At the start of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” we see the legendary Broadway actress strutting down Manhattan city streets in a giant fur on her way to a rehearsal. She crosses the street and yelps theatrically. An actress she’s worked with recognizes her on the street and Stritch’s comment is “This business sucks.” As the camera follows her, it edits and darts down the street at the spitfire speed of her voice.
Even if you are not familiar with Elaine Stritch, you know this woman. Her poise and the way she is depicted here defines her as a star and a woman who has seen it all. Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary profile is less interested in Stritch’s storied past and more in how she carries herself in the here and now.
“Anyone aging gracefully really knows something,” Stritch says. Having just passed away less than a month ago, not long after this movie was first released, Stritch really did have it all figured out, and yet she was no less afraid of death or any less human. She makes for a wonderful character study not because of her history but because of who she was in 2013 in the last year of her life.
And what we see is a documentary that may as well have been directed by Stritch herself, even if someone else was behind the camera. Always aware of the ins and outs of show business and forever concerned with her image and putting the best show forward, she scolds the cameraman for getting too close (“This isn’t a skin commercial!”) and demands reshoots when he seems to be a mile away.
In fact the film is so selective that it doesn’t bother with its own version of narrated or edited history; her memory will do just fine and be told more theatrically than any editor could muster. Her ability to think on her feet and always play for laughs or an emotion echoes on stage and off. “Shoot Me” mostly follows Stritch during the production of a one-woman show in which she sings the work of Stephen Sondheim. She’s performed these songs dozens if not hundreds of times over, but at this age and this stage in her career, she’s a different actress. “It’s hard enough to remember Sondheim lyrics when you don’t have diabetes,” she jokes during rehearsal. Karasawa plays that lapse of memory for a strong callback later when on stage she visibly forgets her lyric, but manages to turn it into a charming moment of truth and storytelling for the audience.
Not everyone is a Broadway fan or may not even be familiar with Stritch’s resume, but “Shoot Me” is loaded with amusing anecdotes and witty to tender commentary from Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin and another recently departed legend, James Gandolfini.
“She is a molotov cocktail of madness, insanity and genius,” a friend says about Stritch. “Shoot Me” gets at that perception with its own confection of ingredients and stories as well as its own sharp tongued look at a woman so deserving of the attention.
3 1/2 stars