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.
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.