When 89-year-old Elaine Stritch recently dropped an “F-bomb” on The Today Show, she knew exactly what she was doing. Suddenly, the video of her appearance was all over the internet. What a perfect way to get publicity for the documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which opens in L.A. theaters this Friday and is already available on VOD.
Stritch, who’s no stranger to salty language, is Broadway royalty. In 1950, she was Ethel Merman’s standby in Call Me Madam. She was also juggling out-of-town tryouts for a revival of the musical Pal Joey in which she performed the song “Zip.” In 1963, she appeared in the original production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as a replacement for Uta Hagen in the role of Martha. In 1972, she originated the role of Joanne in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s musical Company. Her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty won the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event in 2002. Most recently she appeared as Madame Armfeldt opposite Bernadette Peters in the revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. Current television audiences may recognize her as Alec Baldwin’s caustic mother on 30 Rock.
With a resumé as lengthy and impressive as that, you might think Stritch would be vain. But both the documentary and a recent conversation with her suggest otherwise. “There’s no vanity in me. There is none,” she says a week after her birthday. “I just cross my fingers and I dive, which I’ve never done in my life. I’ve never gone in head-first. It’s time for me to do that. I’ve always been scared of dying; I’m not scared anymore. I think everybody likes me now.”
After a serious health scare, which is documented in the film, Stritch talks about how her mother told her to consider “the picture you’re going to leave.” Does Shoot Me help her create that image? “Yes! Yes! Yes! Listen to me, it doesn’t matter where I’m going. I’m okay with it. I’ve taken chances all my life. I’ve made entrances in some of the most difficult parts ever written. I’m going into the unknown knowing what I’m talking about.”
This newfound confidence has also made Stritch reflective, musing on what she would change if she had a chance at it. Like her one-woman show. “It would be much scarier. Much meaner. Don’t you tell me how it is,” she says. “You let me tell you how I feel about it. I don’t want to hurt anybody, but I want to let them know how I feel. I’ll make you laugh and cry and I don’t give a shit.”
There have been three men of the theater who have played pivotal roles in Stritch’s life.
Of Edward Albee: “I adore him. He’s trying to get something off his back. A kind man and a screwed up crazy man. And he’s so lovely. This is a writer and a half.”
Of Noël Coward, who wrote Sail Away for Stritch: “The sweetest, kindest most talented human being that ever lived. My god, he was it. I had the calmest moments of my life with Noël. He really fucking loved me.”
Of Stephen Sondheim: “I know him too much and I love him,” she says. “But, oh boy, the closer you get, the scareder you get. I used to say to my mama right up through my teens, ‘I’m a-scared.’ I wish I wasn’t but I am. I love him to death. How can you be scared of somebody that you are loving inside out? Whatever age either one of us gets to before we break hands and say goodbye, I hope I meet him on the other side. I hope his hand is there and he says ‘Elaine, you had nothing to be afraid of.’”
Stritch decided a year ago to move from New York back to the Detroit suburb where she was born. Outside of the gigs shown in the film, she hasn’t been singing much. Does she miss it? “I don’t know until I do it again. I mean that.” She was scheduled for a major surgery in late February but that didn’t stop Stritch from talking about the future. Rumors persist that another collaboration with Albee is in the cards. Though Shoot Me shows her difficulty remembering lines, when asked about her singing “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy in her Simply Sondheim show, she doesn’t rule out the possibility of playing that monster part. “Let me tell you something, I wanted to do that part more than anything else in the world. I have this crazy feeling I will. I’m 89. If you get a ticket, buy two!”