Stritch is among a small cluster of surviving octogenarian musical theater icons. Barbara Cook and Angela Lansbury, whom Stritch replaced in 2010’s “A Little Night Music,” are others, all still strutting their stuff.
These ladies knew the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, and if Stritch’s name is less familiar it’s only because she never had a hit like “Mame” or “The Music Man” in a résumé that began in the 1940s.
Still, as Stephen Sondheim wrote in “I’m Still Here,” Stritch has “careered from career to career” with successes like Sondheim’s own “Company” (introducing “The Ladies Who Lunch”), a recurring television stint on “30 Rock” as Alec Baldwin’s mother, and as cabaret royalty holding court (and living at) the Carlyle Hotel.
Like Cook, Stritch wrestled successfully with alcoholism. These days, she allows herself one cocktail per day and rigorously monitors her diabetes.
In 2001, Stritch had what many would rightly consider a career capper with the biographical one-woman song-and-chat fest “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” It brought her the previously elusive Tony Award (after four prior nominations) and an Emmy Award for the video incarnation.
Stritch, however, had other plans. She toured the show relentlessly and became, along with Cook and Bernadette Peters, one of the premier cabaret and concert interpreters of the Sondheim canon.
Now 89, the brassy-voiced Michigan native is preparing her final act, which includes leaving her beloved New York. Chiemi Karasawa’s intimate, sometimes painful documentary is a sharply etched portrait of the talented, iconoclastic, plainspoken woman. (Her favorite word begins with F.)
The film nicely follows the documentary path of historical photos and clips interlaced with talking heads (Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and the late James Gandolfini, among others) laying flowery tribute at Stritch’s feet.
The real heart of the film, however, lies in sequences of Stritch in rehearsal and performance shepherded by her musical director and best friend, Rob Bowman.
When inclement weather cancels a show and they have to evacuate the hotel, Bowman holds the hand of the usually indomitable star, suddenly a frightened old woman in desperate need of her diabetes medication. When Stritch can’t pull her lyrics together onstage, it’s Bowman to the rescue.
At one point, Stritch ruminates on having lost the love of her life, muffin heir and actor John Bay, in 1982. While it may not be romantic, it is clear from the film that she has found another great love in Bowman’s steadfast adoration.
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Starring Elaine Stritch, Rob Bowman
Directed by Chiemi Karasawa
Running time 1 hour, 20 minutes