, sweetheart? I think it’s a difficult question because I don’t know anything about how the writer approached it. I got a part in a movie in a script, and I played it to the best of my abilities. I didn’t model it on anybody; I played it as an actress.
Of the 20 feature films that you’ve made, do you have a favorite? [Pause.] Yes, A Farewell to Arms.
Why is it your favorite? It was a good part, and I liked playing it, and I had a good time. I went to Rome, and I had an exciting time. I worked with David Selznick, who I loved and adored. And Rock Hudson—it was a beginning of a great friendship with him. And darling Jennifer [Jones], who died [last month]; I was very close to Jennifer. I loved the movie. That’s my favorite movie. Period, over and out.
Who Killed Teddy Bear plays at Anthology Film Archives January 22–24