A scene from Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
It is hardly an overstatement to describe actress/singer/performer/tour de force Elaine Stritch as a sage of stage, screen and life. At 87, the living Broadway legend still commands the spotlight and she is not afraid to use it to tell anyone exactly what she thinks. In director Chiemi Karasawa's spectacular doc Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the Tony and Emmy Award-winning Stritch is revealed through heavy doses of laughter, her thunderous personality, sass and steadfast determination. Still working, the film captures her performing at New York's posh Carlyle Hotel, which she also calls home, as well as on television on the set of 30 Rock.
But the film also reveals the story of a survivor who comes to terms with mortality. Stritch speaks openly, if at moments uncomfortably, about her struggle with alcoholism (today “recovered,” she still allows herself one drink per day—usually a cosmopolitan) and diabetes. Stritch recently announced that, after arriving in New York, the city she has called home since 1943, she will move back to her native Michigan. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me captures some of her final performances on stage and on tour as well as impromptu acts tackling the streets of New York.
Stritch and Karasawa spoke with FilmLinc Daily ahead of the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, fittingly, at the Carlyle Hotel. The pair share how their mutual hairdresser served as “agent,” introducing them and encouraging a documentary. Stritch talks about her motivation for making the film and her initial reticence, and dishes about some of the celebrity acquaintances she's made along the way. The Carlyle Hotel was revving up for a party as we all spoke. And Stritch perked up as the conversation went on, which included some great back and forth banter between her and Karasawa.
FilmLinc Daily: Talk about how your hairdresser brought you both together…
Elaine Stritch: We met at the hairdresser's. He's the one who suggested to her we meet. He's a good friend of mine—a shy fellow and a great friend of mine and Chiemi's and he's the one who said, “I think you should do a documentary on “Eileen Strickt” or whatever he called me… No, his pronunciation is dubious.
Chiemi Karasawa: I think what is key is that he's a very shy fellow.
(Elaine orders a cosmopolitan at this point)
CK: So everyone has a relationship with their hairdresser, who knows all about your life and your love life, and he knew that I produced documentaries and he knew about my work. So he said one day, “I think you should do a documentary on Elaine Stritch. I took it very much to heart. And I thought, “Oh my god, this is the most singular character and performer out there. Why doesn't everybody know about her?” And that was really the beginning.
FD: Were you immediately into the idea of a documentary about you?
Elaine Stritch: No, it's nobody's treat to do a documentary. It's a lot of work and it's straining on your nerves and your honesty.
FD: So what was the selling point for you then?
ES: Well, I said from the beginning: I want a down payment. I want to have something to call my own and I'm not working for nothing anymore. It wasn't a big deal, but I want something. I also want to make some money because it was a lot of hard work and it's sharing an awful lot about myself. I want to be paid for it. And I think Chiemi feels the same way; I want her to make money too. Everybody should make money on this, that's in part what we're in this for.
FD: But aside from the money, were there “rules of the game” set before filming?
ES: I want something up there forever that I'm proud of. I don't know if I'm proud of it or not, but I know I did it as best I could. So therefore, I don't think I held back anything. And I don't think Chiemi thinks I did.
CK: No, and I think that's the success of this.
ES: I do too</p>
CK: And I think that's the success of Elaine. She's not afraid to be honest. She lives her life in a very fearless way. She's not afraid of what other people think. She's doesn't care if it's a popular opinion or not, she's going to tell you and I think there's something to be said for that.
CK: There aren't many who live their life that way. And that's something I didn't know about her at the beginning. I learned that along the way.
FD: You have to be a rather strong personality yourself to take Elaine Stritch on.
ES: Absolutely! I don't mean that in any bad way, but she just is.
FD: Did you get to know each other to some degree before the actual filming began or did you just dive in?
CK: I think the way the film unfolds is a fair assessment of how I got to know Elaine. As I got to spend time with her and she got to know me, we developed our own relationship. I was going through a very difficult time in my life and she learned all about that. She's somebody who can offer a lot of great counsel and support and has years of experience
A scene from Chiemi Karasawa's Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
FD: Did you have anyone tell you not to do this documentary?
ES: Sure. It's not a birthday party or a cocktail party. The results I look forward to. Anything you're doing you want to see. You're performing in a documentary. But I went to hospitals in this [film]. I shared all about my diabetes. Nobody wants to say, “I'm diabetic.” It's easier to say, “I'm an alcoholic” than “I'm a diabetic,” you know? But I admitted it, by golly.
