“I’ve got a certain amount of fame, I’ve got money — I wish I could fuckin’ drive,” 86-year-old Elaine Stritch carps just a breath into Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a gift of a documentary celebrating its subject’s brittle brilliance, still-here indomitability, brash comic truth-telling, and principled refusal to wear anything more substantial below the waist than those iconic black tights, even as she’s hustling across the avenues of the Upper East Side. Moments later, to a one-time Broadway costar who spots her by the park, Stritch barks, “This business sucks.” And in Long Island City not long after, shooting a 30 Rock, she cracks up the crew with this deadpan complaint about the running-late cast member who’s delaying everything: “Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin.”
The kind of movie fans will be quoting for the rest of their lives, Shoot Me, from director-producer Chiemi Karasawa, is as much a playdate as portrait, a jumble of salty highlights attesting to the pleasure of her company. Relish Stritch rehearsing Sondheim numbers, Stritch dishing about her two dates with JFK, Stritch comparing blood sugar levels with Tracy Morgan, Stritch at a rehearsal complaining, “It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim’s lyrics when you don’t have diabetes.” She softens after saying that, adds, “but everyone has their sack of rocks,” and then is dishing again — this time on what a great line that is. Later, the prickly star upbraids the cameraman for not having bothered to film her disposing of a box of muffins, a key part of her routine, she insists.
Hal Prince, Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, Rob Bowman, James Gandolfini, and others pop in to toast the Broadway great. (Gandolfini describes her response to some admirer’s compliment: “Don’t condescend to me, you son of a bitch!”) A letter from Woody Allen explaining how awful it would be to be directed by him in September proves a showstopper: “For the duration of the shooting you would have to totally trust me, wear the costumes and makeup I choose, and keep the questioning to a rock-bottom minimum.” The true showstoppers come from Stritch, of course (and Sondheim). The peak here isn’t “I’m Still Here” or “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Instead, it’s “I Feel Pretty,” got over in that incomparable talk/bray/shout, the phrasing wry and cockeyed, all of her anxiety about forgetting the words crystallizing, once she’s in front of an audience, into tense, masterful comedy.
Karasawa captures Stritch’s 87th birthday party, a trip back home to Michigan, and a health scare that inspires the star to ruminate on her own mortality. Mostly, the film captures her ferocious will, a trait that’s hardly news but is a by-god privilege to behold. One more gem: Not long out of the hospital, Stritch settles into her bed at the Carlyle Hotel to watch herself on 30 Rock. The phone rings the moment it’s over, and Stritch, not sure who’s calling but absolutely certain what kind of compliments she’s about to be subjected to, answers with, “Yeah, I think so, too.” They’re both right.