Movie Interviews
7:56 am
Sat March 1, 2014

Elaine Stritch, Volatile And Vulnerable In 'Shoot Me'

Originally published on Sat March 1, 2014 11:03 am

Elaine Stritch is the lioness in winter. She's 89 and still performs ocassionally, after eight decades on Broadway and the West End. Sir Noel Coward reworked his musical, Sail Away, to give her all the best songs. She stopped Stephen Sondheim's Company in the middle of the show when she sang "The Ladies Who Lunch," which has become her signature song.

But Stritch may be her own greatest character. That's who she played when she won the 2001 Tony for her solo show Elaine Stritch at Liberty. She's won an Emmy in recent years, too, for playing Jack Donaghy's mother on 30 Rock.

One of her close friends — a friend! — calls Elaine Stritch "a Molotov cocktail of madness, sincerity, and genius." And now she's the subject of an up-close and sometimes glaringly personal new documentary by Chiemi Karasawa, called Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. The film follows her through rehearsals for a cabaret gig, into her home at the Carlyle Hotel, even into the hospital as she wrestles with diabetes and alcohol. With her memory giving her trouble, and her anxiety spiraling, she's a volatile presence — and a vulnerable one.

Stritch spoke with Weekend Edition's Scott Simon about seeing herself on screen, her memories of her late husband and confronting old age.


Interview Highlights

On the film's unvarnished portrait of her

Couple of times I don't particularly like the angle or the shot, but I'm not looking for angles. I'm looking for Elaine some place up there, and I think I found her. ... I'm not trying to be dramatic, either. But I'm trying to find what makes me tick, and I think I have. It's not all good news, but I'm very proud of the fact that I've made it all work.

On her husband John Bay and his aphorism, "Everybody's got a sack of rocks."

"Got a sack of rocks!" Well, it's the wisest thing I've ever heard said — ever! He was a real smart guy, and adorable, and sweet and dear and charming and, oh God, I can't say enough about that guy. And his muffins were good. [Ed: Bay's family is the clan behind Bay's English Muffins, a foodie favorite.] He didn't have very much to do with them; actually, he ran away from home, more or less, long before he started talking up the muffins. ...

I had ten years with that man! We never fought. We screamed once in a while, and then broke up. I don't mean broke up, I mean broke up in laughter. We had a ball with our fights. "Yes, you did!" "No, you didn't!" "Oh, stop it, John, this is a waste of time." "I know, but you started it!" "No, I didn't," those kind of arguments.

And then I'd just ask him to please kiss me like they do in the movies, and he'd tell me that's where I should go. He'd say, "Just go to the movies, Elaine, and then you come back and we'll have dinner." Oh, he was a lovely guy, and he was funny, and he was my own boy, he was my husband, and I loved saying that, 'cause I'd never had one before. I didn't know how to behave with one. But I knew how to behave with John.

On a line from the film: "I like the courage of age."

Yes, I do. I have to say I like it, because I think you have to make friends with it or leave it, or give up on it. You know what I mean? Because unless you can fight it and unless you can stand up to it, you might as well get it out of your house, because it's too tough to take. But it wasn't too tough to take to look at myself. It was the easiest way I had of dealing with big problems.

On confronting old age

I don't think I'm gonna die tomorrow or even two weeks from now, or even ever. I just don't know — who the hell knows what's gonna happen to them? Nobody! Isn't that comforting? Nobody has a clue. I like that we don't know. And I like that it's somebody else's decision, not mine.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let me just start asking you a few questions, OK.

ELAINE STRITCH: Come on. Let's go.

SIMON: All right. Do you like yourself in this film?

STRITCH: Yes, I do. And that's the best news I could report to you.

SIMON: That's Elaine Stritch, but you may have guessed that. She's the lioness in winter now, 89 years old, still performing now and then after eight decades on Broadway and the West End. Sir Noel Coward reworked his 1961 musical "Sail Away" to give Elaine Stritch all the best songs. She stopped Stephen Sondheim's 1970 musical, "Company," in the middle of the show when she sang the number that has become her signature.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

STRITCH: (Singing) Another chance to disapprove. Another brilliant singer. Another reason not to move. Another vodka stinger. I'll drink that that.

SIMON: "The Ladies Who Lunch." By now, Elaine Stritch may be her own greatest character. That's who she played when she won the Tony for her one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty." She's won an Emmy in recent years for playing Alec Baldwin's mother on "30 Rock." Chiemi Karasawa has a made a new documentary called "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me." It's sometimes uncomfortably up close and personal with its subject. It shows Elaine Stritch scattering quips like dollar bill tips as she strides around midtown Manhattan, drawing the adulation of dog walkers, doormen and tourists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You're amazing.

STRITCH: OK.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I love you.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Still the best.

STRITCH: Thank you. Still, eh?

SIMON: And it shows Elaine Stritch alone with a camera crew, fussy, anxious and uncertain.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

STRITCH: My muffins are here. My muffins. I'm going to do this again. You should be following around.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You're putting the muffin box outside. I'll film that.

STRITCH: All right. Shall we start right from here?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes.

STRITCH: OK. Good.

SIMON: Elaine Stritch says she likes the full portrait treatment, quips to qualms.

STRITCH: I really do. Couple of times I don't particularly like the angle or the shot, but I'm not looking for angles. I'm looking for Elaine someplace up there, and I think I found her. I'm not trying to be dramatic, either. But I'm trying to find what makes me tick, and I think I have. It's not all good news, but I'm very proud of the fact that I've made it all work.