You don't do a documentary about Elaine Stritch unless it's going to be funny, though. I'm funny when I want to be. And I'm even funny when I don't want to be.
FD: Did it turn out the way you had expected? Obviously you're no stranger to the documentary form.
CK: Obviously, going into a film like this you expect it to be something special, something unique and precious. The interesting thing about getting to know her was, aside from her being a great performer, you're seeing a time of her life that is universal. She's able to articulate her feelings that in a way many people can or will. Whenever someone is doing a film or telling a story is finding something that people can understand and connect to. And aside from being entertained by her, so many people have come up to me afterward and say that the things she talks about are things that will happen to everybody.
Aging is a part of life and your attitude about it is a part of life and these are things that are fresh and different about this documentary that when going into it—I didn't know that would be the case. It unfolds this way. I got to know Elaine. I fell in love with Elaine. I saw that she's in a particular part of her life. And to go through that with her, how can there be anything better than that? I mean, going in, you think, sure, it'll be a laugh a minute. But there's something deeper than that. And it's in all the laughs, but there's a much greater story—a much more universal story.
FD: Did you feel compelled to perform for the cameras throughout the taping or did it change over time?
ES: I'm not criticizing you, but it's a bit of a senseless question because one is always performing in front of a camera. Even if someone doesn't know how to do it, they're performing. You know?
Being my age and realizing the age I am… It's not funny anymore. It's a really serious age. And, nobody wants to be boring ever! It's the last thing I ever want to be in my life! I remember that lyric, “You might have been a headache, but you were never a bore.” That makes sense to me. Don't bore anybody, so why bore anybody with your old age? Just live with it.
FD: I loved your quote from Bette Davis about aging…
ES: Oh, “Aging is not for sissies!” One of the best quotes ever given by a performer! Fantastic! And she was so brilliant! She knew how to hang them in there. And she was so sweet, too.
FD: You take on the role of the director a couple of times in the doc where you're instructing the camera person to capture a certain moment, etc., and the film shows you starting over. One time was in your room upstairs here at the Carlyle.
Elaine Stritch: Oh yeah…
CK: I think that actually happened earlier rather than later, but once she got to know them better and was more comfortable with having them in her life. Now she knows every single camera man and knows them by name and how they are…
ES And a woman is always aware of a man… [Laughs] No, it's really true.
FD: What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me?
ES: Well, to be less afraid of growing old. Or more afraid! [Laughs] I don't care which side of the road they take, I honest to God don't. [Laughs] I think the four of us should do a comedy show.
CK: To me, when I watch it now, I think Elaine gives people a lot of courage…
ES: I think I do too, but I don't realize it at all.
CK: I think people wish they could carry her on her shoulder and tell them not to be afraid.
ES: Being afraid is bullshit! What do we have to be afraid of? Nothing!
CK: But here is this woman in front of the camera with no makeup and she's not afraid to be herself and be gorgeous…
ES: Well, that's the stupidest thing in the world. First of all, the idea of a woman not being afraid with no make up… But I'm proud of having the same face as when I was born. I don't have to go to a doctor and have my face changed. It terrifies me that women do that.
FD: I remember reading that Jane Fonda said a few years back that she's going to embrace her age and not do anymore plastic surgery.
ES: Well, she's a little late. [Laughs] But she's honest about it. I like her, I like her. And she makes me laugh… She's been mixed up with the wrong kind of men, and the wrong kind of women. She's a looker of note! She's been up late a good many nights. But she looks great.
My father had a great expression that I love and it went something like this: “Give the boarders all the eggs they want.”
A person who is having a documentary being done [on them] is in big trouble. The [filmmaker] wants it all, but they can't have it all because it's impossible to tell “that much” of the truth, because people will just get scared. And I'm just working with the attitude of “not” scaring people with the truth. And that's a nice note to leave on…
You know what, I'll tell you… I got off the train here [in New York] in 1943, and this town didn't scare me at all! I wasn't afraid of anybody; I just didn't know anybody. Fuck them! I got some comfortable shoes and walked to Greenwich Village and back to 91st Street every day for three years… It was more fun with Marlon Brando, if you know what I mean.