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'Elaine Stritch' still seeks to grab the spotlight

| Thursday, March 6, 2014, 8:55 p.m.
Elaine Stritch in 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me'
Tribeca Film Festival
Elaine Stritch in 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me'
Elaine Stritch in 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me '
Tribeca Film Festival
Elaine Stritch in 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me '

Worlds collide in “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” and as with any major collision, it can be hard to look away.

On one hand, you have Stritch, an iconic Broadway star. She's a brassy dame who lives at the swanky Carlyle Hotel in New York. Stritch swears like a sailor and is wildly theatrical, even offstage. This is a woman who has spent her entire life projecting to the back wall of the theater, and she doesn't know how to tone it down.

That's one part of the story.

Then, take into account that Stritch was 87 when the documentary was filmed (she's 89 now). An alcoholic, she indulges in a drink or two during the day. She is plagued with diabetes and her memory is failing.

Learning song lyrics is particularly difficult. Her musical accompanist, Rob Bowman, displays the patience of Job as he rehearses a cabaret act devoted to the complex lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. The leading lady is pondering about that final encore, knowing time is running out.

Therein lies one of the roots of Chiemi Karasawa's compelling documentary: What happens when showbiz narcissism and the harsh realities of old age collide? In Stritch's case, she rails against it and then uses it to her advantage. You see how she forgets a song's words onstage, but manages to turn it into comedic shtick that her adoring audience eats up.

In the film, she discusses retirement and decides to leave New York for Michigan, where she was born and raised. But there is a big question about how a woman who essentially lives for an audience will fare once she's out of the spotlight.

“I feel better when I work,” Stritch says, but it's more than that. She is most alive when she's working.

The film is nakedly candid. In one sequence, she shows off a letter from Woody Allen, who mentions her difficult reputation. Indeed, she is more than a little abrasive in the finished documentary, yet she is also compulsively watchable. No wonder she's a star.

Randy Cordova writes for the Arizona Republic.

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