Legendary cafe singer, subject of a Tribeca documentary, holds forth on Warren Beatty and Woody Allen as she prepares to leave Manhattan for Michigan
Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, is a quintessential New York film – a portrait of the bold, brassy actress, singer, Broadway and cabaret star who began acting career in 1944 and has been a legend in Manhattan theater and café circles for decades.
A decade removed from “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” the one-woman show that won her an Emmy, Stritch is now 88. Karasawa’s cameras follow the star – who is argumentative, hilarious, difficult, vulnerable and inimitable – as she performs shows devoted to the music of Stephen Sondheim, appears on “30 Rock” as Alec Baldwin’s mother and winds up in the hospital disoriented and desperate from complications of her diabetes.
The film, which is looking for distribution at Tribeca, is a raw, fascinating and endlessly entertaining look at a woman with enormous talent, no use for vanity and a fierce and formidable will not to go quietly into that good night. TheWrap sat down with Stritch and Karasawa for a memorable encounter at the Carlyle Hotel, the Upper East Side establishment where Stritch has lived for decades and given countless shows.
An admitted alcoholic who allows herself one drink a day, Stritch downed a cosmopolitan during our conversation and spoke loudly enough to draw rebukes from other patrons, who may not have realized that the legend in their midst was a Carlyle fixture who had bought a condo in her hometown in Michigan and was going to be moving there before the end of the month.
Are you really leaving the Carlyle next week?
ELAINE STRITCH: Yes. Why do you say really? Is it so unbelievable?
Well, you’re such a fixture in New York and in this place.
STRITCH: Yeah, but I’m moving on from New York. It’s my choice.
The end of the film has a card that says you’re planning to retire in 2013, or 2014, or 2015…
STRITCH: No! Nobody said anything about retiring. I am moving home. I came to New York 68 years ago. That’s a long time. And I’m going to do less performing because I’m tired, okay? Jesus, it’s hard to convince anybody that you’re just going to take it easy.
And this is not the end. I’m going to do all kinds of things. I may teach at the drama school at Wayne University. Who knows? Or do some master classes. I like to keep active. I’ve got too much energy not to.
When the idea of a film about you came along, were you receptive to it?
STRITCH: No. I didn’t want to do it at all. There’s nothing attractive about doing a documentary. Nothing. It’s hard, hard work, and I find having all the attention of the day on me a very unattractive proposition.
How did you persuade her, Chiemi?
KARASAWA: I feel like there was a courtship happening. We would see each other in the salon, we talked a couple of times.
STRITCH: I took on an interest, yes.
KARASAWA: I think it started out like any relationship starts out, slow trying to figure out what this is going to be like. How is it going to be having a person follow you around with a camera? And then I think it became progressively easier as I got to know her and she got to know me. The camera people got to be friendly with her. And once you develop relationships with people, it’s easier to have them around.
You may all be friends, but it’s different when your friend has a camera aimed at you.
STRITCH: Sure. And that’s OK with me, because that’s the only way they’re going to get the truth. It’s very disconcerting to start out and to say, “I’m going to tell the truth,” and then to realize it’s that much trouble. You say, “What did I bargain for here?” But once you settle on that, you do it, and you just don’t bend from it.
Did you ever want to call it off?
STRITCH: Yes. I felt that I committed myself too much. I promised too much. But that way it’s exciting. When you’re dealing with your life, my God, you gotta tell the truth.
There’s a scene in the middle of the documentary where they told me that they cancelled a show in East Hampton on account of the storm, and I said, “Will they pay us?” “Yes.” And I was so happy I didn’t have to work that night. That was the truth, because show business is about the hardest profession in the world.
It comes as a surprise, because we sometimes think people like you are driven to perform.
STRITCH: But this business is rotten. It’s a pain in the ass, show business. And the only time that I really enjoy it is when I’m in front of an audience and they’re reacting to me. That is magic, but getting there is so difficult. But you know, I get sick of saying how hard everything is. It’s hard to get up in the morning. Everything’s hard. Everything takes effort.
KARASAWA: When we shot that scene where [Stritch’s music director] Rob [Bowman] told her the show was canceled, she didn’t know that we were following Rob. [Stritch was in bed in her hotel room, and Bowman woke her to give her the news.] They had this whole exchange between the two of them, and at the end she turned around and clocked the camera, and said, “That’s very tricky of you.” But she was glad we got it, and that’s the best that you can hope for in a subject – that they don’t mind being captured unaware. She has none of that vanity ego bullshit. It was just, “Good one. Good on you.”
STRITCH: Yes yes yes yes.
Is it true that when you went into the hospital, you called Chiemi to come in with the camera?
STRITCH: I guess so. I thought, At least let’s have this do some good. I’m all for that. Drama drama drama. The public wants it, so let them get the whole ugly mess. Why not?