SIMON: We spoke with Elaine Stritch last week, just after she'd been briefly hospitalized in the middle of a taxing publicity tour to promote the new film. She was tired and maybe a little cranky. You might be disappointed if Elaine Stritch didn't sound at least a little cranky. She's told and retold certain stories which have been polished and perfected for years the way she can sing "The Ladies Who Lunch." She talks about the couple of dates she had with Senator John F. Kennedy, which were pleasant evenings that went nowhere. She also had a few dates with Rock Hudson, which also went nowhere, though perhaps for different reasons. She liked both men a lot. But Elaine Stritch brightened and seemed to go off-script when asked about the man who seemed to make all the stars align for her. Can I ask you about John Bay, your husband?

STRITCH: Oh, can you ever. Of course you can.

SIMON: Well, the love of your life I gather.

STRITCH: Absolutely. No question about it. No question about it. I was in love for the first time in my life.

SIMON: He said something that you quote in this film...

STRITCH: Yeah, what?

SIMON: ...which I haven't stopped quoting: everybody's got a sack of rocks.

STRITCH: Got a sack of rocks. Well, it's the wisest thing I've ever heard said ever. Oh God, I can't say enough about that guy.

SIMON: We'll explain. He died too young.

STRITCH: Oh, my God. Tell me about it. It was 10 years though. I had 10 years with that man. We never fought. We screamed once in a while, and then broke up. You know, I don't mean broke up, but, you know, broke up in laughter. We had a ball with our fights. Yes, you did. No, you didn't. Oh, stop it, John, this is a waste of time. I know, but you started it. No, I didn't. You brought - those kind of arguments. And then I'd just ask him to please kiss me like they do in the movies, and he'd tell me that's where I should go.

(LAUGHTER)

STRITCH: It's true. That's what he would - he'd say just go to the movies, Elaine, and then you come back and we'll have dinner. Oh, he was a lovely guy, and he was funny, and he was my - oh, boy. He was my husband, and I loved saying that, 'cause I'd never had one before. I didn't know how to behave with one. But I knew how to behave with John.

SIMON: During the court of "Shoot Me," two of the rocks that Elaine Stritch must carry around come into sharp focus - drinking and diabetes. She attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and she limits herself to one drink a day. You see Elaine Stritch in the film sipping that single cocktail and wonder if you're seeing her light a fuse. You worry does she know how to stop. And you see how diabetic surges of blood sugar can make her confused and fearful.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's glucose, and I'm on with Dr. Glick.

STRITCH: Ooh, I'm scared. I don't know...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: No, this is good. This is what we need. This is food.

STRITCH: I can't put that in my mouth. It's hurting me.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Then we got to call the paramedics.

STRITCH: No.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We're staying here and waiting for Dr. Glick.

STRITCH: Where is the help, hope? He shot me, it makes me able - good help. Show me this.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yes. Dr. Glick is on his way.

SIMON: It's all there on-screen. What's it like for you look at this film and see yourself dealing with diabetes and drinking?

STRITCH: Diabetic and drinking?

SIMON: Yeah.

STRITCH: Oh, well, it's - oh, Scott, it's so wearying to have either, this recording or my other problems with...

SIMON: Well, we'll skip over that, OK?

STRITCH: Whatever.

SIMON: At the age of 89, Elaine Stritch is aware that each step she takes, each quip she makes is considered all the more precious because she's 89, as she sings her signature song:

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LADIES WHO LUNCH")

STRITCH: (Singing) So, here's to the girls on the go. Everybody tries. Look into their eyes and you'll see what they know. Everybody dies. A toast to that infant civil bunch, the dinosaur surviving the crunch. Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch. Everybody rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise, rise.

SIMON: You say in the film: I like the courage of age.

STRITCH: Yes, I do.

SIMON: What do we learn from...

STRITCH: I think I like it. I have to say I like it, because I think you have to make friends with it or leave it, or give up on it. You know what I mean? Because unless you can fight it and unless you can stand up to it, you might as well get it out of your house, because it's too tough to take.

SIMON: There's a point in the film where you say it's time for me. So, were you just having a bad day when you said that or do you feel that way?

STRITCH: When I said what?

SIMON: It's time for me.

STRITCH: Well, I think it is more or less. I don't think I'm gonna die tomorrow or even two weeks from now, or even ever. I just don't know - who the hell knows what's going to happen to them? Nobody. Isn't that comforting? Nobody has a clue. I like that we don't know. And I like it's somebody else's decision, not mine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: I think we're just going to let you go. I think we have...

STRITCH: You're kidding.

SIMON: No, not at all, unless there's something you wanted to add.

STRITCH: Well, first of all, I want to say that I think it's, A, adorable of you to do this and take the courage. Like I'm facing life, you're facing the courage to interview me. 'Cause I'm not easy. I'm just, you know, I'm just not easy. But I can't tell you how my heart's in the right place.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M STILL HERE")

STRITCH: (Singing) Good times and bum times, I've seen them all. And my dear, I'm still here...

SIMON: Elaine Stritch speaking with us from New York. She's the star of a new documentary. And if ever a documentary had a star, it's this one. Chiemi Karasawa's film, "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," now playing in New York and so is Elaine Stritch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M STILL HERE")

STRITCH: (Singing) Good times and bum times - I've seen them all. And my dear, I'm still here. Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I'm here. I have run the gamut A to Z, three cheers and, dammit, c'est la vie. I got...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.