Elaine Stritch Is Having a Moment Grumpily

“Don’t you think you’re awfully close to me, Shane?” asks Broadway legend Elaine Stritch of one of the cameramen who’s filming her documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. He pulls back immediately while she riffs in her sagging baritone, “This isn’t a skin commercial.”

Stritch is 88, thus ripe for this type of documentary that has become a twilight rite of passage for elderly showbiz survivors. Still-here cinema is a subgenre at this point: Joan Rivers, Carol Channing, Phyllis Diller, Don Rickles and Charles Nelson Reilly are a few whose career arcs have been explored alongside current footage in recent years. Stritch’s entry is exceptional not because Shoot Me is a great film (it's good, but nothing so far has topped the brilliant arc and stark candor of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work), but because of Stritch herself. She could master any media by just existing on camera. Get this woman a Vine.

If Stritch isn’t off-the-cuff and even unwitting in her crabbiness, she’s a master at creating that illusion. We see her on the set of 30 Rock, on which she has guested regularly, asking for her cue and then bellowing, “NO JUSTIFICATION.” Later, Tina Fey explains that working with Stritch is “always worth it,” and she’s not the only one in the film to deliver this kind of qualified praise. Stritch runs into some Adler relative when she visits the Stella Adler acting studio and tells her, “You look good. Your hair looks good for a change.” (And this is actually kind as the hair in question is a dry, unruly, multi-toned thatch. Shade?) Before one of her cabaret shows, we see Stritch barking on the phone at someone in charge, “Will you just be quiet and let me ask a question?” She admonishes a cameraman for not documenting her entire process of opening her English muffins (her late husband John Bay’s family owns Bay's English Muffins) and throwing away the trash. When he relents and moves in to watch her unwrap, she takes out a butcher knife and repeatedly stabs the package. The payoff is exquisite, especially since she does this with a straight face.

There is also this completely insane archival footage of her cutting the cast recording of Broadway's Company in 1970. In it, she listens to her vocal back and freaks out at herself (“Wronnnng!...Oh shut up!” she hollers at her recording).

Liz Smith, the former New York Post gossip columnist and Stritch’s friend, called the singer-actress whom she has covered for decades “just fabulous copy.” Smith’s comment was printed in a New York Times piece from earlier this month that works as a great companion to Shoot Me. It is an elegantly assembled laundry list of Stritch’s brusque quirks – she sends back an SUV that arrives to take her to a performance for a sedan, she sends back coffee several times until the temperature is just right, she sends away a stool and a microphone for not being the right colors, she denies ever having an outburst even though early in the piece, her reaction to being dropped off at the wrong venue is described as “a moment of Medea-like rage.”

And then, there are the bits about her relationship with alcohol:

Chiemi Karasawa, who made the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which will have its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this month, remembered a dinner with Ms. Stritch early in the filming. “She called herself a recovered alcoholic who has one drink a day,” Ms. Karasawa said. “The first thing she does is pull out her diabetes kit. She pulls out something else and she says, ‘I keep this next to my insulin kit.’ It’s a little bottle of Bombay sapphire. Everybody gasped. That was Elaine Stritch right there.”

… Ms. Stritch said in her Tuesday show at the Carlyle that she had half a Cosmopolitan before going on. But when asked about it later, she snapped, “It’s none of your business,” then added, “I don’t drink anymore.”

Elaine Stritch is a defiant, proud pain in the ass. After last night’s screening of Shoot Me, she showed up for a Q&A with Times theater critic Charles Isherwood (Karasawa and Stritch’s musical accompanist Rob Bowman were also on the panel). She announced herself before she reached the stage: the audience could hear her bellowing, “I want out of this elevator!” She referenced her slow transport several more times during the Q&A. She also discussed not liking the process of being documented, and enjoying the finished product but wishing she wasn’t in it. Stritch, whose unaltered face is frequently makeup-free in Shoot Me, told the crowd, “I loved the way I looked.” The fluidity of pride and insecurity courses through her persona.

I get the sense that Stritch’s moments of self-entitlement come from her longevity, that she is difficult because, damn it, she’s earned the right to be so. I think that this behavior would be less warmly received if she weren’t as old and experienced as she is, which seems partly condescending in an awww-everything-the-old-lady-does-is-cute kind of way, but it also ever so slightly balances out the ageist universe that’s inclined to simply ignore this person. But time has done her well, even despite its toll: Her flub-filled musical performances in Shoot Me feature many a forgotten line (which she routinely blames on the state of her blood sugar). They are alive in a rare way that thumbs its nose at perfection, and whatever the shtick involved, that’s as real as showbiz gets.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is screening as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

To contact the author of this post, write to rich@gawker.com.