"Everybody's got a sack of rocks," Elaine Stritch says, quoting her late husband, John Bay. Some people don't let you know it. Some people do. The 89-year-old Broadway, TV, movie and cabaret star never lets you forget it. Swinging her particular rock sack with as much panache as her body will allow, Stritch makes her life a perpetual 11 o'clock number, celebrating strength through adversity, self-inflicted or otherwise.
I suppose it helps to have seen Stritch onstage to fully appreciate the bracing new documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," released by Sundance Selects. I wish I'd seen more. But her turns in the Gerald Guiterrez revival of Edward Albee's "A Delicate Balance" and her spectacular 2001 one-woman show — "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," staged by George C. Wolfe — were enough to go on, to have gotten a sense of her unique qualities as a performer. Director Harold Prince, interviewed for "Shoot Me," worked with Stritch on his "Show Boat" revival and says she has the guts of a jailbird but the soul of a convent girl.
The film, begun in early 2011 and completed in mid-2012, focuses on Stritch's valiant return to cabaret, struggling with a rickety memory and various physical ailments. A lifelong alcoholic, Stritch appears to have that part of her existence relatively under control now, asserting for the camera that she confines herself to "my one drink of the day." Diabetes, surgeries on her hips and eyes — all these are lousy accompaniments to a third act.
Yet Stritch soldiers on, striding around Manhattan in her trademark stockings and hat, deciding to leave New York for good to return to her extended family in Michigan. Her most recent cabaret show, "Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out," sold out in a flash.
Flashy she was, from the beginning. "If we'd both met when we were 35?" actor James Gandolfini muses in "Shoot Me." "I have no doubt we'd have had a torrid love affair which would've ended very badly." It's bittersweet to see the late Gandolfini on screen, but it's also a joy, and Stritch's appeal as an actress, as a presence, drew all sorts of admirers through the decades.
One moment especially in director Chiemi Karasawa's documentary falls so far into metatheatrics, it's mind-boggling. Stritch and musical director Rob Bowman are rehearsing "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy." Stritch struggles with the Stephen Sondheim lyrics and then begins to lose it. She's searching for the exact words to an 11 o'clock number about a character who, at one point, is required to fumble her own lyrics intentionally. Can you act that when it's truly happening?
Later in the film, on Stritch's opening night, Sondheim sends her a telegram: "I won't be there, so feel free to make up your own lyrics." Throughout "Shoot Me," Stritch's smile, at once knowing, humble and indomitable, is the nonverbal equivalent to Sondheim's song "I'm Still Here." And she is.
To millions, Stritch is the Emmy-winning actress who did "30 Rock," playing Alec Baldwin's mom. Those people who don't know the rest of her story should take the 82 minutes to see this.
"Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" - 3 1/2 stars
No MPAA rating (some pithy epithets)
Running time: 1:22