Would you have been ready earlier in your career to have such a lack of vanity?
STRITCH: No. Who needs that? But when you get to this stage … I don’t dislike the way I look. I think I look fine. I think I look extraordinary for 88. And I’ve got energy. Out of my way.
KARASAWA: There’s a great story that I didn’t get to put in the film about her vanity, or lack thereof. Didn’t somebody ask you to get a nose job earlier in your career?
STRITCH: Yeah. It was MGM. They wanted me to be in a movie called “Cass Timberlane” with Spencer Tracy. And I wouldn’t have a nose job. I like my nose fine. Barbra Streisand wouldn’t do it, I certainly wouldn’t want to do it. Stupid.
Did you get much pressure from Hollywood: “Do this, do that, we can make you a star?”
STRITCH: Not a lot. I certainly was not the romantic lead. I couldn’t be that, because I was not that good looking. And that is something about Hollywood that I do not like at all. Why can’t a woman who is just normally good looking fall in love? I mean, everybody in the movies is so good looking.
The documentary shows a letter that Woody Allen wrote you before casting you in “September,” where he says he’s heard you can be difficult, and he needs you to be on your best behavior if you want to be in his movie. Did you behave when you shot that film?
STRITCH: I was on my best behavior. And I knew exactly what he was talking about. He doesn’t want to argue with Elaine Stritch about her feelings about life, love and the pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t give a fuck about that. But he was fascinated by me.
He passed me in the Carlyle Hotel one night. He was coming to work, to blow his horn [in Allen’s jazz band], and I was going up to my room. He passed me in the lobby, and said [muttering under her breath], “You goin’ to work?” That’s all he has to say, and I’m immediately a prostitute going up to the room that I’ve been assigned to. And this son of a bitch has made it all happen. He really can make things happen.
He is a creature of make believe, Woody Allen. He’s a better actor than anybody from the Actors Studio, and he can be anybody he says he is. Woody Allen? Genius. [pounding on the table with each letter:] F-U-C-K-I-N-G genius.
There must have been moments, Chiemi, when you were thinking, I can’t believe I’m getting this.
KARASAWA: All the time. All the time. Having Elaine Stritch as your subject, you open yourself up to the unpredictable.
STRITCH: Yeah, that’s very true. I can look at John Turturro, who is a lovely man, and I can tell him that I had the first orgasm I ever had in my life was because of an emotional moment onstage in “Virginia Woolf,” not because of a love affair. That’s when your honesty almost rips you apart. You think, I’d like to take a few of these things back and be a little special. But no, here it is.
Between the farewell shows at the Carlyle and the movie, you’re definitely doing all right these days.
STRITCH: Oh, my career is going apeshit. I was doing this show, and Tony Bennett said to me, “Wow, your talent is amazing.” Maybe he’s a bore, maybe he’s a jerk, but when he said that to me, I didn’t need anything more than that.
KARASAWA: That was an improvisational night, basically, where she told stories and sang a couple of songs. And the audience at that show was comprised of Sting, Warren Beatty, Tom Hanks, Liza Minnelli, Bernadette Peters …
STRITCH: Oh yeah. Forget about it. And I told them, “Just stay with me. If I cry or you cry, who gives a fuck? But my God, don’t leave me.” And they loved that.
I said to Warren Beatty that night, “Listen, how did you get that broad [Annette Bening], you bastard?” He looked at me like he was caught. She’s a brilliant woman, and he’s a nice man even though he’s fucked everybody in the world. How dare he. He shouldn’t do that. But if he didn’t do that, then he wouldn’t be Warren Beatty. You know?
I don’t know what to do with Warren Beatty. All I know is that he wasn’t attracted to me. That’s all right. He said to me, “I look back and I wonder, Why wasn’t I smart enough to fall in love with Elaine?” But that would be too boring for him. That’s not his thing.
Who else would you put in that genius category with Woody Allen?
STRITCH: Tina Fey. Brilliant. She’s a fucking star. Alec Baldwin. Easy. He’s lost in that play [“Orphans,” on Broadway]. He’s getting bad notices, but he’s the only one that knows what it’s about. He’s the only one who knows. The other two actors are going, “We’re actors and we are taking this seriously.” And all of a sudden Alec Baldwin comes out, “ba-doop ba-doop,” and he’s killing me.
I’m getting the signal to wrap up …
STRITCH: Darling, I hope I didn’t scare you. It only means that I’m scared. But if you’re ready to hear a kooky broad’s attitude, I’m here for you.
I don’t know what should have happened in my life, but I do know that I’m dancing as fast as I can. I don’t know where the dance is going and I don’t know how late we’re dancing tonight. I don’t know anything about the outcome. I only know that I’m in for a penny, in for a pound. I’m OK, I’ll stick around.