We watched Shoot Me, the 2013 documentary about Elaine Stritch (1925-2014) recently, and my main takeaway from the film was “How could anyone abide that wretched woman? WHY would anyone? For THOSE performances? For THAT presence? A voice like a chainsaw, a physiognomy like a stack of fireplace kindling?” And people are always like, “She’s such a caution, she’s such a pistol!” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? Are you blind as well as deaf? This is just a terrible old woman. She has all the charm and wit of a junkyard dog!”
It’s not just me. You see everyone in the movie roll their eyes, bite their tongue. Sometimes they don’t even do that. A few of those interviewed, like her fellow 30 Rock cast members, as much as say, “Elaine is a LOT. But, hey, listen, it’s worth it! If what you want is…um, THAT”. What is so worth it, is what I don’t get. Show business is full of horrible old ladies, or even better, nice old ladies who can PLAY horrible old ladies. Why did everyone glom onto Stritch? I can only deduce that its like the Betty White thing — if you last long enough, and you’re kind of still out there in advanced old age, you win the race. Stritch was 80 when she began that cabaret residency at Cafe Carlysle in 2005. And it seemed as though that engagement was fated never to cease. She did that gig for 8 entire years! There are clips of it in the film. Rapt audiences ate up her patter, but it’s hard to tell how much they’re being patronizing, or even how much they’re laughing at her. I saw Les Paul play at a Village jazz club when he was around the same age, and naturally you’re rooting for this old legend who’s “still got it”. But Les Paul invented the electric guitar. What was Stritch when she was young? How has she earned laughter and applause for, “Ah, whatever the hell the lyrics are. Where’s my scotch?”
I’m pretty sure I only saw her live a couple of times. The first was in her Tony nominated performance in the 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance. I enjoyed the production. Her performance seemed a bit of stunt-casting. Was that real booze in her glass? I also saw her in Andrei Belgrader’s all-star production of Beckett’s Endgame at BAM in 2008 alongside John Torturro and Max Casella. Non-New Yorkers may well not even know Stritch by name, as her screen appearances are relatively few and a good percentage of it was either in live television (unrecorded) or British film and TV (unseen in America). I’ve only viewed a handful of her screen appearances: her cameo in Pigeons (1970), a 1979 episode of Tales of the Unexpected, the Woody Allen films September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000), the 1988 Cocoon sequel, and Monster-in-Law (2005).
Her particular fans prize her performance in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 show Company, captured in a documentary film and cast album. Earlier stuff included the national tour of the original production of Call Me Madam (1950) in which she replaced Ethel Merman, a 1952 Broadway revival of Pal Joey, the original 1955 production of Inge’s Bus Stop, for which she was nominated for a Tony, and the 1957 screen version of A Farewell to Arms. But mostly her career consisted of lots and lots of theatre: regional, touring, Broadway, off-Broadway, and West End.
The poignant aspect of the film of course is that it records the very end. She is falling apart, and it’s impossible not to sympathize. THIS is where it’s like a Beckett work. Her terror of the unknown — death — is palpable. And so she clings to what she knows, and keeps up her theatrical rituals. Like those 95 year old cigar-smoking comedians. If they stop smoking the cigar, they’ll die! We all die — even the vain, the narcissistic, the insecure, the demanding, the mean. So there’s something universal and poignant about her plight, as both mind and body fail her and death comes on like a freight train. Even her little entourage of assistants, her accompanist, and so forth, who sigh and look daggers at her with CAMERAS ROLLING throughout this documentary, have palpable sympathy for this unsympathetic woman. And that’s theatre’s highest function, isn’t it? Sympathy for the unsympathetic?
To learn more about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous