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Remembering Elaine Stritch -- formidable, fun and candid

Elaine Stritch was formidable, funny and ornery
Elaine Stritch was one of the true Broadway legends

Elaine Stritch, who died Thursday at the age of 89, was a formidable interview when we chatted on the phone in February about the candid documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me."

But she was a formidable talent. Her career spanned 60 years. She introduced "The Ladies Who Lunch" on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim's landmark musical "Company." She electrified audiences in her Tony Award-winning one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty." And she acquired a whole new generation of fans as Alec Baldwin's acerbic mother on "30 Rock."

Though she wasn't feeling well, Stritch didn't disappoint during the conversation -- she was outspoken, sweet and amusing. It was blissfully fun talking to her.

Here is the story:

Kathie Lee Gifford looked like a deer caught in oncoming headlights when 89-year-old Broadway legend Elaine Stritch casually dropped an F-bomb on the "Today" show a few weeks back. Gifford shouldn't have been surprised.

Stritch, who appeared on the morning show to chat about the documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," which opens in L.A. on Friday, has been a lively and outspoken force of nature throughout a career that has spanned more than 60 years.

And she was equally unfiltered in a recent phone conversation. Stritch was often very sweet, referring to the interviewer as "honey," but also razor-sharp in her comments.

In the documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa, Stritch is candid about her failing health, her battle with alcoholism and the fact that after 25 years of sobriety she allows herself one drink a day. But she puts her foot down when the topic is brought up in conversation.

"I would like to stop talking about alcohol," Stritch said firmly. "I stopped drinking for 25 years and that's a massive accomplishment in itself."

In the funny and poignant "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," the actress gamely comes face to face with her mortality, realizing the one thing she loves the most — performing — is getting too difficult for her to do any more.

Shot over a year between 2011 and 2012, the documentary chronicles her memory struggles during rehearsals for her cabaret show "Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim … One Song at a Time," as well as her several hospitalizations because of her diabetes.

Last April, Stritch gave a final series of cabaret performances in New York — "Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin' Over and Out" — at the famed Carlyle Hotel, where she also lived for several years.

She has since retired and moved to the Detroit suburb where she grew up to be near her extended family. And now her body is starting to catch up to her age. "I have had a lot of problems physically," said Stritch, who celebrated her birthday last month. "I have had a lot of accidents. I am not altogether comfortable."

But then she paused.

"You know, I'm OK," she said. "I'm still here, thank you Stephen Sondheim," referring to the composer's standard "I'm Still Here" from "Follies," which Stritch brought to vibrant life in her act.

The documentary is anything but depressing. The former Catholic schoolgirl has packed a couple of lifetimes in her 89 years.

She had been one of the brightest lights on the Great White Way, appearing in such musicals as Noel Coward's 1961 "Sail Away" and most especially in Sondheim's groundbreaking 1970 musical, "Company," in which she introduced what would become her signature song, "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Her 2002 Tony Award-winning one-woman show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," was standing-room-only, and she gained a whole new fan base in her Emmy Award-winning role as Jack Donaghy's (Alec Baldwin) caustic mother, Colleen, on NBC's "30 Rock."

"Shoot Me" features clips and photos from her past and lively conversations about her work with Sondheim and Coward, her brief — and chaste — encounter as a teenager with a young John Kennedy ("He was the best-looking guy I ever saw in my life") and marrying the love of her life, British actor John Bay, who died of brain cancer in 1982.

The film also features interviews with such friends and colleagues as Baldwin, who is an executive producer on the film, Hal Prince, Nathan Lane, Cherry Jones, Tina Fey, John Turturro and the late James Gandolfini.

A chance encounter at a New York hair salon was the genesis for "Shoot Me." Karasawa was getting her hair done when she saw Stritch in the salon.

"My hairdresser said she has been a longtime client, you should be making a documentary about her," Karasawa said. "I thought it was an interesting idea. I didn't know that much about her."

But she had very briefly worked with Stritch a few years before as a script supervisor on Turturro's "Romance and Cigarettes," in which Stritch played Gandolfini's mother. "I just remember she was a tornado of a woman," Karasawa said. "She just blew in there, and every take was different."

It took about four months of conversations before Stritch agreed to participate in the documentary. And then there was no holding back. "We were astonished at the amount of access she gave us," Karasawa said.

"I liked Chiemi very much," Stritch said. "We had a laugh or two or four or 75. I said all right, come, let's do it. I thought she's fun to be with."

Stritch noted that she "opened up more than I had planned" to the camera. "But I said to myself, 'Why not tell the truth?' "

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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