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Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
Directing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A-

Elaine Stritch never wears pants. Someone mentions this relatively early on in Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, and it bears out: she may often be in tights -- usually while on stage -- but she's never seen in pants. Super short shorts, maybe, but no pants. This is but one of many examples of how this woman does and says what she wants, and she's earned the right to.

This woman, now 89, is 86 and 87 through the course of filming this unusually personal and insightful documentary on a single show business personality. There are interviews with people who know her and work with her sprinkled in, but it's otherwise exclusively following Stritch around, as she lives her life, works on rehearsals, and performs in shows.

She's a Broadway legend who debuted on the stage in 1944. It's no wonder everyone else in the theatre I saw this in was old -- or "older," the term Stritch says she prefers. Someone younger, like me, may recognize her only as Jack's comically cold-hearted mother on 30 Rock. Director Chiemi Karasawa, here presenting an incredibly strong feature debut, treats us to some on-set footage of the show being shot. Both Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey offer some insights into Stritch, and like many others, the consensus seems to be that the woman's eccentricities can be a lot to deal with, but they're worth it.

This film does give the sense that Stritch would be difficult to live with. But everyone around her adores her anyway, and it's easy to see why. This woman has a singular dynamism, which shows readily in every candid shot on screen, even when she's telling the camera man he should be following her with her beloved English muffins out the door of her hotel room.

There's a scene with Stritch in the back of her car (she complains in the very opening shot of the film: "I can't fucking drive!"), when she's almost complaining about how much love people throw around at each other in show business. She doesn't think people are lying, but there's too much for her to trust completely. This indicates an almost charmingly small amount of cynicism for someone in the business as long as she's been, but she has that little bit all the same. The irony is how easy it is to see that, as opposed to most other people, people really do love this woman. This stretches from other acting legends, to people who have worked for her for ages, to the elevator operator.

Karasawa is careful not to present Stritch as a perfect woman, but somehow her imperfections only make her more endearing. Stritch decides that now that she's "well into my eighties," after over two decades of sobriety -- one of her longtime best friends she met in AA -- she's earned the right to have a single drink a day. She has a health scare and decides the risk isn't worth it, and goes off the drink again. Then she talks about taking a swig of a liqueur to calm her stomach before performances, as though it's not a drink. She blithely lives her life this way, never afraid to speak her mind. She revels in the few perks of old age: "You can get away with murder!" These are the sort of moments that make you think getting old might not be so bad.

It's not all smooth sailing. Stritch has diabetes and has both close calls and related trips to the hospital. In one distressing sequence, she seems to be losing some of her faculties, with her musical director gently encouraging her to take a particular medication, or to come back into the house. Over the course of the film, as Stritch rehearses for and performs a one-woman show she tours through several cities, she can be seen slowly resigning herself to the ultimate limitations of aging.

And yet, she never loses the magnetism that surely made her a star in the first place. Karasawa gets brief interviews with several people, but few are of the typical sort in documentaries, with a clearly prearranged sit-down interview. Instead, most are just a comment or two from friends or costars as they come in and out of the activities of Stritch's life and work.

The focus is always on Stritch herself, and that is as it should be. She commands attention so effortlessly, and the film is edited so gracefully, there is little need for anything more. Most documentaries, even ones without narration (which this one does not have), have a clear narrative that had been written -- a script, of some sort, however spare. There is never any sense that such a thing occurred here. Karasawa just followed Stritch around for several months, keeping prompting questions to a minimum (although admittedly a couple do get heard off camera), and then cut a thoroughly compelling story out of the footage. It's both funny and sad, but not sad very often at all -- and, on the whole, just a plain big load of fun.

Elaine Stritch doesn't let up in ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME.

Overall: A-
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