This post originally ran on March 13th, 2014, but we felt that due to the unfortunate circumstances of Elaine Stritch’s passing yesterday it was important to run the piece again. Stritch died in her home in Michigan (where she relocated after residing at Madison Avenue’s Hotel Carlyle for years) at age 89. There will be a minute of dimmed lights on Broadway tonight at 7:45pm to pay tribute to the icon, but if you can’t make it, you can still find Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me on Netflix now. (You should definitely watch it if you have not already, because it is fantastic.) – Megan Burns
“Everybody’s got their sack of rocks,” quips the legendary Elaine Stritch in the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. She’s quoting her deceased husband, actor John Bay: “It’s a great line. Everyone should think of it.”
Chiemi Karasawa captures Stritch churning out bon mots and scathing insults in equal measure in Shoot Me (On the set of 30 Rock, tucked into a faux hospital bed as Jack Donaghy’s ailing mother, she heralds the arrival of a tardy Alec Baldwin with “Well if it isn’t Alec ‘Joan Crawford’ Baldwin!” Baldwin then smiles when he calls her a bitch). A veteran script supervisor (Adaptation, High Fidelity, 200 Cigarettes), Karasawa turned her attention to the director’s lens to capture the life of Stritch at a very specific juncture: one steeped in nostalgia for days gone by but still moving ahead like a bullet train, soaking up the last bits of a performing career that spans eight decades as Stritch prepares for a one-woman show celebrating Sondheim. We spoke with Karasawa about what it was like to befriend and film Stritch as she candidly describes the process of aging, battling alcoholism, outliving loved ones, and continuing to sing and dance through life, without missing a beat.
Elaine talks about losing both of her sisters, who were just a few years older than she is now when they passed away. When she’s hospitalized in the film, or had diabetic episodes, did you consider how you would complete the film if the worst came to pass?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say it wasn’t somewhere in the back of my head, but… she has this unpredictable and uncanny ability to rise out of the ashes like a phoenix, that I never thought it could happen anytime soon. That week she spent in the hospital, we were all on edge. And then she gave me that remarkable interview from her hospital bed, and I thought, okay, everything’s going to be okay for the time being, because she has the energy and the wherewithal and the wits to be speaking with such strength and conviction. I know it’s sort of an editorial sleight of hand, but when she’s looking over that pile of pictures on the bed in her assistant’s apartment, that was shot a week after she got out of the hospital.
You’d never know it because she’s so full of energy and with such a sense of humor about mortality. But she arrived at that place after she got out of the hospital. So that just goes to show you that she’s completely unpredictable when it comes time to having any idea of when she’s going to “leave the building,” as she says. She’s invincible.
Did Elaine convey to you, when you were making the film, that she felt as if she were helping you define what her mother called, “the picture you leave,” and that this documentary would be leaving a lasting impression for people who weren’t already familiar with her career outside of her more recent work?
I don’t know if either of us had any idea what the film would be in the end. I think she was just game to go on the journey. And you know, halfway through shooting we were talking about how we felt fortunate to find ourselves in this position of developing this relationship and becoming friends, and being able to document these aspects of her life, and she did say to me, “You know, that day that I left the hair salon, and you asked me to make the documentary with you, as I was leaving and walking down those steps, I thought to myself, ‘You know what Elaine, you better do this because this is going to be important.”
So I was really happy to hear that, because I think it helped her project what the film might be useful for in the future, and what it might mean for her. So I think that she’s actually told people that it’s one of the best things she’s ever done, because now she has a legacy. She has a document that shows people an idea of who she’s been in the past but also documents the process of aging, which is something you don’t often see in the media, and certainly not presented as entertainingly as she does.
As women age, that’s one demographic as a society we tend to exclude: older women.
And I think older men. I can’t think of the last time I saw somebody’s life represented, in such an honest and candid way. Not just to toot my own horn, but I think that Elaine can be that candid because she’s candid about everything.
There are a lot of moments where Elaine seems to be putting people in their place, like on the set of 30 Rock when she calls Alec Baldwin “Joan Crawford,” or James Gandolfini recalling her saying, “Don’t you condescend to me, you sonofabitch.” How did you balance showing her sparkling, but acerbic personality, without making her seem like a bitch? She uses that word proudly to describe herself, but this is a perception problem a lot of female performers face. Did you feel a certain pressure, as a female director to make her likeable, or to temper that?
Of course. When you really love and care about somebody, you want to protect them from the sensationalism that can be projected out there in the media. I think to know Elaine is really to love her. [Longtime friend of Stritch] Julie Keys said this wonderful thing in an interview, that I wasn’t able to put in the movie, but that I think describes her exactly. She said to me, “You know, people say X about Elaine, or Y about Elaine, or Z about Elaine. But unless you know X, Y AND Z about Elaine, you don’t really understand Elaine Stritch.”
That is a perfect explanation of her character, which is that the more you know her, and recognize her behavior and what these cues are about, you might take them personally, or offensively or whatever, but like when she says to Gandolfini, “Don’t condescend to me you sonofabitch,” what she’s really saying is, “I want your attention, because I find you incredibly talented and I want you to respect me and not just put me off because I’m a little old lady.” So she knows the kind of people that she can really provoke them with statements like that, and they won’t take them seriously, and she’s not necessarily reprimanding them but she is saying, pay attention! I think that’s one of the keys in presenting her properly is taking the time to get to know her, and I got to know her over the two years of filming, and in the two years since we finished the movie.
It’s a great compliment to feel that she’s presented as well-balanced, because I really did try to present all sides of her so that people could derive their own conclusions about her character, and hopefully people do like her and love her the way I do.
Did you discuss how you were going to handle the portrayal of her struggle with alcoholism before filming? She’s very frank about it. It wasn’t totally clear to me whether she was relapsing, or negotiating and finding her own way with what she could tolerate. She says, “I am a recovered alcoholic,” and talks about it being in the past.
I had presumed she was a sober alcoholic when we started filming. When we shot her at that dinner scene and she pulls out her insulin bag and there’s a little mini of Bombay Sapphire, I’m pretty sure there’s an audible gasp, and that it’s me. What had been projected in the media was that she’s in AA and she’d been sober for twenty-odd years. That’s typical Elaine Stritch. She’s the most unpredictable, and also the most candid person you’re ever going to document.
There were no conversations about how we were going to portray it; it’s documenting it as you see it happen. She said on camera, “I don’t want there to be any secrets, and I don’t want to be ashamed of anything I do, and I’m going to be out there with it.” It’s portrayed the way she saw it. I could see how anyone would be confused, because what she’s saying is a contradiction in terms. She’s saying I’m an alcoholic, but I can have one drink a day.” How many alcoholics do you know who can have one drink a day?
She tells some really fascinating stories when she’s going through those photographs on the bed, like her dates with JFK, or falling for Rock Hudson. Were there any stories you left out for the sake of time, but wish you could have included?
There’s 150 hours of material I wish I could have included in the film. At the end of the day, I had to choose what this film was going to be about, and the most important aspect of the story was this universal story of aging because that’s a thing that everybody can relate to, and we’re all going on that journey, ultimately, and I felt like she such a wonderful conduit to thinking more about that process because she has the ability to be candid and poignant and funny and acerbic, and all those things, and at the same time is putting a face to the process of aging, and being so articulate about it.
My own parents are 80 and 90, and I developed a much greater sense of empathy and awareness of where they were after spending time with Elaine, because not everybody can articulate what it’s like the way she can. Because of the loss of independence alone, and knowing that she had to give up her greatest joy in life, performing, to a certain degree, is just astonishing to me. Because people have to do that every day, it’s just not out there in the media.
It’s not making headlines. People aren’t making stories about it. To me that story overruled everything else. I could tell you a million stories for days about funny things that happened. we followed her around to Detroit, and Los Angeles, and the Hamptons. Her choosing the hotel room at the Maidstone [in the Hamptons] could have been an hour on a reality show.
There is only one instance where we hear you ask Elaine a question directly on camera. As a documentarian, how did you handle her interrupting filming, or addressing the crew members? I’m thinking specifically of the scene where she’s unboxing her English muffins and she interrupts and chides the cameraman, “You need a tracking shot.” Did you direct her not to talk to you?
I think a misunderstanding a lot of people have is that the film is a direct representation of the entire experience of filming. It’s been very well-edited to present what we want to present on the screen.
In the beginning I think it was just a question of Elaine and I navigating her comfort zone. That was well-depicted. Maybe not having the cameraman so close to her, like when she says to the cameraman, “What is this, a skin commercial?”
Making sure that she’s comfortable and allowing her parameters is key, because you want longevity and accessibility, and for them to have you around whenever you can be around. Just like any relationship, we learned how to navigate her comfort zone and the more she became familiar and friendly with myself and my cameraman, the more she wanted us around and cared less about what the cameraman was doing, because we had gained her trust at that stage.
Those scenes [where she interrupts filming] happened very early on in the filming of this, in the first couple of weeks. To be fair, the English muffin day was one of two out of eighty-something days where I was not on set with the camera, because I was in Toronto opening a film. She called me up and said, “Listen Rob and I are going to rehearse, so you can send a camera over if you want.” And so I did. I didn’t account for the fact that she might not feel comfortable without someone minding the cameraman. And when Elaine doesn’t feel comfortable, she has to figure out how to tell people what to do if she feels that they might not know what to do. She was really giving him direction.